Romeo and Juliet has suffered from a rather bad reputation of late, mainly due to its place in the English curriculum and the fact that as soon as you have to do it for an exam, you automatically start hating it (it’s a rare person who doesn’t). But I’m reviewing this fully aware that I love the play, that I hold more nostalgia and good will towards it that probably any other play on the planet. So instead of dissecting it or running down the odd point about it I find interesting, I’m going to talk about the things which I love about it, and why some of its criticisms can be overlooked.
Let us start with the obvious fact that Romeo and Juliet simply is not Shakespeare’s greatest play. Sorry, wistful young me, but it isn’t. The plot is rather simple, boy meets girl, respective families are enemies, girl cant be with boy, drastic measures are taken so they can be together. It goes wrong, they end up dead. Theirs is probably the most famous story of forbidden (and dramatic) love, and in today’s modern age a lot of fun is made over the short time span during which the romance takes, or the young love of the protagonists.
I’ll address these quickly now, because I fully do understand how the speed or age of the characters can be seen to undermine the strength of the tragedy. In the worst eyes you could just make out the play to be a bunch of teenagers thinking with their hormones and not their heads. For me their age and the time span only heightened the tragedy of it, because the truth is that even today young girls are forced to make decisions about marriage and their bodies that they shouldn’t have to. Even in Shakespeare’s time young boys were going off to war and killing enemies. It’s a very different world and one which I don’t think we today completely understand. Sure, it might all seem a little dramatic but the idea of living fast and dying young was basically the way it rolled. You’re faced with two young people in between being adults and children told they should be adults without being given a chance to take advantage of their youth. It’s a sad situation and all the more sad because it ends up with them both dead.
But that’s just my take on it. What initially drew me to the play (and what still does today) is the idea that love and attraction can still be these very pure, exciting, highly romantic things that don’t involve people talking about anacondas or booties or which side they land on the bass versus treble debate. Take this, for example:
If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.
Sure, Romeo’s speeches might seem a little overblown, a tad too melodramatic, but it’s also the expression of someone confessing passion unbridled, where street cred or swag doesn’t matter and he’s given into the idea of wonder and beauty entirely.
In today’s digital age, where everything can be looked up or reexperienced for the thousandth time, when I see phrases expressing emotional truth in the moment it makes me smile. Of course to a certain extent this is just silly Romeo, carried away in the thrill of secrecy and first bloom of infatuation – but why not? It’s a damn sight more moving than seeing two people play will-they-won’t-they via the time it takes between texts. This emotional heart wearing is not just seen in the lovers, but in all the youthful characters in the play – Mercutio, Benvolio, Tybalt. You could even argue that so does the Friar, and by connecting the youthful recklessness and hope (because let’s face it, the Friar’s plan wasn’t exactly iron-clad), Shakespeare is connecting the idea of love and sacrifice with that of holiness and God.
But if anything I’m super aware of the extreme fondness I have for this play, and I’m sure many people will read my recap and think I’m just being far to biased: let me know, I’d love to hear what you think. If you are someone who has been jaded by Romeo and Juliet in the past, I’d urge you to give it another read and look at it from a different point of view – it’s a beautiful play.