Romeo and Juliet
One theory of dramatic composition holds that tragedy grows out of a fundamental character flaw — sometimes called a “tragic flaw” — in the principal character or characters. Not all people subscribe to this theory, which has its origins in the Poetics of Aristotle. I don’t particularly think it addresses the fundamental issues even of Greek tragedy, let alone later types of tragedy. You may agree or not as you like.
But if we reject that position, it does leave an important gap: we need to figure out what other salient feature makes a tragedy a tragedy. We are used to hearing the word “tragedy” bandied about by newscasters as if it were a synonym for “calamity”, or just a lofty term for “Really Bad Stuff”, and so we may be immune to the overtones of such a claim. But in a dramatic sense, “tragedy” means something more. It’s more than just an unhappy outcome. Would a play be a tragedy if a random gunman entered and shot everyone in the last scene of a play that was otherwise a comedy? Is it a tragedy if the hero falls down the stairs and is killed when the play is really about something else? Instinctively most people want to say no. We have a sense that the outcome, whatever it is, must be to some measure a natural outgrowth of the ingredients of the story — character, perhaps, or at least the plot — but in any case, not something superadded when everything else has run its course.
But if that is a valid criterion, then we have to ask whether the crisis and climax of Romeo and Juliet actually emerges from its basic material or not. Is it, instead, an accidental set of mishaps that respond to the tonal tension of the earlier part of the play, but don’t really grow out of it in any kind of narrative sense? How we think about this question, and what conclusion we come to, will have a lot to do with what we make of the play in the long run.
For this reason, and for a few others, Romeo and Juliet has never been among my favorite Shakespeare plays. It is capable of great power and beauty if it is done right, however, and it has magnificent language. It has exerted a disproportionately large fascination for both filmmakers and filmgoers since the beginnings of the medium, and the cinematic medium is very friendly to the intimacy of the relationship of two lovers (especially young ones: Antony and Cleopatra never garners such fervent footage). The range of renditions one can find on film is truly spectacular. Some of them are brilliant, and some of them are (to my way of thinking) mind-numbingly wrong-headed. The range in toto, however, does suggest something about the plasticity of Shakespeare’s storytelling, and watching several versions is an education in itself.