You probably guessed that The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is, well, a tragedy. (And yes, that's the full title on the 1599 version of the play.) But for the first two acts, it doesn't seem like a tragedy at all. In fact, it unfolds like a classic "comedy," complete with dirty jokes, slapstick humor, and lovers struggling to be together.
So, where does the play become a "tragedy," exactly? It seems like Mercutio's death in Act 3, Scene 1 is the turning point of the play. It's a tough transition for the audience—we've gotten used to laughing at the bawdy Nurse and the antics of Romeo's friends, and then suddenly the play stops being funny. Does this mean the play is flawed? We don't think so. The initial comedic nature of the play ultimately makes the tragic ending even more painful.
But don't just take our word for it. Check out this list of common conventions typical of Shakespearean tragedy. (If you're feeling really tragic, try comparing this list to our discussions of "Genre" for Hamlet.)
Dramatic work: Check. Romeo and Juliet is definitely a play.
Serious or somber theme: Check. Despite the funny bits in the first half of the play, teenage suicide and deadly street brawls are pretty much the definition of "somber."
Hero's got a major flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force: Check. Check. Romeo and Juliet are definitely in "conflict with some overpowering force"—like a long-standing family feud.
If we want to single out Romeo as our hero/protagonist, then we could also say that he's got a "major flaw of character." The kid is rash and reckless (sneaking up to Juliet's window when he knows her family will break his legs if he's caught, running off to elope, committing suicide moments before Juliet awakens from a deep slumber, and so on). In other words, Romeo's impetuousness causes a whole lot of trouble in the play.
Hero is destined for destruction and downfall: Check. If you've been paying attention, then you already know what we're going say here. The play drops several hints that our "star-crossed" lovers are fated to die. Reread the opening Prologue for the evidence and then check out our discussion of the theme of "Fate."
Now, if you're not buying into this whole "fate" is responsible for Romeo and Juliet's tragedy thing, then you're not alone. Poet W.H. Auden argues that everything is Romeo and Juliet's fault—they're too passionate and their love is far too excessive. And, in the logic of 16th century Christianity, suicide is basically the ultimate act of free will—taking your life in your own hands, rather than letting God sort you out.
Not all tragedies end in death but all of Shakespeare's tragedies do: Check. Easy-peasy. Romeo and Juliet commit suicide in the play's final scene (5.3). Plus, Romeo manages to stab Paris (5.3) and also Tybalt, who killed his BFF Mercutio, along the way (3.1). Plus, the Prince promises us that some heads will definitely roll in the play's final lines when he says "Some shall be pardoned, and some punished" for the part they've played in the tragic events (5.3.4).
Despite the high body count, political order gets back to normal at the end: Check. Sure, our heroes are dead. But the Prince swoops in to hand a little justice and to get things in Verona back to normal. Even his intervention hardly seems necessary, though, because the parents of Romeo and Juliet promise to end the feud and erect statues in honor of each other's children (5.3.3).