By Mark York
With that scandalous title out of the way, I assume, dear reader, that you are not unacquainted with Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
Quite honestly, it’s difficult to avoid — there’s the original play, the stage musical, an adaptation with feuding caterers, the anime in which Romeo and Juliet work to take down a tyrannical government, a retelling with gnomes… basically, “Romeo and Juliet” is everywhere. This story is as interwoven in our cultural grasp of romance as “Sherlock Holmes” is with our understanding of mystery, or the “Ice Age” series is with our understanding of in-flight entertainment. Yet, labeling “Romeo and Juliet” as a “love story” always felt odd.
To some, this statement may sound drab and obvious… next, they just might say, I will write about how Gatsby was not so great, or how “Animal Farm” was never REALLY about animals. To others, this may be a strange point to make — does it not check all the boxes? Love at first sight, steamy confessions, covert weddings… it’s practically a fairy tale. Taylor Swift would certainly disagree with me, as she wrote a song about Romeo and Juliet literally titled “Love Story.”
Romance is indeed present — yet, it’s the way in which romance is implemented in the play that’s often overlooked. In particular, the romantic and tragic aspects initially work in this play as distinct separate parts. The love story, in other words, is not the main point of focus… it’s the bait.
For the sake of anecdotes, let’s go back to the mediocre, sweaty days of eighth grade, in which I — a true intellectual — finally stopped playing hacky sack with my assigned reading to experience “Romeo and Juliet” for the first time. From the get-go, I was ready to hate the play. Not only were the words (er, how would you say this…) “unique” compared to what I was used to, but I had this pre-imposed assumption that I was about to experience yet another shallow, cliched love story.
“Give me something deep!” I would say, hair greased, zits popped. “Something with sustenance!” And initially I was proven right. I expected “Romeo and Juliet” to be a love story, and middle-school me did not think it was a very good one.
However, with time, I was exposed to more Shakespeare, and I got a better hang of his style, his narratives and his importance; eventually, I even grew to LIKE his plays. And last year, when I saw a very solid production right here on campus, “Romeo and Juliet” became one of my favorites. So, what happened? Was middle-school me really just that wrong about storytelling?
Yes. Yes he was. Though, aside from that, my opinions haven’t changed all so drastically — “Romeo and Juliet” is not a good love story. I still believe that.
Of course, criticisms of this play’s romantic structure are certainly not new. Any young, scrappy writer looking for their wings tends to take a potshot at this easy target. However, some of these criticisms are still worth echoing. The two fall in love at a single glance, they hardly understand anything about their likes and dislikes… these kids barely even manage to hold a conversation before deciding they need to get married. If you ask me, Mercutio and Benvolio have more chemistry — they talk more at least. If you look at it like a fable, sure, it’s perfectly fine, but there’s not much meat to these bones. And if there’s one thing Shakespeare was NOT known for, it’s his simplicity.
This is the man who gave us the multi-layered tragedy “Hamlet,” the fascinating character study that is “Macbeth,” the stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear” (this phrase is not very relevant to the topic at hand, I admit, but is worth bringing up in any civilized conversation). Shakespeare hardly takes the linear approach. Thus, the overt simplicity in “R&J” must have some other purpose. There must be something here that makes this play worth the three and a half hours.
At this moment, I would like to draw attention to the “tragedy” part of this romantic tragedy. Shakespeare approaches these darker elements in a different way than he does in “Hamlet” or “Othello.” Instead of a gradual, seamless ease or the immediate establishment of a darker tone, the audience is slapped square in the gut and left to reel in the whiplash of a sudden tone shift.
What makes “Romeo and Juliet” especially interesting, I say, is contrast.
The bulk of the romance we have discussed earlier is present in Act One; a comparatively lighter, more comedic part compared to the more famous, grittier aspects in Act Two. Whenever the characters aren’t spewing sex jokes (though believe me, there are a lot), the audience is exposed to exaggerated personalities, wordplay and often a bit of slapstick here and there. This is a side of “Romeo and Juliet” that the mainstream world seems to have forgotten. The stakes start off relatively low, and the tone is relatively jovial. This is practically the equivalent of a 16th century rom-com.
Imagine an Elizabethan “Love Actually” that suddenly turns into an old-timey “Marley and Me” in the blink of an eye (or, perhaps a thrust of the sword is more accurate). It almost feels like a completely different play; the darkness was, of course, always there, but now the audience has to confront it.
What I’m trying to get at is that the fairy tale-esque, simplistic romance is a front — a staging device to illuminate tragic truths of its very opposite. The simple love story, the confessions and the sugary sweet laments serves to lull you into a false sense of security. The tragedy was, I believe, a twist in itself!
It’s a twist, like Star Wars’ “I am your father” and Harry Potter’s “Yer a wizard Harry,” which has been spoiled with time. We all know how “Romeo and Juliet” ends; so much that the ending comes immediately to mind whenever we hear it mentioned. Yet, so does the more mindless, and intentionally misleading romance of Act One. Two completely different, and distinct, aspects meld together as one and mould our modern day mainstream perception of the play.
With this modern context, “Romeo and Juliet” becomes a rom-com with a mournful coat, a tragedy built onto the bones of a fairy-tale: one whole as opposed to two contrasting elements as it originally was.
Of course, such changes in perception are inevitable. Stories are bound to change over time — this is part of what makes storytelling so interesting to begin with. Yet, it is worth noting that the “Romeo and Juliet” of Hollywood and the “Romeo and Juliet” of old are two distinct stories. And perhaps if we strip our minds of such previous assumptions of what this play is or what it should be, we may find new, fascinating elements about a tale told perhaps a few too many times.
Still, it could’ve been improved with a bear or two — just a thought.
Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu.