How important is the theme of conflict in the play Romeo and Juliet?
Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, is the most famous love story in English literature. However love isn’t the only theme that runs through the play. Shakespeare makes this typical love story more striking when he pits the romance in the context of family feuds, fights and deaths. The issue of conflict is as central to this play as the issues of love/honour/betrayal and death. It should come as no surprise that Shakespeare would include conflicts in this play as otherwise the play would simply be a dull statement on teenage love. Adding the conflicts highlights the tensions that the teenagers feel between their attachments to their own families and each other. Also, adding the conflict is important for dramatic effect. We see this clearly in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet but also see it in many modern forms of storytelling, such as film.
The film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is another example of two star-crossed lovers struggling to be together against their family’s wishes. The conflict in the film is between brothers, but also with others outside the characters immediate families. The dramatic effect of the conflict has the audience on the edge of their seat, willing the pair to escape their terrible lives of abuse and live happily ever after. Slumdog is Romeo and Juliet for the 21st Century.As in Shakespeare’s play, in Slumdog the audience are told what will happen in the story by way of a prologue The prologue in Romeo and Juliet tells the audience the story and the ending (the two lovers will mend their family feuds by taking their own lives)
“From forth the fatal loins of these two foes. A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life. .”
The prologue is an unusual storytelling device as it reveals the end of the story at the beginning. But it also draws the audience is to know why the lovers take their own lives and the audience remains shocked by that event, despite being warned about it. In Bas Learhmann’s film the audience is surprised when Juliet wakes from her sleep to find Romeo lying dead next to her. Her reaction of killing herself is a shocking ending to the film (play) despite the audience knowing what is coming. In Shakespeare’s prologue the Chorus describes two noble households in the city of Verona. The houses hold an “ancient grudge” against each other that remains a source of violent and bloody conflict.
The audience are told that the families live in “Fair Verona” and who the main characters in the play are. So within a few minutes of the play commencing the audience (reader) is primed with enough information to generate an interest to read on. The first scene comes immediately after the prologue and Shakespeare commences the scene with two Capulet servants (Sampson and Gregory) who talk about the conflict between the two family’s. It is interesting that even though they are servants (“Slaves”) they say that the family’s feud is their feud: The quarrel is between our masters and us their men
It is important to remember that the play is written at a time when servants were obliged to honour their masters, and that included laying down their life for their ‘betters’. The tone of the conversation between the two servants replicates the conflict that we hear about in the prologue. Shakespeare has established a thread for the reader to follow here. The violence of the conflict is clear when the two servants talk of what they will do to the Montague women once they defeat the Montague men. Brutalising the women of a defeated enemy is something that has happened throughout history. True; and therefore women, being the weaker vessels,
are ever thrust to the wall: therefore I will push
Montague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids
to the wall
The public brawl started by Tybalt is joined by members of both families, including the Montague and Capulet ‘fathers’. Seeing old enemy (Montague) Capulet says to his wife: My sword, I say! Old Montague is come,
And flourishes his blade in spite of me.
The street fighting and hatred between the Capulets and Montagues is only one form of conflict in Shakespeare’s play. Shakespeare’s writing about conflict extends to Juliet’s family too. In Act 3 Scene 5 Juliet is told by her mother that she will marry. Juliet’s unhappiness at this arranged marriage (she is told to report to the church on Thursday) leads to a conflict with her father who calls her a ‘young baggage and disobedient wench’. The family conflict repeats one faced by some young women whose husbands are chosen for them. This cultural obligation is also made clear by Juliet’s mother when she says to Juliet that by the age of 14 (Juliet’s age at the time of the play) she was already pregnant with Juliet. The tradition of marrying girls off young, and to wealthy older men, has largely been overcome in some communities, however, in others it still creates tension. Sometimes with tragic outcomes.
The theme of conflict is important in this play because it reflects the type of social conditions that existed at the time that Shakespeare wrote his play. It is interesting that although our social conditions have changed, the underlying themes and circumstances here could apply to our society today. Young, violent, men fighting over territory/honour and (like Tybalt) being killed in the crossfire. Shakespeare’s decision to talk about the unfairness of Juliet’s father’s insistence that she marry, may be a brave attempt to raise the issue of forced marriage. But, alternatively, it could also be seen as a source of gaiety and merriment for the Shakespearean audience. Despite some really difficult language, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a play that transcends time in terms of its underlying themes. This makes the play as relevant now as it was when it was first played.