The Representation of ‘Young’ People in the Social and Family Contexts Created by Shakespeare in "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

23 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1. Introduction

2. A Definition of the Terms 'Young' and 'Tragedy'
2.1 Youth
2.2 Tragedy

3. What happens in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet ?
3.1 Synopsis of Romeo and Juliet
3.2 Synopsis of Hamlet

4. Young People in the Plays
4.1 Young People in Romeo and Juliet
4.2 Young People in Hamlet

5. Conclusion - "Sound and Fury"


1. Introduction

Without any doubt, Shakespeare can be called one of the greatest observers of all times. In his plays, the reader is confronted with characters from all sorts of social, cultural and religious backgrounds. Among the most well-known characters, we find kings, (their) queens and princes (like Hamlet), Jews (in The Merchant of Venice), black people (Othello), and Roman soldiers, not to mention all those who did not give a play its title. Looking at professions, Shakespeare employs characters from all social levels - be they grave-diggers, jesters, killers or noblemen.

Within the plays, those characters seldom stand alone. They appear in groups, in the context of their friends and families. A character is thus provided with a wife or husband, a mother and father, maybe a step-parent, grand-parents, sisters, brothers, girl- or boyfriends and mates. As a family does not consist of only one age group, Shakespeare has to focus on several generations of characters, waving a complex net of relations and interactions.

In this paper, I would like to look at the representation of 'young' people in two of Shakespeare's tragedies, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. The term 'young' will be reflected upon in my second chapter, as will be upon the term 'tragedy'. As a future teacher, the presentation of youth is an interesting topic for me, and looking at young people interact (and interact with older characters) in Shakespeare will be something worth doing: in focussing on youth, the cliché of tragedy often dealing with 'old' people will be broken. This paper is meant to show that Shakespeare did not write in a single-dimensional way, but his plays offer a broad observation of any age group. After giving a short synopsis of the two tragedies in chapter three, I will, in chapter four, present the tragedies' characters in their respective context and in relation to each other and comment on their behaviour and attitudes.

In my conclusion, I will concentrate on the characters in their relation to the genre of tragedy - reflecting on life, love, destiny, youth, and death.

2. A Definition of the Terms 'Young' and 'Tragedy'

2.1 Youth

The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary's entry of 'young' reads "not far advanced in life, growth, development, [ ] of recent birth or origin" and "having little practice or experience in something"1. The same entry implies that youth is characterized by vitality, physical strength and "good health"2.

'Young' can therefore cover the large age group of , say, ten- to twenty-five-year-olds. The teenager group can be subdivided into children and adolescents, depending on physical as well as mental development and sexual experience. Recent studies have shown that the average age of the first sexual intercourse is thirteen (girls) and fourteen (boys) respectively. One may add that -although in life experience, adolescents might be closer to the group of the young adults of eighteen to twenty-five- the difference between them lies in the attitude towards life and other people. Young adults - hopefully - are more mature and reasonable. Nowadays, they tend to have a job and maybe a family or they are following their studies at university. In any case, they have defined their personal aims in life and are pursuing their own values. Teenagers generally lack this metasphere of reflection. Though physically fully developed, they nevertheless are young people deeply concerned about finding their role in life and about defining their own personality. Adolescence is a time of much stress, awkwardness, and incertainty, and adolescents will need to experience defeat and disappointment (as far as school, work, social and private life are concerned) in order to cope with these later in life.

Apart from the search for individuality, adolescents are generally regarded as sporty, thanks to MTV and BRAVO, up-to-date with technical products and music, fashionable in clothes (in other terms, trendy), and vigorous. When asked, most of them would add world - wise and grown - up. This, however, would be more appropriate for the adult group as they have the time and money to travel while pupils in general do not.

Concludingly, one can say that young people seem to define themselves via their sexuality - in contrast to adults who, in most cases, have found a partner and do not need to emphasize this aspect of social life anymore.

I would like to stress that this paper may well touch on characters that are presented as 'young at heart'. However, the main focus will be on characters that are of 'young age' and therefore agile, strong and healthy.

2.2 Tragedy

Tragedy, especially when contrasted with comedy, has the strong connotation of a story not being funny, but dealing with the negative aspects of life, mainly concentrating on decay, death and loss. Still, tragedy is entertaining because it offers an insight into people's fates without imposing the idea of reality on the spectator or reader.

In Ancient Greece, the structure of tragedy was defined as the rise and fall of a character. In five acts, this character would suffer from certain self-over-estimation (hybris) and would challenge fate in the shape of religious or political authorities (or both, in the case of Antigone3). Challenging authoritative powers brought about trouble (miasma) and meant horrible terrors to the guilty character and his family. The only possible way to restore the status quo was the killing/sacrifice or self-sacrifice of characters.

The didactic idea behind tragedy was, and to a certain degree is still, 'entertainment and education'4. By confronting the spectator with something shocking and absolutely terrifying (for example, the Nazi terrors in Steven Spielberg's Schindler’s List), some contemporary directors still try to raise awareness and warn people to be a good person because crime must and will be punished.

It must be mentioned that tragedy always focusses on the inner life of a character. Thoughts, doubts and finally reflected actions are of interest. In a tragic play, the spectator must be made aware of the fact that -although he struggles and fights- the character cannot escape fate. Being crushed to death by a falling tree is no tragedy, my German teacher used to say. It is merely 'bad luck' for the poor person that is killed. Tragedy goes beyond the actual event and looks at reasons. In the interdependency of cause and effect, the spectator has to understand that the guilty character cannot escape fate. Had the person that was crushed by the tree stood somewhere different, he would not have been killed because the tree would have fallen onto the ground. In tragedy, the person would be killed either way because the tree would have come to him.

3. What happens in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet?

3.1 Synopsis of Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet (1595-6) is a play about love and adolescence. The title derives from the protagonists, two young lovers who have to defend their love in a war-like society.

The play is set in Verona where, for years, there has been a violent feud between the families of Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet. This feud goes so far, that the peace of Verona is heavily disturbed by bloody fights, and thus Prince Escalus of Verona threatens with death anybody who continues street-fighting.

However, at a party at the Capulet's house (where he was not supposed to be), Romeo meets Juliet. They fall in love with each other and get married in secret straightaway. As the feud still continues, Juliet's cousin Tybalt wants to fight Romeo who refuses to fight anybody of his family (leaving aside that Tybalt does not know that Romeo is now 'family'). So, Romeo's best mate, Mercutio, fights Tybalt and is killed. Enraged by this, Romeo kills Tybalt and flees. Juliet's father has meanwhile found a suitable husband for his daughter, Paris, and insists on her marrying him. Juliet refuses but does not tell her father that she is already married. Instead, she and the Friar who married her come up with a plan. Juliet will drink a potion which will make her sleep for two days so that everybody believes her to be dead. Romeo will be informed of Juliet's 'death' and of her 'death' being part of a plan by mail - but even the best-laid plans sometimes go wrong. Romeo does not receive the second letter explaining about the potion, and after killing Paris by Juliet's bedside, he poisons himself. Juliet wakes up and stabs herself.

The play closes with a final gathering of the two hostile families and the Prince as a deus ex machina, and with the reconciliation of the two families.

3.2 Synopsis of Hamlet

Hamlet (1601-2) is set in a Denmark, at war with Norway, where Claudius has just killed his brother Hamlet, King of Denmark, and married his former sister-in-law Gertrude. Gertrude's son, Hamlet, is very upset about his mother's unsuitable re­marriage, but is persuaded out of returning to Wittenberg university by both his mother and his stepfather.

Things worsen when Dead Hamlet appears and tells his son about Claudius' fratricide which he wants his son to take revenge for. Young Hamlet now finds himself in a catch-22. He has moral doubts about murdering Claudius, and he also doubts the honesty of his father's ghost. To make things even worse, his girlfriend Ophelia dumps him because her father Polonius advises her to do so, questioning Hamlet's love for Ophelia. Hamlet now decides to pretend to be mad which leads Claudius to invite to Elsinore Castle two fellow students of Hamlet's, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he wants to cheer up and to spy on Hamlet. After Hamlet's staging of a play with the topic of regicide, Claudius decides to send his stepson to England and to have him killed on the way. Hamlet leaves for England, accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who carry the letter which asks for Hamlet's execution. But Hamlet destroys this letter and replaces it by one that leads Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their death. He himself returns to Denmark to find Ophelia drowned, and he hastens to attend her funeral. At this funeral, he has a fight with Ophelia's brother Laertes which is turned into a serious fencing duel. In this duel, Laertes' rapier has been poisoned (as Laertes and Claudius have plotted to kill Hamlet once and for all) - and Hamlet is stabbed. Gertrude, however, drinks from a poisoned cup (also intended for Hamlet) and dies. The dying Hamlet now kills Laertes with his own rapier, and he forces Claudius to drink his poison before stabbing him. Hamlet then dies in the arms of his best friend Horatio, while Fortinbras and the troops of Norway march into Denmark.

The main fields of interest in Hamlet are death and mourning, politics and power, but also love, friendship, and trust.

4. Young People in the Plays

4.1 Young People in Romeo and Juliet

In Romeo and Juliet, the spectator or reader is chiefly confronted with seven young characters, leaving aside the servants and attendants as they have no crucial role in the play's action. Five out of these seven characters are men. I am going to present these characters in their order of apperarance in the play.


1 Cowie, A. P.; A. S. Hornby (eds), Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English, Fourth Edition, Oxford et al.: OUP, 1994.

2 ibd.

3 Giebel, Marion (ed.), Sophocles, Antigone, Stuttgart: Reclam, 1992.

4 'Entertainment and Education' is my free translation of the concepts eleos and phobos, eleos being the curiosity and tension a spectator experiences when he watches the characters' fate on stage, phobos meaning a kind of didactic fear leading to awareness and understanding. He will avoid acting the way the doomed character did in order to lead a healthy long life.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


The Representation of ‘Young’ People in the Social and Family Contexts Created by Shakespeare in "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet"
University of Münster  (Englisches Seminar)
Shakespeare and Tragedy
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Representation, People, Social, Family, Contexts, Created, Shakespeare, Romeo, Juliet, Hamlet
Quote paper
Stephanie Lipka (Author), 2002, The Representation of ‘Young’ People in the Social and Family Contexts Created by Shakespeare in "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet" , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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