Romeo’s Achilles Heel: a literary comparison of Achilles and Romeo

I often find that I use Romeo and Juliet as a comparative reference when teaching the Iliad. It’s useful most notably in its tragic structure: while the Iliad isn’t classed as a tragedy as it pre-dates Aristotle’s Poetics, which lay down the observed rules of tragedy, it has many features typical of tragedy, and in Plato’s ‘Republic’ he refers to Homer as ‘protos didaskalos’, “first teacher”, of the tragedians.

A tragedy has the following features, as observed by Aristotle:

  • a noble protagonist with admirable characteristics
  • a ‘flaw’ in that protagonist’s character that will ultimately doom them (called ‘hamartia’, meaning ‘missing the target’, no matter how hard they try to do the right thing)
  • a ‘fall’ from their high status to a low status (called ‘peripeteia’)
  • a moment where they realise quarter they went wrong (‘anagnorisis’)
  • and finally the audience gets to pour out their emotions in the ‘catharsis’ of the protagonist’s death

Both Achilles and Romeo have these characteristics:

Noble protagonist: Achilles is a princely warrior, fighting for his own reputation rather than for the good of others, but his insistence on the honourable conduct of others and his close friendship with Patroclus redeem him in this regard. Romeo is also a princely character, although again one potentially self-interested – his initial depression at being thrown over by ‘fair Rosaline' at the start of the play can seem melodramatic – but whom is redeemed by his passionate and reciprocated love for Juliet, and his friendships with Benvolio and Mercutio.

Hamartia: Achilles’ ‘fatal flaw’ is not actually, as is generally assumed, his ‘Achilles heel’ (see for explanation), but in fact his anger, which he lets get the better of him, refusing all attempts to bribe him back to the battle without a proper apology. Romeo has a similar ‘flaw’, in that having resisted the challenges of the irate Capulet Tybalt for so long, he finally gives in to his own roused anger and fights.

(In this case, these characters are perhaps opposites, the former allowing anger to become him from the start, and the latter managing to avoid it until it overcomes him.)

Peripeteia: Achilles loses his best friend Patroclus, and likely gains aidos from some after rejecting the correctly-offered kudos from Agamemnon in the Embassy sent to him, and then allowing Patroclus to fight in his place to increase Achilles’ own value. (Kudos and aidos explained here) He goes from being the ‘best of all the Achaians’ to lying prostrate on the ground, covering himself in dust and dung in grief.

Romeo’s peripeteia is similarly catastrophic, as he both loses his best friend and his new wife, exiled immediately after killing Tybalt with an immediate death sentence to be carried out if he returns.

Anagnorisis: Achilles realises he has let his anger go on too long after it results in Patroclus’ death, and gives up his anger towards Agamemnon, coming back to the battle.

Romeo, it could be argued, doesn’t get his anagnorisis, as he dies (by his own hand) before he realises that Juliet isn’t really dead. Part of the success of the Bas Luhrman film of the play is that he allows Juliet to wake just as Romeo swallows the poison, and we see the realisation and mounting horror on Romeo’s face just as he dies. This in turn adds to the…

Catharsis: Romeo’s senseless death (and of course Juliet’s) and the Montague and Capulet’s subsequent truce is certainly cathartic for the audience, added to by the often-neglected death of Paris, the poor suitor who has acted completely correctly throughout he play and dies rather unnecessarily in order to demonstrate Romeo’s passionate grief.

However, this is where is doesn’t quite work for Achilles, because he isn’t really a tragic hero – he doesn’t die. In fact, Achilles doesn’t actually have a real anagnorisis, as rather than give up his flaw when he realises what it has led to, he instead transfers the anger he has for Agamemnon onto Hector, the slayer of Patroclus. This anger does not even end when Hector is dead, and Achilles ‘put the body to great shame’ by dragging it behind his chariot around the walls of Troy, in front of Hector’s parents. In the end, the gods inspire Priam, Hector’s father, to come and ransom the body, and Achilles’ anger finally ends in a moving scene where young ‘murderer’ and bereaved old father cry together – this is as close to catharsis as we get, and it is rather generated more by Priam’s tears than Achilles’ as we know Achilles has just slit the throats of twelve Trojan children prisoners of war over Patroclus’s pyre, which even the gods find hard to swallow. As Hector is cremated, finally Achilles’ anger subsides, which results in the end of the Iliad, rather than the end of Achilles.

Interestingly, both Achilles and Romeo have ‘agents’ of their hamartia, characters that act on them to bring about the result of their flaws actions. Achilles’ best friend Patroclus is allowed by Achilles to go out to fight in his place, just until the Trojans have been forced back enough by his mere presence so that the Achaians, particularly Agamemnon, are forced to come back on bended knee to implore Achilles back into battle; if his mere presence scares the Trojans back, then what will his actual fighting do? However, in perhaps his own mini-tragedy, Patroclus lets his own enjoyment of battle stop him from following Achilles’ instructions to ‘not go further than the wall’, similar to the often-seen ‘don’t look back!’ trope in Greek mythology. He goes too far, takes on Hector (and Apollo!), and is killed. This event brings Achilles back into the battle, against his own judgement and not in the way he had wanted, with a ton of apologies and kudos-bringing gifts.

Romeo is also dragged unwillingly into battle by his best friend, Mercutio. Romeo’s two kinsmen Benvolio and Mercutio represent Romeo’s good and kind (‘bene’) and frivolous and wild (‘Mercurial’, after Mercury, Greek god of travelling, thieves, and boundaries) sides. Whilst Benvolio persuades Romeo not to act, Mercutio practically forces Romeo to ‘defend his honour’ that Tybalt is defacing. Mercutio, like Patroclus, then fights in Romeo’s place, and, like Achilles, Romeo is dragged into battle when Tybalt kills Mercutio, incurring Romeo’s revenge. (At this point it’s worth noting that Benvolio, now not having Mercutio to balance out, disappears from the script.)

While the actual personalities of the characters of Romeo and Achilles are very, very different (he’s a lover, he’s a fighter), the literary similarities are certainly useful to help students explore the genre of tragedy and the history and development of Western literature.

L Jenkinson

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