The very first play we read in my Shakespeare class was Romeo and Juliet. I was disgusted to see it listed on the syllabus, and huffed about the assignment with others in the class.
“But we read it in high school!” We exclaimed in mock-polite whispers, “We discussed every scene at length, we watched the old version of the movie and then the Leo version. We giggled when our teacher ran up to the monitor to cover up Juliet’s naked chest in the old version (although my high school teacher forgot, and couldn’t fast forward in time. Poor Mrs. Stark. She fueled many a cafeteria discussion that day). We read scenes aloud, and acted them out in groups of three. What else can we say about it? It’s terribly romantic, and terribly tragic, but we have absolutely nothing more to say.”
But then I finally settled down on my bed, heavy Riverside Shakespeare in my lap. And I began to read.
And, as you’ve probably suspected from the beginning of this post, I found a few things I hadn’t noticed as a sixteen-year-old. I found that Juliet is far more aggressive than Romeo in hashing out the details of their union. She utterly dominates the balcony scene; she is far from swooning against the rail.
I found that we might think of Verona as a sick city. It’s not just the quarreling, it’s not just this certain couple and these certain families; the entire city is in a state of ruin. There is plague, there is lack of faith, there is a gloominess that seeps up from the streets.
I found that I was disgusted by the adults in the play. These poor kids are all of thirteen and sixteen, wading through strife and first love and big decisions, and they have no one to turn to. Even Friar Lawrence, who is their supposed ally, cannot do more than give them a secret marriage and drug Juliet into a coma. Furthermore, when he finally decides to get his act together and venture out of his cell, he is too late. Romeo has slain himself, and Juliet has just awaken, understandably aghast. And what does dear Fr. Lawrence do? He runs! He hears the guards coming, and he runs, advising Juliet to flee too as an afterthought. Of course Juliet doesn’t, and therein we find our tragedy.
I found, finally, and perhaps most importantly, how very beautiful of a play it is. Half of the romantic language we spout on Valentine’s Day is from Romeo and Juliet. It is the first and last word on the subject of love. Everyone knows it, and everyone wishes, in some small part of themselves, that their lives could be as struck with passion.
“It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;/Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be/Ere one can say ‘It lightens.'”
“O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!/It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night/Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear”
“What, drawn, and talk of peace!/I hate the word as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee”
English majors are fond of asking one another what their favorite Shakespeare plays are. You get an approving nod if you say Hamlet or Macbeth, a fond grin if you say A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a round of impressed applause if you say one of the histories. No one ever dares to say Romeo and Juliet. For, as I’ve said, that’s a high school play. I myself have been saying Hamlet for four comfortable years now. But perhaps, having rediscovered the tragic lovers; having written a long, rambling blog post; having sworn that the world simply cannot do without; I will finally get up my gall and be truthful:
My favorite Shakespeare play is Romeo and Juliet. And I am not ashamed.