Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is heralded as the quintessential tragic love story. This is often argued for two reasons: one is the intense youthful infatuation and passion which Romeo and Juliet developed for one another in contrast to the obstacles impeding that love, and the other is the deathly severe nature of their circumstance. Having so many obstacles in the way of their love provides the plot with a classic conflict to engage the audience, but more importantly it shows the true length the young lovers are willing to go just to be together. While the characters may love one another deeply and be willing to defy their families' interests for the sake of that love, the true value of their feelings does not come into account until it is revealed that they are willing to die. The idea of defying obstacles in the way of true love, as well as self-sacrifice for the sake of it, is the essence of Shakespeare's play, and no dialogue better relays this idea throughout the play than Romeo's speech to the Friar in Act 3, Scene 3.
The key argument Romeo presents in his speech to the Friar in Act 3, Scene 3 is that more important than being banished from Verona, he is banished from Juliet. Romeo states, "Tis torture, and not mercy: heaven is here, Where Juliet lives; and every cat and dog And little mouse, every unworthy thing, Live here in heaven and may look on her; But Romeo may not" (3.3.30-35). His statement referring to torture and not mercy is in reference to the Princes' decision to banish him from Verona as opposed to sentencing him to death for slaying Tybalt. When Romeo claimed that heaven is where Juliet resides, he simultaneously acknowledged banishment from her as being banished to Hell, and death becomes a more appealing alternative. This moment in the play is very significant because it signifies a turning point in which Romeo was given an ultimatum and in response to it revealed he would rather commit the ultimate sacrifice than be banished from his love. Romeo went on to proclaim Juliet's purity, arguing that even the most innocent pure men would feel sinful in comparison to her upon kissing her lips. He described kissing her by pointing out that everyone under the sun can have contact with her even flies and then proclaims himself as worst than a fly when he says, "Flies may do this, but I from this must fly: They are free men, but I am banished. And say'st thou yet that exile is not death?" (3.3.43-45). The intense anguish Romeo was enduring can be seen in the irony that he referred to flies as "free men" and in a sense envied their place in the world over his own. His depression upon the news of his banishment reached a climax when he finally requested of the Friar an immediate way to soothe his pain. He said, "Hadst thou no poison mix'd, no sharp-ground knife, No sudden mean of death, though ne'er so mean, But 'banished' to kill me? - 'banished'?" (3.3.46-48). This willingness to die rather than live without Juliet is a foreshadow to the ending sequence of the play, which has established Romeo & Juliet as a classic tragedy. The popularity of the dual suicide for the sake of love can largely be credited to the significant underlying Western and Eastern cultural connotations.
Western society has a natural infatuation with youth and the ideal of romanticizing dying young. This can largely be credited for the play's initial popularity in its Western reception over the past hundreds of years. In Eastern culture, the act of shinju is highly romanticized. Shinju, the act of double suicide, is a well-known part of Japanese culture. Its popularity in the West, in American films like The Last Samurai, can largely be credited to the contrast between Christian ethics and Japanese ideals of nobility. In the West suicide is largely viewed as a sin and an easy way out of life. This is in part due to the major influence of Christianity in the West. The reason why I think Americans are so intrigued by the Japanese concept of suicide is because their ideals are completely the opposite. Suicide is not only viewed as a difficult path but a noble one. Underlying shinju are many Buddhist themes, many of which can be seen played out in Romeo and Juliet. One of these themes is the impermanence of pleasure or happiness. For example, the idea that no matter how comfortable you are in a chair, you will eventually become uncomfortable in a certain position and have to switch it is a good illustration. This is a concept of impermanence and therefore a Buddhist belief. This idea is present in many of famous Japanese playwright Chikamatsu's plays as well as famous Japanese filmmaker Masahiro's films. It is present in Romeo & Juliet in the fact that the audience is always given the impression time is fleeting. Even during the moments when the lovers were together, they were both aware that their love is temporary. The conflict of the play is with the impermanence and frailty of human nature. The agony and anguish is not over the fact that they cannot be together, but that they cannot be together forever. Even if Romeo is able to be with Juliet, they both still must acknowledge that death is inevitable. Since there is no guarantee they will die together, committing a double suicide becomes the only noble act they can carry out in honor of their love, and the only way they can ensure one never lives without the other. Combined with the infatuation with youth and dying young that is so popular in Western culture, one can only assume that Shakespeare's play was destined to be a hit. The reason why this particular speech by Romeo is so significant is because it captures much of the passion that is synonymous with youth and young love as well as the feeling of being opposed by one's parental figures. Romeo appears as the ultimate underdog in the sense that he argues that even flies are better off than he. At this point in the play, it has not yet been made clear whether Juliet's love for Romeo is mutual. Romeo's speech hints at this revelation but is more so a product of his own despair over being banished from Juliet.
In sum, Romeo's speech with Friar embodies the core emotion of Shakespeare's most infamous tragic love story because it represents the moment in which the protagonist reveals he is willing to die. Death to Romeo is not seen as a sacrifice but a blessing compared to life without Juliet. The speech also foreshadows the double suicide that will occur at the end of the play. All of the elements of life are present in this section of the play as well. Romeo feels deep authentic love for Juliet as well as anguish for being banished from her graces. He is at a point where he is willing to die and is actually prevented from killing himself by the Friar. In the end, the audience finds that this sacrifice is inevitable, but the admirable nature of it is saved by the fact that Juliet sacrifices her life as well.
Shakspeare, William. "Romeo & Juliet". 1997. Project Gutenberg, 28 October 2007.