Romeo and Juliet—the greatest love story of all time. What an odd thing to say about a play with one off-stage sex scene and seven on-stage deaths. Why would a book with such renown be removed from any list of great books? Some people may look at the story and say it holds immature values. After all, from a very straightforward angle, the story is about two teenagers killing themselves because they cannot have what they want. There is much more to the story, however, and by analyzing its origin, setting, structure, writing, ***, one can discover the true depth of the play.
Let’s quickly review the plot—Romeo goes to a party to get over a girl, Rosalind, with whom he is completely obsessed. ...view middle of the document...
This story itself borrowed from many tragical romances dating back to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Brook refers to his story as about “A couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and vice of parents and friends… attempting all adventures of peril for th’ attaining of their wished lust… abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage.”
Brook’s poem appears to be a fairly standard poem about unruly teenagers receiving the typical punishment for their unruliness, death. Shakespeare, however, offers a much more compassionate view of the lovers, as his play encourages us to empathize with them. While the two certainly do lust for each other, they are polite about it, as their most amorous (on-stage) scene has them physically distanced by a balcony. Shakespeare even uses the type of sacred metaphors recommended by etiquette experts of the day pertaining to courtship. Also, Shakespeare’s Juliet is only thirteen, while in other versions of the story, she is sixteen or older. Making her character younger makes it harder to see Juliet as a dishonest harlot.
Shakespeare may have also been influenced by the love poems of Petrarch, who is much more approving of intense adoration. However, the play cannot be seen as an endorsement of “following your heart”, as doing so gets the main characters dead.
Now, take a look at the setting. Shakespeare set the play in Verona, Italy, because the other stories had. But, more than that, when writing a play concerning certain morality and values (like individuals’ responsibilities to their own interests versus their responsibilities to their families, and the larger social order, for instance) it’s much safer to set it in faraway Italy. While Romeo and Juliet is a love story, it’s also a political story. The Montagues and Capulets often ignore the proclamations of the prince of Verona, and arguably the biggest hurdle to the main characters’ love is when the prince exiles Romeo. Should one be loyal first to his/her own feelings? Or to family? Or faith? Or prince? These are not just the questions of an obsessed teenager, these are central questions of Elizabethan England. However, the romance itself is very hot-blooded, Mediterranean, and Catholic. The stereotype of Italians being passionate goes back very far, and Shakespeare takes advantage of it.
Let’s turn briefly to the structure. The play is, of course, a tragedy, and Shakespeare’s tragedies follow the same structure of tragedies first described by Aristotle. The tragedy occurs when a mostly good character or characters of nobility (Romeo and Juliet) make an error (getting married too quickly, ignoring the feud) and are brought low (double suicide).
While this narrative of tragedy, of noble people suffering when they act badly, is not reflected often in the real world, it remains a really powerful idea, both in our fiction, and in the way we imagine our world around us. What makes the Shakespearean tragedy so interesting...