Oh man. Okay. You didn’t ask for a rant, but it is ABSOLUTELY RANTING TIME because I’ve been travelling for four fucking days, I’m already angry, and I have a lot of feelings about this issue. To be clear I’m not ranting at you, I’m just ranting. In general. At everyone.
First and foremost: Romeo and Juliet is a really fucking complex play, and trying to say it’s strictly one thing or the other is like saying the Civil War was strictly about slavery. (If you disagree take a fucking history class–like, yes, dude, slavery was a HUGE part of the conflict, but was it the sole cause? No. Politics and economics, motherfuckers.) It’s simplistic and reductionist. This is the biggest problem with R & J analysis–people spend a metric ass-ton of time arguing that it’s one thing or the other without admitting the possibility that it could be both.
Emma Smith, who’s a lectuerer at Oxford, does this amazing series of podcasts called Approaching Shakespeare (which you should absolutely download and listen to if you haven’t already, they’re free) and in her R & J lecture she talks a lot about how it actually plays like a comedy until the crucial turning point of Mercutio’s death in Act III. That’s when everything goes off the rails: Romeo kills Tybalt, he’s banished, Juliet is betrothed to Paris, and it sets off a chain-reaction of catastrophes. Before that, the play looks like a classic romantic farce, complete with forbidden love and oblivious parents and every trope of the genre dating all the way back to commedia dell’arte. So is it partly a comedy? Absolutely. But that’s what makes it so fucking tragic. Would we care half so much what happens to Mercutio or even Romeo if we hadn’t seen them so delightedly playing with each other three or four scenes before the fatal duel? Would Juliet’s death be half so devastating if we didn’t see her as an eager, excited girl, nervous to meet her lover for the first time? Hell no. Mercutio dies and Romeo dies and Juliet dies and it’s all absolutely gut-wrenching because they were alive and well and laughing only half an hour ago.
This sort of brings me to my second argument, which is with the heartless shitheads who think Romeo and Juliet are just a couple of stupid horny teenagers. (I talked about this briefly in this post here but I want to expand on it.) Romeo and Juliet are not just a couple of stupid horny teenagers. They are a couple of stupid horny teenagers, but they are also in love. For fuck’s sake, do you not remember what it was like to be fifteen? Yes, your hormones were all over the fucking place but so were your emotions. Are they really impatient to get in each other’s pants? Duh. Look at Juliet’s monologue when she’s gearing up for the wedding night:
Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus’ lodging: such a wagoner 1720
As Phaethon would whip you to the west,
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaway’s eyes may wink and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalk’d of and unseen.
THIRSTY. AS. FUCK.
But why for the love of Eros should that mean they’re not also head over fucking heels for each other? Isn’t that the dream??? To be married to someone you not only want to bang into oblivion but also someone you love so much that you’d literally die without them? Listen the fuck up R & J haters, because love and lust are not mutually exclusive, and if you think they are, I pity you, because you must have one hell of an empty love life one way or the other. (Unless you’re ace or aro or something in which case you’re probably doing just fine all by your bad self, rock on.) If you want proof that they’re in love, just keep reading. Look at the end of this same goddamn monologue:
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when he 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
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
Bro, nobody says that shit about someone they just want to play tonsil hockey with. Every instance of their language towards each other illustrates a consuming, intense (if naive) kind of love. Look at the balcony scene, when Juliet tells Romeo that if he were her pet bird, she would be afraid of killing him by pressing him too tightly in her hand. What does he say in reply?
I would I were thy bird. That’s all he wants. When they meet, their first lines to each other form a perfect sonnet. The sonnet was the most romantic poetic form of the time and I fucking refuse to believe that Shakespeare would have wasted one on ‘just a couple of horny teenagers.’
More to the point, if Romeo and Juliet aren’t in love, the play simply doesn’t work. If Juliet was just a pretty face and a quick fuck, why is banishment worse than death to Romeo? Why does he try so hard not to fight with Tybalt? He goes fucking mental when he learns that Juliet is ‘dead.’ HE BUYS FUCKING POISON, JOY-RIDES BACK TO VERONA, THREATENS TO LITERALLY RIP HIS SERVANT TO PIECES IF HE TRIES TO STOP HIM GOING IN THE CRYPT, MURDERS PARIS, DRAGS HIS BODY INTO THE TOMB, CRIES OVER JULIET’S BODY AND THEN FUCKING OFFS HIMSELF TO BE WITH HER AGAIN. YOU DON’T DO THAT SHIT FOR SOME PIECE OF ASS YOU MET ON TINDER. It’s love. It’s young love and it’s messy and impulsive and irrational, but it is love. Shakespeare isn’t George R. R. Martin, this isn’t Game of Fucking Thrones. Death and sex are not schlock gimmicks to get good ratings.
But let me be clear: Just like Romeo and Juliet are not just horny teenagers, their story is not just a love story. It’s a didactic tale about the perils of holding a grudge. The ongoing feud between the Capulets and the Montagues has a body count before the play even begins, as we’re told by Prince Escalus, and it takes literally the gruesome deaths of these noble families’ two youngest children–not to mention Tybalt, Paris, and Mercutio–to bring them to their fucking senses and put the bad blood behind them. It’s a love story but it’s much more than that. It’s a cautionary tale against grudges, against revenge, against civil war, and so many things that are so much bigger than the two title characters.
Like anything else in Shakespeare, you can read it a million different ways. But I think if you reduce it to a cynical satire about the idiocy of youth, you are doing Shakespeare a great disservice by
willfully misinterpreting some pretty significant chunks of the text (because he couldn’t possibly be serious about these two young lovers), and you are doing yourself a great disservice by completely missing the passion of the play–and a much bigger picture.