We’re going to start with some of the most popular plays, the ones we all had to read in high school. Not coincidentally, these are often the plays that we least enjoy. As one of my students once said in class, “High school is where Shakespeare goes to die.” I’ll confess here that I resisted re-reading Romeo and Juliet for decades, until at last, a couple of years ago, I simply couldn’t avoid the play any longer.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m just about old enough to remember when Franco Zeffirelli’s film version came out, and growing up, I thought it was wonderful. But by the time I got past high school, I saw the play as contrived and hackneyed, and as a result, was never willing to submit to its saccharine sentimentality as an adult reader. And yet, when I finally did re-read it, I discovered that it wasn’t the play I thought it was, and it certainly wasn’t the play I was taught it was.
The key to Romeo and Juliet is reading it literally. By this, I mean we need to read it as it was written and refrain from adding modern notions of love and romance into it. (After all, the idea of love changes throughout time; C.S. Lewis–yes, that C.S. Lewis–demonstrated this in his landmark work The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition .) We need to see that this is not a play that focuses solely on a pair of young, star-crossed lovers: it’s a play that focuses on the very real, indeed the fatal, dangers brought about by political and familial disobedience. In fact, in my view, the play strongly advocates obedience by providing for its audience the bad examples of Romeo, Juliet, and Friar Laurence, all of whom shirk their duty and disobey their superiors. Romeo and Juliet pay with their lives for such disobedience. Friar Laurence, a slippery churchman who bends the rules by aiding and abetting a forbidden relationship, even to the extent of making someone who is alive seem dead, seems to escape with his head, if not his career, intact.
I’m not saying that we need to forget the romantic side of the story: certainly Juliet and Romeo’s doomed love story is memorable. There’s a side of the play that is mesmerizing in its disastrous chain of events. Things just keep getting worse and worse for the pair. Even though Friar Laurence warns Romeo against falling in love too quickly, he would rather marry the couple than risk them committing a sin by having sex out of marriage (Act II, scene 6, lines 36-7). Then, when Romeo gets banished for killing Tybalt, Laurence tries to cheer him up by saying a temporary separation from Juliet is no cause for suicidal despair. When faced with the necessity of marrying Paris, Juliet plays right into patriarchal values. No one seems to take the Nurse’s suggestion, which is to go ahead and marry the count since Romeo is no longer around, seriously. I can imagine an alternate play-reality, in which Juliet listens to her old advisor, thinks about it, and says, “You’re right! Let’s give bigamy a try. After all, who’s going to rat on me? Everyone who could do so has been involved in a crime of some sort. I’ve got a free pass here and I think I’ll use it.” That’s a play I’d love to see.
Alas, Romeo and Juliet is a product of patriarchy, so Juliet has to guard her libido. She must be married off to Romeo before any serious sexual activity takes place, and she must police her own sexual activity afterwards so as to preserve her purity for Romeo: her main goal, she says, is “To live an unstain’d wife to my sweet love” (IV.i.88). Then the series of mix-ups occur, and before you know it, there are three more dead bodies in Verona. Whose fault are these deaths? It’s pretty clear that they are the result of Friar Laurence’s meddling; his fearfulness of being caught certainly suggests that he knows this, too, and he runs away at a crucial moment, after his wits and language both fail him as he urges Juliet to run away, saying, “Come, go, good Juliet” (V.iii.159). A few moments later, the Friar is brought back onstage in the custody of a Watchman, in good time to explain the situation to the Prince in a long monologue, even though he begins by saying, “I will be brief.” He recounts the entire plot of the play, just in case the audience missed any of it, and ends by saying “if aught in this/ Miscarried by my fault, let my old life / Be sacrific’d,” to which the Prince responds, “We still have known thee for a holy man” (V.iii.266-269). The fact that he’s known to be a holy man seems to erase his guilt, apparently, and he is not punished for his meddling–that we know of.
So what do we learn from this play? Just this: Disobedience comes with a high price. Romeo and Juliet make a hash of things, mainly because they listen to Friar Laurence, whose clever plots implode in disaster. Of course, there are several messages in the play: for example, Young Love is Intoxicating; Civil Disagreements Are Bad and Weaken Society; Princes Want the Best for their Subjects; Holy Friars Are Full of Tricks; and Nurses Can Be Really Funny–but I’d say it’s the most important one, the message that Disobedience Is Ultimately Bad, that we tend to forget in our modern reading of Romeo and Juliet. This is why I say that the idea of disobedience is one way to enter the play and understand it, because you can find it on so many different levels. By the end of the play, Verona is socially decimated, and the destruction seems to be the result of the characters’ unwillingness or inability to play by the rules.
Modern readers should remember that Elizabethan England was not a place that celebrated forbidden love, nor was it a free society. It was a dictatorship. Sure, Queen Elizabeth I was an enlightened and popular monarch, a friend of poets and playwrights. But she was also a powerful, authoritarian, and even ruthless ruler. I see Romeo and Juliet as a play which shows that rules are made for a reason, and that when people–particularly young people–break them, bad things happen. In short, readers of this play were not meant to click their tongues and murmur “what a shame about these star-crossed lovers”–even if that’s precisely what we’ve been doing for the last three hundred years or so, ever since the Romantic Age changed the way we view literature and love. Perhaps it’s worthwhile to look at the play again, which deals more with conflict than love, and more with disobedience than either conflict or love.
And just to leave my readers with a little something extra, check out this trailer for the 1936 film version of the play, starring Leslie Howard (who was later to play Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind and would die seven years later when his plane was shot down during WWII) as Romeo and and Norma Shearer as Juliet. There’s some nice art-deco type graphics, too. Look for Clark Gable (who was not in the film) giving it a plug one minute into the clip.