Tragic irony hangs in these words, for Romeo’s exchange with Friar Lawrence is an ominous portent of the dreadful events to come. Romeo indeed dies by means of poison, and in so doing, he is "banishèd" not only from the prospect of a fulfilled life with his beloved in this world--which little does he know is within his reach-- but from the embrace of God’s love, too. Both Romeo and Juliet declare that to be “banishèd” from each other’s presence would be a living hell; sadly, both lovers trade a living hell apart from each other for an undying Hell which they can share. The ultimate tragedy, transcending even this incredible woe, however, is the reality that, in their folly, these quintessential models of romantic love have willfully exiled themselves from the true and final source of all love: God.
No sudden mean of death, though ne’er so mean,
But “banishèd” to kill me? “Banishèd”?
O Friar, the damnèd use that word in hell. (3.3.46-50)
Shakespeare’s genius in Romeo and Juliet is the plot’s skillful peripeteia, a catharsis-inducing reversal of fortune in which the two lovers, newly married and full of erotic passion, romantic idealism, and innocent hope, condemn themselves to damnation in the name of love. And, of course, this woeful development comes on the cusp of a loving reunion. Romeo and Juliet are mere seconds away from marital bliss in a secular exile, but instead find themselves consigned to an eternal exile in Hell by their own hands.
The bard has penned a masterful tragedy about the potential of erotic love to lose itself in Dionysian ecstasy, becoming a maddening frenzy, a paralyzing obsession, and a despairing idol. The use of dramatic irony throughout the story further magnifies the sense of doom and inevitability regarding the fate of the lovers, incessantly reminding us in almost a mocking manner: They are going to die and there is nothing you can do about it! All that’s left is to weep and to sigh and to imagine a different outcome for our own lives.
As if the lovers’ deaths were not enough to contend with, Shakespeare simply cannot resist the temptation (thankfully) to spin even deeper themes into his yarn. He twists the suicides into a kind of secular salvation tale. The Montagues and Capulets finally arrive at peace with the senseless self-slaughter of their loved ones. This is an almost perverse inversion of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. Where Christ dies and descends into the dead (Harrowing of Hell) to conquer death, to redeem the souls who have fallen asleep, and to atone for the sins of all mankind, Romeo and Juliet’s descent into Hell achieves a kind of secular peace, as if it were part of God’s providential design, yet it is not. For while it is true that God can draw good from evil and does so here after the lovers’ demise, it is not true that God would willfully condemn anyone to Hell in order to achieve His aims. Shakespeare, then, seems to be offering a paradoxical tale about a soul-destroying love with a semi-salvific outcome. What does all this signify?
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet stands as a kind of lesson in negative theology, wherein the playwright promotes the faith by a tragic inversion, strange doppelganger, or twisted self-portrait. Take your pick. Romeo and Juliet’s excessive love sends them to Hell, so as tragic as their fictional deaths may be, it provides a number of lessons worth learning for the nonfictional world. We must love one another in moderation and not allow erotic love to become an idol that demands we sacrifice our souls at its altar. Similarly, we should work for political peace, so that the love of individuals from opposing political factions may bloom rather than wither away. Political conflict produces tragedies like Romeo and Juliet’s every day, and they are perfectly preventable with a modest investment of diplomacy, rationality, and civil discourse. Finally, the political overplot, as well as Romeo and Juliet’s fateful decision to kill themselves, points to the necessity of salvation; however, such a salvation will not come from secular or tragic means, but from an eternal source, an eternal person: Jesus Christ. In closing, the paradoxical nature of this tragedy makes it a cathartic work, but also a thoughtful one that urges us to purify our loves, our lives, and our worlds.