I love Shakespeare. His work his witty, beautiful, and intense. I’ve enjoyed his sonnets and poetry, read all his major works and many of his minor ones. All except for Romeo and Juliet. Until this month.
In the spirit of picking a classic to fit with my country of the month, I chose William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet because A) it takes place in Verona, Italy, B) It contains some of my favorite Shakespeare quotes, and C) I’ve never read it. In English lit back in high school, we read Macbeth and Julius Caesar; in my college Shakespeare class, we read Hamlet, Henry IV, King Lear, Othello, The Merchant of Venice (and etc.); and for the heck if it I read Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, and more. So I’ve nearly read everything by Shakespeare ACCEPT Romeo and Juliet.
Why is that? I’ve been wondering why all my professors—and myself—avoided this most classic of love stories, and I decided that that’s the reason why: the love story. Honestly, it’s almost sickly romantic with the star-crossed lovers and the melodrama ultimately resulting in a double suicide. So here are some thoughts on it.
Although I only just read this play for the first time, I was already familiar with the plot. It seems like every article or paper or even book referencing the play inevitably talks about the star-crossed lover theme and feuding families. How many books were written based on this play? A ton, is the answer.
So, if you haven’t read it and haven’t even gleaned the basic plot, here it is:
Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl at a glance. Girl does likewise. Unfortunately, boy and girl belong to two feuding families who hate each other and have a history of killing the other’s family members. Naturally, this doesn’t get in the way of true love. Romeo and Juliet wed secretly (within a day of meeting—which makes my family member’s getting engaged after a week suddenly seem very reasonable). Then Romeo kills somebody and is banished.
He’s been gone for about a day, possibly two, when Juliet’s father—who, in his defense, has no idea that she’s already married—engages her to be married to Paris in…two days time (what is with these people and ridiculously quick marriages?). Juliet takes a potion that simulates death to escape the marriage. But instead of a letter of explanation reaching Romeo so he’s part of Juliet’s plan, he only gets word that she’s dead. So he goes to her family tomb and kills himself over her body. She wakes up, realizes he’s dead, and then really kills herself.
At this point, the prince of Verona and the heads of the two families—Montague and Capulet—arrive, puzzle out what happens, and repent of the parts they played in a division that ultimately costs two young lives…
…as if Romeo and Juliet didn’t have free will. And this is one of the problems I have with the story. Shakespeare’s a fantastic writer, the characters are good (if a bit flat), and the storyline is unique and interesting.
So what’s the problem?
I have an issue with the premise of the story, that true love is something that’s uncontrollable. I think this idea has led to an overly romanticized society where we all have unrealistic expectations of romance and love, conveniently ignoring the fact the first, pungent taste of love—the falling part—is fleeting. That it alone cannot hold up a relationship and push a couple through the hardships of life.
First of all, you don’t just marry the person, you marry their family. Yes, you cleave unto your spouse, but life doesn’t happen in a bubble. Your family is there. If your relationship falls apart, your family suffers (and I’ve been on the suffering side of this). The idea that Romeo and Juliet were just going to marry despite the family feud was short-sighted. The only way to avoid that feud is to run away, which they tried to do. But then what? What would’ve happened in one, five, ten years? Do you suppose they would’ve been perfectly happy completely severed from their families who adored them? They probably would’ve ended up resenting each other.
Second of all, responsibility is a real thing. Yes, the feuding families and prince played a role in the tragic events, but Romeo and Juliet had choices as well. They chose to marry on a whim, fake death, and kill themselves. They bear the brunt of their choices.
Third of all, killing yourself? Really? Sadly, all I thought of as I read the overly sentimental last act was, “Wow, they’re even more dramatic than Twilight’s Bella,” and that’s pretty bad. Strength of character makes you go on despite hardships and disappointments, but neither would live without the other. That’s not love, that’s selfishness.
As I write my scathing review, I wonder if Shakespeare intentionally wrote something overly emotional and romantic to warn people about the dangers of acting precipitously, of basing action on something as flimsy as lust. Because real love brings out your better side, not your worst.
Despite my incendiary words, it’s Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet. I’m sure there have been reams and tomes and libraries of papers and books deconstructing and analyzing the play. Because Shakespeare is never simple. There are layers upon layers (like an onion—or a parfait) of meaning in his work. Perversely, it’s my tirade in the form of a review, that makes me think this book is worth reading. Anything that brings out so much emotion and provokes so much thought is worth the effort.
Though in comparison to Shakespeare’s other work, I’d say 6/10.
Because it is, after all, Shakespeare:
“Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-browed night;
Give me my Romeo; and, when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night…”
“See how she leans her cheek upon her hand.
O, that I were a glove upon that hand
That I might touch that cheek!”
“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.”
“Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.”
“For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”