The Heroine’s Journey in “Romeo and Juliet”

The story of Romeo and Juliet unfolds precisely through the stages of the tragic cycle. But the great difference between this and all the other tragedies at which we have looked lies in where we see the fundamental split or division which contains the seeds of catastrophe. It is not so much Romeo or Juliet themselves who present us with the spectacle of a ‘divided self’. The split lies in the great feud dividing their two families. The desire of the hero or heroine is not to promote conflict but to escape from it. In other words, the fault which sets them at odds with those around them lies not in themselves but outside them.

As the play opens we are at once made aware of how deep and combustible is the rift between the Montagues and the Capulets by the casual suddenness with which a brawl between members of the two households breaks out in a Verona street. We are then drawn into the Anticipation Stage as we learn how Romeo is already detached from the conflict by lovesickness. He is actually hoping to gatecrash the Capulet’s ball to catch sight of the girl he loves, Rosaline. At the same time the young daughter of the Capulets, Juliet is being told by her mother she must bend her thoughts towards marriage, with a young man called Paris. We might also be in the opening stages of a Comedy, with both hero and heroine headed for the wrong partners. But then, at the all, they meet, and at once fall in love. They have found their Focus. The height of the Dream Stage quickly follows when they declare their love for each other  (the Balcony scene) and secretly get married under the auspices of the old Friar Laurence.

The Frustration Stage begins when the shadow of the great feud intrudes on their love. The hot-tempered young Capulet Tybalt comes looking for Romeo, furious at hoe he had gatecrashed the ball in disguise. Full of the spirit of love, Romeo is at last infected by the darkness and is drawn into killing Tybalt in reply. It is this dark act which precipitates the fatal conclusion. The frustration of the lovers quickly worsens as Romeo is vanished and Juliet’s father (in the guise of ‘unrelenting father’) prepares to marry her off to Paris (not knowing, of course, that she is already married).

The Nightmare Stage begins, as Juliet desperately tries to escape from the approaching threat of the false marriage. Friar Laurence masterminds the plan whereby she takes a drug which makes it seem that she is dead. She is taken to the family tomb, with the intention that Romeo will come secretly at night and carry her off. And if this were Comedy with Juliet merely in eclipse such might be the happy denouement. But here there is to be no  ŕecognition. The course of deception, once embarked on, leads only to the wrong people being deceived, and misunderstanding becomes fatal. Romeo is led to believe that Juliet is really dead and commits suicide by her side. She wakes to find that he is dead and follows suit. They achieve their final union only in death.

If this were all there was to the story, we should feel that it had come to a very bleak conclusion indeed, with the forces of darkness triumphant. But, of course, what happens is that the two families, when they learn from the catastrophe, are so appalled that they go collectively through a profound change of heart. Reconciled in mutual grief, they call off their ancient feud. We see now, in their terrible deaths, Romeo and Juliet have redeemed the divided world of Verona, enabling the story to end on a image of wholeness restored and life renewed.

We have come a long way since we first began to explore this strange pattern in storytelling which shows how human beings may get caught up in a course of action which leads eventually to their violent and unnatural death. We have been through some of the darkest stories in the world. We have seen people, possessed by some egocentric fantasy of love or power, gradually separating themselves from everyone around them, more and more submerged in the darkness which springs from their own split, disordered psyches, until finally the violent rejection they have shown to others turns in on themselves. But we have also seen how it is possible for the hero or heroines to begin to knot together again, within themselves and with others around them, so that light is again  breaking in on their darkness.