Okay, it’s kind of a love story. But only in a secondary, frustrating kind of way. Let me explain.
I have always felt like I was “over” the story of Romeo and Juliet. Even the first time I heard the plot explained, when I was probably around ten years old, I thought it was kind of dumb. Romeo and Juliet kill themselves over a misunderstanding? Seriously? When I got older, and watched, among other productions, the lush Baz Lurhmann Romeo + Juliet, I liked it a little better. But it still rang hollow for me. I still hated the idea that people held it up as the greatest romance of all time. And I didn’t want to read it because it just seemed kind of silly.
However, my Shakespeare class will be working on Romeo and Juliet, so this week, I actually read it for the first time. About half way through, I realized that I had been right: it is not the greatest love story of all time. It was never meant to be. But it is a very, very good play. A play that is so much more than the silly, passionate sob story it is misrepresented as.
My first realization hit me about the time Romeo and Juliet decide to get married. This happens a little over a third of the way through the play, on the same night that Romeo and Juliet first meet. Now, Shakespeare sped the timetable up quite a bit on everything that happened in his plays, but even taking that into account, this is a pretty rash decision. Especially since the two households are on such bad terms, I kept thinking, “Wouldn’t it be a better idea to wait, and plan this out? Isn’t anyone going to tell these two that this is a really bad idea?”
And then it hit me. That’s exactly what I’m supposed to be thinking at that point. Shakespeare didn’t mean for people to say, “What a great decision! Love conquers all! Yay Romeo and Juliet!” He wanted people to have my exact reaction--to realize that yes, this is a terrible decision. Romeo and Juliet’s passion is certainly legitimate, but rarely in any of Shakespeare’s plays does “love at first sight” hold much weight. Rosalind and Orlando spend weeks in the forest getting to know each other. Viola and Orsino are in close companionship for a long time while love blooms. Benedick and Beatrice spar and jest and flirt for years. It’s true, some of Shakespeare’s more minor couples do get together after a quick glance (Miranda and Ferdinand, Hero and Claudio) but by and large, love takes time in Shakespeare (and in the case of Miranda and Ferdinand, Miranda has a wise father who counsels them to take time to get to know each other before getting hitched.) So when Romeo and Juliet suddenly, rashly decide to get married the very next day, I don’t think it was intended as a triumph of love. I think it was a chance for the audience to ask, “Where are these kids’ parents??”
And that is what the play is about. It’s about what happens when the guidance that should be there, isn’t. It’s about the consequences of a family’s decisions on the younger, less wise members. It’s about a girl and a boy who can’t talk to their parents. That is why this play is beautiful, and horrible, and important. Not because of the fervent but misguided romance of Romeo and Juliet. Because no one is there to stop it.
Both Romeo and Juliet are smart and courageous, and very likable. But Juliet, we’re told, is not even fourteen yet. Romeo is probably older, but still very young. His youth is betrayed at the beginning of the play, when his storyline starts with him pining after Rosaline, only to switch his affections to Juliet when he sees her at the ball. The Friar, perhaps the only real source of wisdom in the play, chides him later for this sudden switch. But neither the Friar, nor Juliet’s nurse--the only two people who know what’s going on between Romeo and Juliet--have any real authority over the two lovers. They both try to dissuade them, but the nurse is so ineffectual that Juliet just laughs off her advice, and the Friar is likewise ignored. And though he gives good advice, by the end he is as cowardly as any, and leaves Juliet in the crypt to stab herself.
What struck me most was the tone of the love scenes. Shakespeare was still quite young when he wrote the play, and that youthful abandon--that whole-hearted passion--is abundant in the love scenes. They were all the more poignant for being so misguided; I felt that if the situation had been right, Romeo and Juliet could have been a beautiful power couple, with more eloquence and honesty than perhaps any other Shakespearean duo. But the love scenes are sandwiched between scenes of incredible violence--Romeo’s duel, Juliet’s confrontation with her parents--and ultimately end in the deaths of not just Romeo and Juliet themselves, but also Paris, who did nothing wrong but himself love Juliet. This is a love story gone all wrong, and not just because of the outside influences working on Romeo and Juliet. Because they themselves do not have the wisdom or the patience to deal with what is happening to them.
The scene that most broke my heart was not the final death scene. We all know that’s coming from a mile away. What just killed me was the scene in which Juliet’s parents tell her she must marry Paris, and she, already married to Romeo, refuses. Juliet, pleading, begs her mother to hear her. Lady Capulet replies: “Talk not to me, for I’ll not speak a word./Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee.” She exits. I cried. I can’t impose on the text what it doesn’t say, but it makes me wonder what kind of relationship Juliet had with her parents previous to the opening of the play. If neither her mother, nor certainly her father, will hear her passionate pleas to delay the marriage, we must suppose that they have no real relationship with her. And while we don’t get to see Romeo’s interactions with his parents, we must assume that since he goes to the Friar for advice and comfort (and has before, it is implied) his relationship with his parents is likewise not one of counsel or influence.
Some people focus on the political morals in the play--the chastisement against feuding factions, the reminder to “make love, not war.” But I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that. Because Shakespeare was the great playwright that he was, we sell him short by pitting Romeo and Juliet against the other characters in the play. It’s not as simple as saying, “Romeo and Juliet were good, and they were slain by the hatred of their families.” Romeo and Juliet were very flawed, and very young and stupid, and they were slain by the lack of wisdom available to them. It is a political play, it is a romance (with some of the most beautiful poetry found in any play)--but most of all it is a cautionary story about what happens when parents fail their children. Fail them by nurturing hate, or by neglecting to cultivate a relationship in which they are imparting honesty and wisdom. The result, Shakespeare tells us, is a generation of beautiful souls wasted.
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard