Wednesday, November 29, 2023

On the Coffee Table: Romeo and Juliet

Title: The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet
Author: William Shakespeare

Two stupid teenagers fall in love and are dead by their own hands two weeks later.  Yup, that's more or less the story.  It's worth noting their love was complicated by their feuding families, the Capulets and the Montagues.

Before we go on, let me make clear that I love Shakespeare and I have personal attachments to R&J that will always be meaningful.  But I hate the story.  I love the language.  It invades my soul.  But I detest the story.

When I first read R&J - in 9th grade English class as is the case for many if not most American high school students, I asserted that it glorifies suicide, an irresponsible message to teenagers.  I know more now and realize that the psychology behind self-harm runs a lot deeper than I imagined it did when I was 14 (Juliet's age).  But the double suicide still bothers me from a narrative standpoint.  It's a cop out.  The beef between the two houses is magically settled once, separately but simultaneously, they drive their children to despair.  It's too easy, a lame payoff outweighed by the crushing loss of the two deaths.

And how soon after the curtain falls do the blame games begin?  Sure, in the moment, trying to impress the Prince, they say they'll build commemorative statues for the doomed lovers as a celebration of their devotion.  But no doubt, the muttering under the breath begins as soon as they leave the tomb...

So yes, I hate the story and good luck convincing me I shouldn't.  But I still love this play.

Of all Shakespeare's work, I have the most intimate relationship with Romeo and Juliet because it was the first one I helped direct.  It was my job in that particular production to help the principals understand what they were saying.  Shakespearean language is challenging for even the most passionate scholars.  For your average middle school student, it's practically gibberish.  But the story must be told.  Going through the balcony scene(s) line by line leads to powerful moments of discovery for both actor and coach.  Prior to this experience, I would have said Mercutio was my favorite character but the most gratifying roles to explore in this context were the Nurse and, of course, Juliet.  Watching a 14-year-old girl play the most important 14-year-old character in world literature and seeing her eyes light up when she realizes the three words in "Three words, dear Romeo" are "I love you"...  I will never forget that moment, a life highlight to be sure.  

I've heard many say Shakespeare is overrated, either because they don't understand it or they feel others - Dante, Milton, Marlowe - should get more attention.  They may have a point on the latter assertion.  However, I know what Shakespeare's words did for me when I truly let them into my heart for the first time.  Perhaps I could experience the same with other writers, indeed I hope so.  But for now, I believe in the unique magic of The Bard.

In this latest reading, I thought about what this particular story has to say about love.  Truly, a lot of it is deeply unhealthy if you take the broader view.  I was struck, however, by a passage from Friar Laurence:

...the sweetest honey 
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite:
Therefore love moderately; long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

In general, I am one to argue that to love lightly is to live lightly.  But I can't deny the wisdom in these words.


  1. I agree with you. I always thought these kids were dumb. I am not a lover of Shakespeare but he deserves all the accolades.

    1. It may be a while but I certainly hope to explore more Shakespeare in the future.

  2. If you think about it as, say, "lovers caught on opposite sides of the Civil War," "a house divided," in THAT context, it takes on a very different meaning. Are we not an era defined by seemingly impossible divides? You can't go anywhere on the internet without bumping into it. Families are expected to argue over the holiday dinner table. So what happens when you find two people who fall in love but are told they shouldn't? That's the whole point. Shakespeare in Love (a woefully disrespected achievement) posited that the play swayed Queen Elizabeth with its tale of doomed love. This is a lady who knew plenty about such things.

    1. Hi, Tony! It's been a while.

      Yes, I get the broader message. After all, the play begins with references the feud first, the love affair second. I object when people assert that it's a great, romantic tale. It really isn't. In fact, I think believing so reflects uncomfortable truths about the perception of romantic love in western culture.

      I prefer the ending in West Side Story. Tony is dead an Maria is shattered. But it solves nothing. That's a lot more realistic.