Treatment of Death During the Renaissance and in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is arguably the most well known and well-read play in history. With its passionate and realistic treatment of universal themes of love, fate, war, and death, it’s not difficult to see why. However, most people don’t realize that there are several versions of the play, each with their own unique additions and/or changes to the plot, dialogue, and characters. After thumbing through the texts located here on this website, you can see even at a glance the distinct differences between the versions of Romeo and Juliet. This essay will explore how people dealt with death during the Renaissance in context to Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (Lamentable Tragedie.) More specifically, I will show that the added monologue in act 4, scene 5, regarding the convention of death, is consistent to the social and religious beliefs of the time period.
Act IV, scene V of the Lamentable Tragedie is perhaps the most insightful scene dealing with the coping of death during the Renaissance. Previous to the scene Romeo has been banished for slaying Tybalt, and Juliet’s father has forced her to marry her betrothed Paris. In a desperate attempt to avoid the marriage and reunite Juliet with her love, the Friar gives Juliet a sleeping elixir to stage her death. Convinced that a marriage to Paris would be worse than death, Juliet takes the deathly potion and falls into a coma-like sleep. At the beginning of the scene the house is stirring with excitement in preparation for the wedding and the nurse is sent to wake the sleeping Juliet. After much calling and shaking, the nurse begins to suspect that something is wrong. Could her mistress be dead? It appears to be true and the family is mournful. “Accurst unhappie, wretched, hatefull day, most miserable houre that ere time saw,” Juliet’s father cries, “O childe, O childe, my soule and not my childe, dead art thou, alacke my childe is dead, and with my child my joyes are buried” (4.5)
By contemporary standards, thus far, the model of grieving that Father Capulet shows seems no different from the reactions a modern day mother and father would exhibit upon the death of their child. The reactions of the Friar to Juliet’s death in the Lamentable Tragedie, however, show a difference of theology toward death that we, in contemporary society cannot fully grasp.
Peace ho for shame, confusions care lives not,
In these confusions heaven and your selfe
Had part in this faire maide, now heaven hath all,
And all the better is it for the maid…
…And in her best array beare her to Church:
For though some nature bids us all lament,
Yet natures teares are reasons merriment (4.5)
Could it be possible that the Friar is advising the Capulets to rejoice in their sorrow for the death of their daughter? And yet the text clearly...