In many noteworthy pieces of classic literature, teenage characters are often portrayed in archetypal themes, which are perceptions of life that are shared among a variety of diverse cultures. A renowned example of an archetypal-themed play is The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, first written and performed in the 1590s during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. Although The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet has been a beloved written work over the centuries and continues to be revered across the globe, critics question the decisions the two central protagonists, Romeo and Juliet, make throughout the course of the tragedy. Shakespeare’s play features Romeo’s family, the Montagues, and Juliet’s, the Capulets, clashing constantly due to an ancient feud, their deep rivalry tearing the city of Verona apart.
Through a series of mishaps and ill-fated choices, the two teenagers fall in love and decide to be wedded after a day of courting. Romeo proceeds to be exiled from Verona after a deadly mistake, which causes Juliet to feign her death and results in their final downfall of consecutive suicides, earning them the name “star-crossed lovers”. Recent findings regarding the development of the teenage brain may provide deeper insight into the reasoning underlying Romeo and Juliet’s impulsive behavior and irrational decisions. Romeo and Juliet’s tendency to act on desire causes multiple dilemmas that drive the play forward. The first example of teenage impetuous behavior in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is when Romeo decides to attend the Capulets’ party with his cousin and friend, Benvolio and Mercutio, in order to catch a glimpse of Rosaline, “I’ll go along(to the party), no such sight to be shown, but to rejoice in splendor of mine own(Rosaline)” (Shakespeare 386).
However, once he is actually at the party, he lays eyes on Juliet for the first time and utters these words, “O, she doth teach the torches, to burn bright…Did my heart love till now! Forswear it, sight! For I never saw true beauty till this night” (Shakespeare 393). Although Romeo had originally made his appearance at the Capulet feast to win Rosaline’s heart, he instead fell head over heels for Juliet. In addition, he had no thought for the consequences that may arise in his taking part in the festivities of a rival household. Oxytocin in teenage brains makes social connections more rewarding, particularly with their peers; this ability allows them to develop strong relationships that enable them to succeed(Dobbs). One of the most valued aspects of societal life among teenagers is romance, which could explain Romeo’s willingness to take the risk of exacerbating the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues in an effort to form a connection with Rosaline.
Furthermore, his sudden shift of interest from Rosaline to Juliet may be due to the fact that social rejection is considered by the teenage brain to be a threat to their survival; once Romeo realized that Rosaline did not have the desire to be involved with him, he quickly transfers his attention to Juliet in order to form a relationship with someone more likely to return his affections (Dobbs). Second, Romeo and Juliet’s arrangement to secretly marry only a day after their first meeting can be considered foolhardy, “These violent delights(the hasty marriage) have violent ends And in their triumph die, like fire and powder, Which as they kiss, consume” (Shakespeare 418). The dialogue spoken by Friar Lawrence reinforces the notion that Romeo and Juliet’s feverish passion is guided by their emphasis on seeking new emotions rather than thinking of the consequences their actions cause. In fact, modern brain research indicates that adolescence makes the brain receptive to dopamine, a chemical that fires reward circuits, as well as aid in the formation of learning patterns and decision-making (Dobbs).
As a result, teenage brains have an increased sensitivity to rewards; in this case, Romeo and Juliet had only eyes for the benefit that would come out of their elopement, the freedom to express their love to one another, and did not contemplate the conflict that may unfold between their feuding families if they were ever to learn of their secret marriage. These neuroscientific discoveries help to develop the reader’s understanding of Romeo and Juliet while they continue to make increasingly reckless and ill-advised choices as the plot progresses. Tensions intensify when the main protagonists’ arrangements go awry as communication between the two falls short amid their fervid decision-making in Act IV and Act V. For example, Juliet promptly follows Friar Lawrence’s scheme after a brief moment of reflection, “Come, vial. What if this mixture do not work at all? Shall I be married then tomorrow morning? No, no! …Romeo, Romeo, Romeo, I drink to thee!” (Shakespeare 456-457).
Despite the fact that Juliet has no knowledge of whether Romeo will be informed of the plan and be able to come to rescue her, she makes the decision to take the potion through her desperation to prevent her espousal to Count Paris. Recent advancements in brain imaging reveal that the brain is subjected to a significant restructuring between a human’s twelfth and twenty-fifth years that improves the links between the hippocampus and frontal areas, enabling the incorporation of past experiences into decision-making (Dobbs). However, the brain balances passion with logic ineptly during this development, providing the explanation that Juliet’s agreement to drink the sleep-inducing concoction is guided by her intense desire to be a faithful wife to Romeo, overruling her sense of caution. Furthermore, when Romeo receives the report from his servant Balthasar of Juliet’s funeral, he immediately flees Mantua and travels to the Capulet funeral vault in hopes of learning the truth of Juliet’s supposed death. Upon seeing Juliet’s body, he utters, “Here’s to my love! O, true apothecary! Thy drugs are quick.
Thus with a kiss I die” (Shakespeare 473). He then proceeds to consume the vial of poison he had previously purchased from an apothecary, which kills him instantly. Soon after, Juliet awakens from her deep slumber to find Romeo’s corpse lying before her; overcome with grief, she seizes Romeo’s dagger and stabs herself in the heart, departing from the world at the side of her lover (Shakespeare 474-475). Whilst Shakespeare’s writing creates the illusion that Romeo and Juliet had no other options, there are multiple courses of action they could have taken to escape their fate. For instance, Romeo could have first contacted Friar Lawrence to discover the information he possessed of Juliet’s passing, as he was the only person Juliet would be able to confide in. According to current neuroscientific discoveries, the prefrontal cortex, located in the front section of the human brain, is the area responsible for recognizing consequences caused by actions; however, due to its prematurity in adolescence, teenagers are inclined to react to situations based on emotions rather than rationale, driving them to risk their lives in the process of their struggle to balance their feelings with their judgment, such as in Romeo and Juliet’s circumstance, which lead to their ultimate self-destruction (Galvan 2:18; Tucker).
Underdeveloped brains play a significant role in the events that occur in the play. The evolving state of the adolescent brain applies both to the youth of Shakespeare’s time and teenagers of the modern generation by clarifying why humans are more liable to respond strongly to benefits that may result in taking perilous risks. Although adolescents of the twenty-first century do not typically decide to marry at the age of thirteen, there are nevertheless various other actions they take that can be viewed as precarious behavior. For example, distracted driving, a factor that quadruples the chance of a car accident, is an issue that is mainly caused by teenagers. Their still-developing brains make the possibility of injuring themselves or another person seems unlikely, leading them to take the risk in order to alleviate their curiosity as to who is trying to contact them on their device (Tucker). Neuroscientific research serves not only the purpose of helping readers to better comprehend the characters of Romeo and Juliet and analyze Shakespeare’s choice to write them in this manner, but to offer a glimpse into the thought process of humans in their teenage years. With this newfound understanding, adults and scientists alike are able to improve their ability to relate to adolescents, while teenagers have the chance to learn about their brain’s functioning and how this applies to their emotions and decision-making.