For those who’d like to read the play before proceeding with this article, you can, for free, here.
Romeo & Juliet is one of my favourite plays, and it deserves defending. Why? Because it’s genius, multilayered and insightful. Yet it’s also painfully human, fusing romantic notions with the hardship of conflict. Shakespeare is a genius, and chances are, you’ve had to study his plays in high school. As much as I see the benefits of studying Shakespeare tragedies, I also believe they are worth revisiting as an adult.
Yet some readers struggle with Romeo and Juliet’s mad obsession with each other, finding it more akin to infatuation than straight out love. This rises other problems, that our protagonists are unsympathetic and bring on their own doom. Although I strongly disagree with the latter two statements, I understand the first.
Romeo & Juliet are teenagers, and can’t be the best judges of characters. Also, the impression that the eventual suicide is ridiculous is also understandable, as any reader will find a character killing themselves over a teenage crush that has only been nursed for a few days to be well, silly.
Yet these critiques have a few problems. To sum up the main problems people have with Shakespeare’s play, they are:
- Romeo and Juliet’s love in unbelievable: they have only met for a few days, and are madly in love
- They are teenagers, and therefore, prone to being whiny and not understanding of wider family expectations
- The two protagonists are unlikeable, and bring the tragedy onto themselves
In this blog article, I’ll argue that these reasons, while understandable and partially correct, do not diminish the power of William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.
Point One: Unbelievable Love?
The words ‘love at first sight’ are directly associated with Romeo & Juliet, and for good reason. Here is Romeo’s reaction after seeing Juliet for the first time:
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.
Now, we can compare Romeo’s reaction to Juliet hearing that Romeo is indeed, a Montague:
My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
Prodigious birth of love it is to me,
That I must love a loathed enemy.
Already, we can see that Romeo and Juliet see each other as loveable and beautiful. However, Shakespeare does not stop there. He makes it clear that Romeo is Juliet’s ‘only’ love whereas Juliet is the only ‘true beauty’ he has seen.
This is absolutely crucial. These notions of love and beauty are new to Romeo & Juliet. They had never experienced them before to such extremes. A reason why I object to the ‘infatuation’ argument is Juliet’s use of the word ‘hate.’ We know the Capulets hate the Montagues to the point they kill each other. There is no denying that these families hate each other. If Juliet can experience the irrationalities of hatred, then by that logic, she can feel love.
Of course, there are other reasons why I don’t buy the ‘infatuation’ argument. Sure, it can make you foolish and reckless. But Romeo & Juliet’s decisions are coded with such dramatic weight- marriage, suicide and murder. In dramatic terms, they need a strong emotion to match. Infatuation does not cut in, but love does.
As the play progresses, Romeo and Juliet are hasty in their decisions. While I’m arguing that it’s love, I don’t think its healthy. The tragic flaws in Romeo & Juliet are their idealism, romanticism and youth.
To conclude this point, I believe Romeo and Juliet loved each other. Believing that allows for a richer reading: you are not looking at Romeo & Juliet from positions of academic judgement, but seeing them in a more sympathetic and rewarding light.
Point Two: They Do Not Understand Family Expectations
This point is true. Romeo & Juliet, ultimately, do not follow their family expectations. Showing love, especially romantic love, to a family enemy, is not going to win the favour of your elders. Yet that is Shakespeare’s point.
Remember, the Capulets and Montagues loathe each other. Look at the prologue:
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
From this we can discern the following:
- The Montagues and Capulets are similar in many ways, but have an ‘ancient grudge.’
- That the only way to finish the feud is the death of their children.
If these two families hated each other to the point that only the tragic story of their children can remedy it, then that would infect the relationship the parents had with their children.
Imagine growing up and hating another family, and being stuck in a war. Your relationship with your parents will be tainted by that. And after all, Romeo & Juliet are teenagers. As I argued in my first point, the experience of true love was new to them. And I’m sure it was exciting, thrilling and powerful.
These emotions also represent a freedom from war, hatred and family expectations. For a brief moment, Romeo and Juliet could forget that they were trained to hate their enemies, engage in idealism, dream of a future free from war and family pressures. For any teenager, those passions aren’t just liberating. They are an active part of growing up.
So, while Romeo and Juliet do not understand family expectations, the same could be said for their parents and ancestors. Shakespeare finds fault in the parents as well. More than that- the heads of Capulet and Montague even say so in the final lines of the play.
Poor sacrifices of our enmity!
Shakespeare’s point is that the conflict between Capulet and Montague is pointless and destructive, and that it took the deaths of their beloved to see that. As the Prince says:
all are punish’d.
Just as Romeo & Juliet must suffer for their tragic flaws, so must the patriachs and elders. Shakespeare is really good at ensuring that every character meets their fate. However, Shakespeare writes with sympathy, and does not fall into basic moralising. By allowing the elders to grieve and remedy the situation, Shakespeare is showing humanity to characters who ought to be detestable.
That’s what I love about tragedy. It’s soaked in humanity and raw insights into the human condition.
As for the ‘whiny’ part of Romeo & Juliet, I think that’s a personal and subjective interpretation. I don’t find either Romeo & Juliet to be whiny, but doomed characters who, in a different life, may have experienced long-term happiness.
Point Three: They brought the tragedy on themselves and are unsympathetic
Many argue that Romeo & Juliet are responsible for their own downfall. Others assign blame to the Friar or the parents. Yet I side with the former over the latter. Whilst the parents and the Friar certainly played their roles in destruction and death, it’s the star-crossed lovers who bring on tragedy to themselves.
That doesn’t necessarily make them stupid, or deserving of their fate. Romeo & Juliet should not be viewed as Shakespeare wagging his finger at notions of romance, but trying to comprehend why love often turns to grief.
The decisions Romeo and Juliet make are motivated by the tragic flaw of love and youth. From engaging with each other to Juliet stabbing herself, it would be a mistake to pretend that Romeo and Juliet bear no agency in their fate.
Here’s the thing. That’s the point! In the tragedy genre, we follow characters who are raised up, and fall down through their own decisions and flaws. Historically, it’s what makes the genre so compelling and engaging.
In Aristotle’s landmark work of dramatic theory, Poetics, the ancient Greek philosopher argues that characters mistakes will lead to a tragedy. In Aristotle’s depiction of tragedy, actions have epic consequences. And we can see that with Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Every decision is laced with dramatic weight. That’s a positive, not a negative.
Of course, there is more to reading Romeo & Juliet and arguing that the blame lies solely with the teenage lovers. Truth is, other crucial characters play their parts in the tragedy. In the Prince’s closing lines, he says this about the living:
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished
Shakespeare is not letting any character off easily. The question of ‘who is the blame’ is rather murky and difficult to answer. It’s a fair question to ask. But what makes tragedy electrifying is not the idea of ‘blame’ but of ‘consequence.’ And like with any other Shakespeare tragedy, things aren’t as simple as they initally look.
Romeo & Juliet is a beautiful play. I commend William Shakespeare for ending a tragedy on an almost forgiving note. The elders learning the errors of their ways and striving for a better future gives the reader some peace, or as Aristotle would say, catharsis.
Although I understand why people dismiss Romeo & Juliet, it saddens me. Shakespeare explores rich themes, and has a mature understanding of consequence and action. Shakespeare does not write in a shallow way, and although it is easy to simplify his ideas and plot points, it does a disservice to label Romeo & Juliet as ‘silly’ when really, it’s groundbreaking.