Romeo and Juliet is officially classified as a tragedy, but in some respects the play deviates from the tragic genre. Unlike other Shakespearean tragedies such as Macbeth, King Lear, and Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet is not concerned with a noble character whose actions have widespread consequence. Instead, the story describes the love between two ordinary teenagers.
Another important way Romeo and Juliet deviates from other Shakespearean tragedies is that the main characters cannot be said to make a fatal error that leads to their demise. Romeo kills Tybalt not because of a flaw within himself, but because of the violent feuding spreading across Verona. He himself is not responsible for the feud, an “ancient grudge” that has been in place long before the play opens. Romeo’s murder of Tybalt is impulsive, but the act doesn’t reveal a deeper lack within his character. Rather, the murder is externally motivated by his circumstances. Similarly, in dying by suicide, Juliet acts rashly and unwisely, but her actions can’t be described as a character-driven error so much as a response to her desperate circumstances.
Not only does Romeo and Juliet deviate in many ways from the tragic genre, the first two acts of the play are structured much more like a comedy. Shakespeare’s comedies often feature lovers being kept apart by misguided authority figures, just as Romeo and Juliet’s love is thwarted by their feuding parents. Suggestive wordplay is another common trope of Shakespearean comedy. Romeo and Juliet opens with Gregory and Sampson making bawdy jokes about erections and virginity. The spirit of naughty fun is sustained by Romeo and Benvolio’s jokes in the next scene, as well as the Nurse’s ribald talk in scene three. Finally, Shakespeare’s comedies often involve disguises, as when Romeo puts on a mask to attend the Capulet ball. Only the play’s prologue, which has warned that the lovers’ are “death-marked,” prevents the audience from assuming the play will follow comedic conventions and end with the two main characters happily united in marriage.
However, once Romeo kills Tybalt in Act Three, scene one, the mood shifts, and we can’t mistake the play for anything but tragedy. In Shakespeare’s comedies, characters’ actions have little lasting consequence. Romeo’s murder of Tybalt, however, has tremendous impact, not just for Romeo and Juliet but also for their communities. Tybalt’s murder also raises the stakes of the feud between the Montagues and Capulets, since Tybalt was Juliet’s cousin. Once Romeo has Tybalt’s blood on his hands, we know his story cannot end happily. Although Romeo’s murder of Tybalt is not motivated by a tragic flaw, the act is an error of judgement nonetheless. Romeo then compounds this error by killing Paris outside of Juliet’s tomb.
In all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, protagonists who commit murder end up dead as a result of their actions, and Romeo is no exception. Shakespearean tragedies usually end with the death of the protagonist, which restores harmony to the community. In Romeo and Juliet, the two protagonists’ deaths – what Capulet calls the “poor sacrifices for our enmities” (5.3.) – provide the catalyst for the warring families to set aside their feud and repair the community.