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Romeo and Juliet’s Bad Romance

August 4, 2010

Romeo and Juliet's First Anniversary, by Madeline Carol Matz

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From “The Difference Between Infatuation and Love”, The Good News magazine, July-August 2010:

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has often been hailed as the greatest love story ever told. Two young lovers, in their desire to be with one another against the wishes of their feuding families, ultimately take their own lives, each unwilling to endure the cold, hopeless wasteland of a life without the other.

And it’s all very touching and sentimental until you take a second look and realize that the whole story unfolds over the span of a whopping four days. Did the two teenaged “star-cross’d lovers” really have a chance to get to know each other? They marry the day after they meet, and two days later they are willing to kill themselves over the loss of a person who, to their knowledge, didn’t exist just five days before.

It’s hard to disagree that Shakespeare’s lines about love are beautiful: “With love’s light wings did I o’er-perch these walls; for stony limits cannot hold love out,” for example. But it’s even harder to argue that his leading characters ever understood what these statements really meant.

We should consider that the approach Romeo and Juliet took toward “love” in Shakespeare’s play bears a striking resemblance to the approach many take today, if slightly exaggerated.

The magazine of the United Church of God is not the first place I would have expected to have my reading of Shakespeare revealed as naive. Like many of my generation my impressions of Romeo and Juliet are pretty strongly dominated by the Baz Luhrmann film version which came out when I was 11. At least according to my memories now, the gist of the tragedy is that while the young lovers are thrown into tragedy by some impulsive, reckless, and selfish acts, the fact of their True Love and the failure of the feuding parents to accept it makes the standard Shakespearean death penalty for their tragic flaw seem excessive, so we actually feel that R&J met a tragic fate they didn’t fully deserve, as opposed to say, Macbeth, who pretty much got what was coming.

But the above passage suggests a few new opportunities for more obscure interpretations, in the vein of Borges’s Three Versions of Judas or Kafka’s meta-discussions of his own parables. In particular the masterful upside-down argument that Kafka presents in the discussion of “Before the Law” that appears in “The Trial”, where the gatekeeper becomes the real victim of the parable came to mind.

If R&J’s love wasn’t true, then what does the story mean? A cautionary tale against young impulsive love where adolescents are tempted by lust away from the more experienced and wise advice of their parents and the church/friar and are damned for their sins? All the effusive lovey-dovey talk was just a trap, as the young lovers talked themselves into a false love which consumed their unreflective minds, or to quote Flaubert:

For this was how they would have liked it all to be: they were both constructing an ideal of themselves and adapting their past lives to it. Speech acts invariably as an enlarger of sentiments.

In this reading it is the parents that are the real sympathetic victims. Despite all their careful planning for their children’s happiness they can’t do anything about the fate brought on by R&J’s lust. All their attempts at discipline and advice fail, and you can hardly say they didn’t try hard enough. The young couple’s selfish suicides are the ultimate sin: even after seeing the consequences of their infatuation they decide that inflicting death upon themselves and grief upon their families is preferable to admitting that their few days of love were false. The stubborn and contrary teenage paradigm takes its most extreme form, suicide out of spite at being proven wrong by the well-meaning parents.

Shakespeare’s own literary and poetic talents allow him to make the love seem totally convincing. If R&J used realistic 14-year-old amateur love poetry the adult audience of the play would figure out the falsity of the love too easily. It was necessary for him to elevate the language to a level where it could deceive even the wise ones who think they can avoid the traps of infatuation. Everyone is caught up in the story and is made to realize that the illusion of love can ruin people of all ages, not just hormonal youths. At the same time, the ultimate falsity of the lover’s magnificent dialogue proves that even love letters as good as Shakespeare’s are both insufficient and unnecessary for true love. R&J is a warning against abandoning self-critical examination of our true feelings in favour of sweeter and simpler poetic sentiments.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. mcmatz permalink
    September 5, 2010 7:06 pm

    Hi Giles! I appreciate that you appreciated my artwork enough to use it and credit me for it!
    In the future though, please contact me (or any other artist whose work you want to use) to ask permission for using it. It is a copyrighted image as the watermark indicates and all images are automatically copyrighted unless expressly indicated that they aren’t or if they are under a creative commons license. Any use, whether profit or non-profit, personal or commercial must be must be licensed by the creator.
    I have to notify you to protect the future standing of my copyrights.
    If will allow the use of the image if you would, please, add a link to my website, under the image.

  2. September 5, 2010 8:45 pm

    Done! Sorry, I just used my usual procedure of google searching and grabbing something that looked cool…

    • mcmatz permalink
      September 5, 2010 9:05 pm

      Thanks for adding the link!
      And check out for image searches and look for the ones with creative commons licenses. A lot of artists and photographers post there and allow use of their work. That way you can avoid any hot water!

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