On an earlier post commemorating the birthday (really the day of his baptism) of Shakespeare, I commented that “I hate Romeo and Juliet just as much as the next person.” A commenter asked me, “How you can you hate Romeo and Juliet?” I promised to answer this question at a later date. Well, I saw Romeo and Juliet at the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival on Friday night. It seems as good a time as any. (BTW, I will review The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival’s production of Romeo and Juliet in a later post.)
First of all, the play is overrated. Don’t misunderstand, average Shakespeare is still better than nearly every other writer on the earth. However, Romeo and Juliet is still early Shakespeare. The quality of the poetry is simply inferior to his later plays. This would not be enough to make me hate the play, I simply will never prefer Romeo and Juliet to The Winter’s Tale, Hamlet, or his superlative comedies and tragedies.
I also can’t stand the character of Romeo. He is an overly emotional whiner. (Perhaps he reminds me too much of myself.) His character contrasts, to some extent, with Juliet. As my 9th grade English teacher pointed out, Juliet proposes to Romeo. (Juliet also, in a sense, initiates their sexual relationship, though in reality, it’s the nurse. Eww.) At 15, I loved this, in a way. Juliet is a rebel. She rebels against not only her parents, but against society’s expectations for her. The essay at the beginning of Folger’s Romeo and Juliet points this out. Lord Capulet encourages young Paris to compare Juliet’s beauty to the other ladies at their family solemnity, but Lady Capulet does not offer the same encouragement to Juliet.
None of this, however, would make me hate the play.
I think part of the reason I said “I hate Romeo and Juliet as much as the next person” was because of its perceived status. In the film Shakespeare in Love, Queen Elizabeth I judges R&J to demonstrate “the very truth and nature of love.” Really? My 9th grade class didn’t think so. When we examined the play in depth with actors from Great Lakes Theater Festival, they asked us whether or not Romeo and Juliet’s relationship (at their first meeting) was “lust, love at first sight, or true love.” The vast majority voted for lust. We were not alone. Confused Matthews, who reviews film, remembers a high school paper he wrote, in which he calls Romeo “the greatest stooge of all time,” and pointed out that the two of them probably would have divorced, had they not died.
Confused Matthew’s teacher stood up for the two lovers, and in retrospect, I think that my class was rather harsh on them as well. Despite that, I still think that it is worth considering how we responded to the story, ESPECIALLY considering that, for most American students, Romeo and Juliet is the first time they will encounter Shakespeare. I was fortunate. My second grade teacher passed out (edited!) copies of “Double Double” from Macbeth. My seventh grade teacher also included Much Ado About Nothing in our syllabus, and our eighth grade teacher included A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most American students are not so fortunate. Most American students probably read Romeo and Juliet as their very first Shakespeare play. For girls, this may not be so terrible. I respected Juliet’s willingness to buck the system, to rebel against her society and assert her own free will and autonomy, even though Shakespeare deals harshly with her. (She pays with her life. Shakespeare is far kinder to Rosalind in As You Like It.)
But what do teenage boys make of Romeo? I thought Romeo was whiny and effeminate, sentiments shared by Friar Lawrence.
Art thou a man? Thy form cries out thou art.
Thy tears are womanish. Thy wild acts denote
The unreasonable fury of a beast.
Unseemly woman in a seeming man,
And ill-beseeming beast in seeming both!
I shared his evaluation. If this is how girls view Romeo, how must teenage boys view him?
Many people have pointed out that American conception of masculinity is incredibly unhealthy. Someone once said, “We don’t raise our boys to be men. We raise them not to be women and not to be gay.” Indeed, I heard a gay non-American man paraphrase Voltaire. “If gay men did not exist, it would be necessary for straight men in America to invent them.” American conception of masculinity is very reactionary and often confuses bluster and posturing for strength and courage. It would be great if we could reform this into something far healthier and more well rounded. Unfortunately, this laudable goal is beyond the scope of a ninth grade English class. I also think that inspiring young people to love Shakespeare, or at a bare minimum to not reject him out of hand, is an equally laudable goal, and fully in keeping with a ninth grade English class. (In other words, students should read Macbeth first.)
I suppose it’s also frustrating because I’ve often been disappointed in its interpretations. I have written before that Shakespeare is superior to all of its possible interpretations. At the same time, I rarely see a production of Romeo and Juliet where I believe that the two lovers are really in love. It rarely seems as though the lead actors are experiencing the giddy, overwhelming experience that is young love. The play is often missing that visceral energy.
Queen Elizabeth definitely overstates when she argues that Romeo and Juliet exemplifies “the very truth and nature of love.” Of course, this is impossible for any work because there are a myriad of types of love. R&J is about a very specific type of love, the youthful, impetuous, infatuated, first love. I do not ask that a production of R&J be as good as the script, that is not possible, but it should contain some of the euphoric energy and giddiness of that experience. The audience does not need an intellectual understanding of all aspects of the play but the visceral experience of young love. That’s what I want from a Romeo and Juliet production. Sadly, I have yet to obtain it.