Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – popularly considered by many to be the quintessential love story of all time – is a play that we are all familiar with in one way or another. Whether it be through the plethora of portrayals, adaptations and performances that exist or through your own reading of the play, chances are you have been acquainted with this tale of “tragic love” at some point in your life. Through this universal familiarity an odd occurrence can be noted, one of almost canonical reverence for the themes commonly believed to be central to the plot. The most widely believed theme of Romeo and Juliet is that of the ideal love unable to exist under the harsh social and political strains of this world. Out of this idea emerge two characters who, throughout history, have been heralded as the world’s greatest lovers and who have been set up as yardsticks against which future lovers must be measured. The tragic courtship between Romeo and Juliet has become so idealized and revered that even the Oxford English Dictionary lists this definition under the word ‘Romeo’:
A lover, a passionate admirer; a seducer, a habitual pursuer of women. Also attrib.
With so much cultural evidence and corroboration to support the idea of their perfect love, it is hard to imagine such a thing to be in question. However, it is my contention (much to the gasping dismay of 16-year-old Leonardo Dicaprio fans everywhere) that it is possible these two might not have been as deeply in love as history and popular criticism would have us believe. It is possible that Romeo was a product of his own popular culture, that he was not so much pricked by Cupid’s arrow as he was obsessed with his own concept of what Cupid’s arrow should feel like. While Juliet, throughout the play, tends to display a more mature concept of love than Romeo, it is Romeo who reaps the praise as being the pinnacle admirer. However, he is the one who seems to have the faulty reasoning and who relies on fancy words to convey his otherwise weak emotions. It is the attention he receives that causes me to scrutinize him with a keener eye; after all, we must hold those we revere most highly accountable for their actions . . .
From the moment we first hear about Romeo, it is in the context of his suffering at the hands of love. Romeo’s father, Montague, perplexed by his son’s behavior states that, “Many a morning hath he there been seen, / With tears augmenting the fresh morning’s dew, / Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs” (1.1.124-26). While this may be the first time we encounter Romeo’s melancholy humour, it certainly isn’t the last. In fact, one of the primary sources of our infatuation with Romeo rests in our sympathy for him. From the very start this poor boy is plagued by affections for girls that fate, it seems, will not let him be with. At first, it’s Rosaline, a girl who has “sworn that she will still live chaste” (1.1.210), a vow that sets Romeo...