Although categorised as a romantic tragedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597) deviates from this genre of Ancient Greek literature, as it contains distinct comedic elements. In particular, the playwright employs a variety of literary and structural devices. This includes foreshadowing, hamartia, sexual innuendos and biblical allusions to reinforce Romeo and Juliet ‘s stance, as a play, between these two genres.
To begin with, the repeated use of foreshadowing throughout the play evidences its classification as a tragedy. For instance, the play immediately begins with mention of the protagonists’ eventual death as apparent in the prologue where the chorus states, “...A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;/ Whose misadventured piteous overthrows/ Do with their death bury parent’s strife”. Unlike that of Greek dramatists, Shakespeare’s chorus introduces the theme of fate (a mythical external force) and its pivotal role in the outcome of the play whilst heightening tension and introducing possibilities for dramatic irony and catharsis. Moreover, in Act 3, Scene 5, when Romeo descends down the ladder from Juliet’s balcony she exclaims, “O God, I have an ill-divining soul! / Methinks I see thee, now thou art so low, / As one dead in the bottom of a tomb. / Either my eyesight fails, or thou look'st pale”. This prophetic vision serves correct as an indication to a malign future, as Romeo does indeed die at the bottom of the Capulet tomb. Therefore, the heavy use of foreshadowing contributes to Romeo and Juliet’s stance as a tragedy.
On the other hand, Romeo and Juliet contains distinct comedic devices including the presence of the characters of Mercutio and the Nurse. Throughout the entirety of the play, these characters serve to nullify the tragic irony of the “star-crossed lovers” as seen by the recurring physical comedy and sexual innuendos. For instance, the Act 1, Scene 3 quote, “Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit”, from the Nurse’s first monologue, provides comic relief to the audience. Here, the Nurse refers to her husband’s bawdy humour and particular his rather sexual pun (double meaning of “fall backwards”). However, considering the fact that this was said to an infant (3-year-old Juliet), this quote aligns with the reality of the patriarchal, Elizabethan society and common law that positioned upper class women as moveable possessions to be passed from father to husband in strategically advantageous marriages. Likewise, amidst this exchange, the importance of the Nurse as a caregiver throughout Juliet’s childhood and the lack of affection/emotional detachment between Juliet and Lady Capulet is highlighted. Thus, although Juliet is commodified, the Nurse’s utilisation of body humour provides entertainment throughout the play.
Similarly, Mercutio is characterised as Romeo’s witty, loyal and humorous kinsman and close confidant playing a pivotal role in engaging the audience. For instance, the sexual connotations of the asyndetic sentence, “O Romeo, that she were, O that she were, An open-arse, thou a poperin pear”, combined with the repetition of “that she were” and the alliteration mirrors Mercutio’s purely physical view of love which directly contrasts to the fragility and adolescent innocence that characterises Romeo and Juliet’s love. This further alludes to the disparity between genders and the generic male domination of Elizabethan society. Moreover, Mercutio’s comedic role in the play is accentuated by the drastic shift between comedy and tragedy after his ironic death (due to Romeo’s benevolence). This is apparent as the play is similarly structured to that of a Shakespearean comedy in the opening two acts and remains relatively light-hearted throughout. Mercutio’s death can simply be regarded as a catalyst for the outcome of the play and the deaths of the protagonists. Therefore, Mercutio utilised as a comic character throughout the play, Romeo and Juliet.
Contrastingly, Romeo and Juliet’s classification as a tragedy is reinforced by the characters themselves. While the protagonists are not tragic heroes (like those in Macbeth) per say, both Romeo and Juliet have fatal flaws or hamartia. For instance, the characters’ impulsivity and haste ultimately leads to their demise as demonstrated in Act 3, Scene 1 where Romeo murders Tybalt and exclaims, “O, I am fortune’s fool!” before fleeing. This quote in particular demonstrates the effect of Romeo’s and “spur-of-the-moment” actions which leads to the newly-wed, upon the arrival of the Prince, being exiled from Verona. Simultaneously, this scene reminds the modern audience of the play’s origins and various contextual features such as the significance of toxic masculinity including its notions of honour, vengeance and pride. This is further emphasised by the later quote, “I must be gone and live, or stay and die” which depicts Romeo’s monosyllabic revelation about his future which contrasts to his hysteria, chaotic inner turmoil and failed suicide attempt as seen in “...Tell me, that I may sack/The hateful mansion. (draws his dagger) “. This again presents another example where Romeo completely disregards the implications of his actions on Juliet- she would be left a widow (if she considered remarriage, Juliet would be shunned from society with hostility and not receive full blessing from the church). Likewise, Juliet’s hamartia, is evidently her obedience and loyalty, as a wife, to Romeo as seen in the Capulet’s tomb in Act 5, Scene 3, where Juliet finds a rather dead Romeo drape across her body and states, “O happy dagger/ Taking’s Romeo’s dagger/ This is thy sheath;/ Stabs herself/ There rust, and let me die”. In this quote, said “dagger” provides connotations of death, despair and violence which directly contrasts to the affirmative, and positive meaning of the word “happy”, allowing Shakespeare to allude and interlink the intensity of forbidden love to suicidal impulse. Juliet’s death, however, may have been justified in the context of the Elizabethan Era whose Catholic audience would have viewed suicide as a cardinal sin, which serves to further the tragedy surrounding this play.
To recapitulate, although Romeo and Juliet, contains a variety of comedic devices structurally and linguistically (including the presence of the characters Mercutio and the Nurse, and their utilisation of sexual humour), the play is overall, a tragedy.