The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide

By Victor L. Cahn | Go to book overview
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Generations

No theme dominates the history of tragic drama so profoundly as the relationship between one generation and those that follow. Certainly the plots of most Greek tragedies dramatize how children pay for the sins of their ancestors. In the Agamemnon of Aechylus, for instance, present events are virtually dictated by the evil actions of earlier generations of the House of Atreus. In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, because of transgressions by the parents of the title character, he is condemned to kill his father and marry his mother. Thereafter, Oedipus’s own actions shape the lives of his children.

In most of the plays of Shakespeare, however, the power of one generation over another is not so specifically determined; the gods do not decree inevitable consequences. Rather, throughout the tragedies, comedies, histories, and romances, children struggle with their parents’ values and the implications of certain behaviors and traditions. Yet the younger generation must also establish its own codes of morality.

The opening lines of Romeo and Juliet, for example, clarify how the two young lovers have grown up in the midst of a long-standing familial conflict:


…Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife,

The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,

And the continuance of their parents’ rage,

Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove…

(Prologue, 8–11)

From the outset, the plot is laid out: only through the deaths of their children will the parents’ animosity be erased. Yet the children themselves are not mere pawns in the struggle. They grapple with the bloody rivalry that possesses their families and their city, and their attempts to surmount it are among the most compelling moments of the play. Juliet,

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