Why are we so addicted to the Romeo-Juliet myth? The tale of tragic love speaks to us across centuries, emerging persistently in film, adapted on stage, imitated in literature, mutating beyond the delicate verse in Shakespeare’s original play. Why is it such a powerful love story? It has permeated deep into Western consciousness, creeping into our vocabulary – what a Romeo! – into our entire perception of young, hopeless love.
The success of Baz Luhrmann’s film – and its soundtrack – has propagated Shakespearian verse, meshed with 90’s pop and the effortless, rich soul of Quindon Tarver.
Luhrmann’s reinterpretation of the play as commentary on American gang warfare- set in contemporary Verona Beach, a fictionalized suburb of Los Angeles- has both popularized the play, yet simultaneously choked any of the original language which didn’t make the final cut.
How many of us have actually read the original text – or can think of the play without Luhrmann’s vision saturating our thoughts? I almost didn’t pick it up. I pictured Leonardo de Caprio kissing Claire Danes in a swimming pool, merged with a vague memory of an English lesson aged 14, our teacher’s desperate attempt to engage a class of spotty, uninspired teenagers.
“Of course their love is true; it’s a type of love that you don’t get in adults, a love with all abandon, without caution, without boundaries.”
When I began the prologue, I found I knew it already ‘… two households, alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene…’ I almost stopped there. ‘Don’t bother,’ Tom joked, ‘I’ll tell you what happens in the end.’ Who couldn’t? A grief stricken Romeo drinks poison beside the body of his beloved Juliet – thinking her dead – unaware she has merely swallowed a potion provided by Friar Lawrence to conceal her life beneath seeming-death – escaping the wrath of her father, a forced engagement to Paris – and so Juliet wakes to find her husband just-dead – stabs herself – moments before watchmen uncover the bitter scene – Familiar?
If you do anything this week, I seriously recommend you read this play. It’s incredibly powerful. I don’t say this lightly. Obviously, the ending won’t come as a surprise, especially if you’ve just read the above – but there are surprises, narrative facts you may not be aware of: Romeo kills Paris as he enters the Capulet crypt; Rosaline, like Juliet, is a Capulet; Juliet is 13 years old.
While Luhrmann kept much of Shakespeare’s original verse, still segments of the play were omitted. Inevitably they lie forgotten. It’s accessible, ironically, because we know the plot; we can focus, rather on the beauty of the language, as the furze of printed black marks break into the confusion of a girl, sweetly high in a mad rush of early love.
Why is this tragedy so compelling? So haunting? From a formal perspective, it is often observed to be an imbalanced play – with far more Capulet than Montague scenes – departing from the classic pattern of a tragic drama.
Romeo is a difficult character, especially in his love for Rosaline, which so quickly melts into a love for Juliet. He is inconstant, he is whiny, he is clichéd. They are so young – the play moves so fast, set over three days, the couple alone in only two scenes – and we can’t help but ask, can they really fall in love so deeply? Is there enough time? And ultimately, is it true?
And the answer is – yes. Of course it’s true; its truth speaks to us, across barriers of language, time, custom. It isn’t the fact they both commit suicide in fits of passion. Their death is inescapable, told in the prologue, written in the stars – a fact of the play. Rather the play’s power resides in a love that survives against every odd, blossoming despite a social misunderstanding of their love, misinterpreted by family, by friends, by the law.
“The story has permeated deep into Western consciousness, creeping into our vocabulary, into our entire perception of young, hopeless love.”
Juliet stands at the centre of the play. Though she barely leaves her bedroom, it is her courage which is the very buttress of the play, a courage she discovers in herself as she discovers love. It is this constancy which teaches Romeo how to love. Like Romeo, we fall in love with Juliet. For Shakespeare’s contemporary audience, this wouldn’t be visually – Juliet was played by a man, or young boy – but through her words, her constancy, her bravery and independence. Her helpless, hopeless love for Romeo. A Romeo who is flawed, feisty, fatally spontaneous, rushing to his death, immature, brimming with emotion, lonely, loving. As Juliet teaches Romeo how to love she changes his crummy poetry into very beautiful words, which are beautiful because he has thought about what he is saying, rather than reciting typical oaths and odes.
It’s the type of love that you don’t get in adults, a love with all abandon, without caution, without boundaries. According to the society they live in, which pivots on a long, bloody feud between two old men, who hardly remember why it began, Romeo and Juliet should hate each other on sight – like Tybalt to Romeo. But they don’t; rather, they love on first sight, Romeo who knows she is a Capulet, but only aware she is the sun, a torch, the light. Juliet knows too late that her love is forbidden – yet she does not falter.
It’s so heartbreaking. Romeo’s sweet and sincere whisperings to a dead wife, as he lies deep in a crypt of rotting Capulet’s, the warm body of a just-murdered Paris somewhere beside them. “O my love! my wife! … I will stay with thee, and never from this palace of dim night depart again.”
Read it. It’s addictive. The poetry plucks at some deep cord. It feels ancient – like reading Aeschylus’ early Greek Tragedy, awkward translations of Agamemnon which capture a startling beauty in the bitterness of hate in love, of love in hate, men reduced to urns and ashes, a royal household to a savage battlefield. It touches some primitive emotion, some base circumstance – what happens when two young people fall hopelessly in love, against the will of their families and society? And Shakespeare shows their heavy love will not be staunched.