Shakespeare’s plays ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Hamlet’, both tragedies have at their crux a strained relationship between the parents and their children. It is this strained relationship that causes a rift between them and ultimately leads to many of the decisions that the children make. Hamlet has a love-hate relationship with his mother that colors his views on other women and Juliet has a very formal relationship with her parents. Marrying Romeo is more of a teenage rebellion against her oppressive parents. In the two plays it is the rather dysfunctional and strained parent-child relationship that forms the primary plot and it is which that moves the story along.
Shakespeare in is tragic plays, ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ deals with the rather dysfunctional and strained relationships that the parents and the children share and how the actions of the parents affect the children. Hamlet loves his mother and is worried about her safety while at the same time he nurses an anger about her marrying his uncle too quickly after his father’s death. Juliet on the other hand does not have any intense love for her mother or father. She had been brought up by her nurse since she was a baby and it is the nurse she looks to as a mother figure. The relationship she shares with her mother is rather formal and oppressive and in a way her marrying Romeo is an act of rebellion against her parents’ wishes. In keeping with the customs of the day and tradition-or what society dictates, the parents put their interests above that of their kids and this makes their relationship dysfunctional as well as strained. The strained and formal parent-child relationship forms a very important aspect in both these plays- as a reason for the children’s rebellion and as a catalyst for their future actions.
The relationship that Hamlet shares with his parents (his mother and stepfather) is dysfunctional, complicated as well as passionate. He wants to kill his stepfather to keep his mother away from him giving the relationship an Oedipal twist. Hamlet returns home to find out that his father is dead and that his mother had married his uncle almost immediately. Hamlet cannot fathom how his mother could have married so quickly after she had loved his father so deeply. Although Hamlet does not seem to have any strong emotions towards Claudius, it is his mother’s actions that tip him over the edge. Hamlet loves his mother deeply that although it is she who had married Claudius, he has no desire to kill her. Hamlet takes deep offense to the fact that his mother married his uncle and goes as far as to deem the marriage incestuous. He says,
“She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good:
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue (1.2.156-159).
Around the time Hamlet was written it was considered incestuous to marry in-laws and by marrying her brother in law. Gertrude in Hamlet’s eyes had not only insulted his father’s memory but also committed an act of incest-something morally wrong for Hamlet and something that breaks his heart. He thinks highly of her love for his dead father that he cannot bring himself to deal with her rather quick remarriage. Even though Hamlet does not know that Claudius had murdered his father, he still hates him and compares his father to a Hyperion (one of the titans) while he compares Claudius to a Satyr (a lecherous half goat, half man). Hamlet even compares Gertrude to Niobe and accuses her of not grieving enough. Unlike Niobe who turned into stone grieving for her dead children, Gertrude he says was hasty in marrying and he talks about his father's death as if it were his own funeral.
Like Niobe, all tears:--why she, even she--
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn'd longer--married with my uncle,
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules (1.2.147-153).
His intense and dramatic reaction has led many to comment that Hamlet could have been suffering from the Oedipus syndrome and that he had wanted his mother for himself. Gertrude loves her son and is worried about him, she tells Claudius that hamlet is mad even after knowing that it is an act that he has put on. Even though she knows that her decision has hurt her son deeply she does not come out of her marriage to Claudius, she tries to broker peace between the two. It is her wish for safety-both for her situation and that of her son’s that creates a rift between the two. Even though she loves Hamlet she would not end her marriage and this infuriates Hamlet further. Gertrude’s love for Hamlet is seen even when she is dying as it is Hamlet she calls for when she is dying. Gertrude’s actions however affects Hamlet to such an extent that it colors his views on other women and even affects his relationship with Ophelia who he loves very deeply. Gertrude's actions makes Hamlet destroy his love for Ophelia. Consumed by his thoughts and actions over killing Claudius, Hamlet kills Polonius, Ophelia's father with no concern for her. He also verbally assaults her when she comes to talk about his actions and behavior (3.1). Hamlet loves Ophelia deeply and overcome by grief at her funeral procession says that,
"I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love
Make up my sum (5.1.270-72)”
But blinded by his feelings of revenge precipitated by his mother’s actions he does not show Ophelia how much he loves her. Although Hamlet does not think his mother had any role to play in the murder of his father he still thinks she had been disloyal to him but getting married so quickly. He takes out his anger on his uncle instead, posing as a madman and eventually killing him.
Juliet's relationship with her parents is rather formal to the extent that she is not able to share her problems with them. It is also dysfunctional in the sense that she looks at them like an authority figure rather than loving parents and tries to break away from everything they represent. She would rather confide in her nurse and listen to the priest than take the advice of her parents. It is her nurse she looks upon as a mother and not her real mother. Even though Juliet’s mother loves her, she is rather distant in her approach. It is the nurse who knows about Juliet’s secret marriage to Romeo and not the parents. The distance between the mother and the daughter is brought out by Shakespeare in two important scenes. When lady Capulet sees Juliet crying her heart out, she mistakenly thinks that she is crying for her murdered cousin Tybalt while in reality Juliet cries over the banishment of Romeo. She says,
"Evermore weeping for your cousin's death?
What wilt thou wash him from his grave with tears?
And if thou couldst, thou couldnst not make him live.
Therefore have done: some grief show much of love,
But much of grief shows stills some want of wit." (3.5.70-73)
She even says that her tears are not going to bring back Tybalt and that she looks stupid crying. Her mother is being practical but it isn’t something Juliet wants and they are so distant with each other that she cannot even tell her the real reason for crying. When she refuses to marry Paris her mother’s reaction is not that of understanding but of anger. She tells Juliet to take it up with her father and see how he reacts. Her father too is no different from the mother. Initially in the play he shows reservations about Paris wanting to marry his daughter. He tells Paris that he must woo Juliet properly and make her happy before she would say yes. Although he is a concerned father and Juliet is his only daughter, it becomes obvious later that Juliet is ‘free to choose’ from one of the many suitors her father has approved of. The parents continue their feud with Romeo’s family unaware of their child’s love. This continuation of the feud and the lack of communication between Juliet and her parents is what makes the relationship between Romeo and Juliet illicit even before it begins. It is also a reason why she rebels against her parents and does her best to marry Romeo and die with him. Juliet’s relationship with her father is typical of a relationship of a father and daughter in a patriarchal society. Lord Capulet wants his daughter to be happy but on his terms. He decided he is the best person to choose who Juliet would marry and this is why both he and his wife refuse to hear out Juliet’s plea for a delayed marriage to Paris. Their pride and the continuation of a feud somehow seems more important to them than what the daughter really wants.
The parents in both the plays played their parts according to what was expected of them during the time that they lived. Shakespeare has modelled them according to the customs of his time and although they were not exactly wrong is behaving the way they did, this proper behavior according to the norms of their time is what pushes their children away from them. Gertrude married Claudius because she needs the safety of the marriage and also is worried for the safety of her son. Her son does not see it that way. Hamlet sees it as an insult to his father’s memory, an act of treason against his filial love and even tells her not to share a bed with Claudius. Even though they both love each other dearly, they are not able to go past their actions and rectify the situation. Perhaps Hamlet would have had a different ending if Gertrude had not married Claudius or had left him when hamlet showed signs of distress. Romeo and Juliet too would have had a different ending if Juliet’s parents had put aside their pride and listened to her arguments against marrying Paris. Although it was Juliet’s decision to end her life, there can be no denying the fact that her parent’s actions played a role in it.
Hamlet’s and Juliet’s actions throughout the plays are a result of their parents’ decisions. Their actions are rebellion against what their parents thought was right. Both Hamlet and Juliet do not share a normal relationship with their parents. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother and Lord and lady Capulet, Juliet’s parents are not bad people, they are individuals who act according to the norms of their days. Gertrude is worried about the safety of her station as well as that of her sons while the Capulets only want Juliet to marry someone good and be happy. They are however bad parents-they really do not think about how their decisions affect their children-it is this formal nature and the inability to talk it out between themselves that creates a wedge between them and causes their children to act out in ways that are different from their normal behaviors. Although the parents in both the plays love their children it is not shown clearly by them owing to the restrictions of their time. The rift that the distance eventually causes is what leads to the tragic ends of the protagonists in the plays.
Shakespeare, William. “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare”. shakespeare.mit.edu. n.d. Web. 23 April 2015.