I am an admitted and sincere fan of The Bard. I delight to decipher and enjoy his well-crafted verse, admire his ability to create a flawless plot line rife with literary devices and foreshadowing, and awe at his grasp and illustration of human nature in its many forms. I am, however, convinced that he just isn't great at romance.
Shakespeare's lovers are seldom well acquainted, falling "in love" after only meeting briefly and rarely developing greater knowledge and respect. They are often distant or disguised; admirers from afar.
My least favorite Shakespeare play has been Romeo and Juliet ever since It was required curriculum in the ninth grade. Someone thought they could get teenagers to like Shakespeare by spoon-feeding them Romeo. I suppose they generalized (as people often do about teenagers) that we would have liked hasty and tragic romance stories. I remember being disappointed about a story of two pubescent and lovesick adversaries who rush into marriage on extremely short acquaintance only to take their own lives on the strength of misunderstandings a few days later. Not so romantic.
Hence, when Notre Dame Theatre started advertising their production of said play, I decided I would forgo and catch their next Shakespeare in the Spring. Last Wednesday, however, I got the reminder email and noticed that it was being put on by Actors from the London Stage, who I have seen previously and admire for their minimalist approach (only five actors playing all the roles with barely anything in the way of scenery/costumes). I decided that I might be able to see some value in the play in my old age :). So I bought my ticket, got my husband to be on childcare duty, and braved Romeo and Juliet the next night.
The play was well-done. Bare bones and honest. I watched closely for value in the old tragedy and found it. What I decided is this: Romeo and Juliet is not a romance. I don't know if it was ever meant to be. It is a tragedy. It a testament to the great ills of revenge and prolonged rivalry, it is a story about the loss of innocence in two young people, and it is a lesson.
The play begins with the families Capulet and Montague in full feud. We see their hatred and view them as mob against mob. We are then drawn aside to see two individuals in the families with whom we can relate: the heartbroken Romeo-just on the outs from first love, and Juliet who willingly admits to her matchmaking parents that she has never really thought of marriage before. Both are going to the masque, primed to fall in love. Mercutio tells Romeo that he is sure to find someone who makes him forget Rosalinde and Juliet is to meet her future spouse there and begin to think about matrimony. It is not surprising that they find that opportunity in each other.
They kiss. They part, only then to learn names and discover they are "in love" with the enemy. They then continue on their tragically hasty path toward marriage, misunderstanding, and eventually death. Others die in the course of the tale, all casualties of the feud; yet each have their own tragic flaw. Mercutio will not take life seriously, and loses it. Tybalt is overconfident. Even Paris is at fault for being blind and unaware of what is really going on around him.
But Romeo and Juliet are merely hasty, in spite of warnings from the Priest to go slowly, and innocent. They are lambs sacrificed to show their fighting families the price of their hatred. The heroes could not have been lambs had they not begun their journey in youthful innocence.
Their innocence, however, is also a casualty of the tragic feud. Juliet begins the play hopeful and optimistic. She is entirely trusting of her childhood nurse to care for her every need. She obeys her parents, and comes when she is called. By the end of the play, however, she has lost her that childhood dependency as she casts of the advice of nurse and parents--who admonish her to marry Paris--and fakes her own death to escape their grasp.
Romeo innocently believes in love and reconciliation so much that he lays down his sword rather than fight his new kinsman, Tybalt, who is anxious for his life, only to see Mercutio slain in his defense. He then rushes to kill that same kinsman, an act which he later asserts has "stain'd the childhood of our joy."At the end of the play he does not think twice before slaying Paris merely to get to Juliet's tomb, all quips about killing now laid aside as he's willing to assume the worst and take action.
Yes, the play is a tragedy, and the heroes lose their innocence and their lives. But Shakespeare did not merely write about two youths dying in vain. Romeo and Juliet show that even in those we hate most there is something we might love. There is some middle ground, and opportunity in each other we might take. The play's final image is not that of the prostrate lovers on the ground, but of the golden statues raised in their honor by the parents who finally found, sadly, that they were not so different after all.