Monday, 19 December 2011

Romeo and Juliet is the greatest love story ever told

I am not denying of course that Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet contains a love story. It is this that makes it so useful to teachers trying to engage reluctant adolescents with the study of Shakespeare. The play contains some beautiful romantic poetry- in their first meeting in Act 1 scene 5 their conversation forms a sonnet. I have reproduced it below with character names removed:
"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.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take."

Similarly the conversation between Juliet on the balcony and Romeo below in Act 2 scene 2 is beautifully poetic, with its imagery of night and the moon. Even more beautifully in Act 3 scene 5 after their wedding night the imagery of night and day, the nightingale and the lark, create a poetry that is evocative and poignant.

However it is also very clear throughout that this is an adolescent love story, redolent of sexual exploration and heightened teenage angst. It is no accident that in adapting his source story Shakespeare condensed the timescale hugely, so that the two are in bed together within 24 hours of their first meeting. It is also no accident that at the start of the play Romeo is madly in love already, but with Rosalind, of whom he says (with typical teenage excess) "the all-seeing sun/Ne'er saw her match since first the world begun." We are reminded of his immaturity when, in Act 3 scene 3, Friar Laurence tries to get him to hide himself as he hears a knock at the door. With teenage petulance Romeo refuses, saying "Not I; unless the breath of heartsick groans,/Mist-like, infold me from the search of eyes." and in the face of Friar Laurence's increasing exasperation behaves more like a toddler than a great lover.

Juliet is a far more mature character, yet we are forcibly reminded that she is a teenager too by the way her father talks to her in Act 3 scene 5.
"What is this?'Proud,' and 'I thank you,' and 'I thank you not;'
And yet 'not proud,' mistress minion, you,
Thank me no thankings, nor, proud me no prouds,
But fettle your fine joints 'gainst Thursday next,
To go with Paris to Saint Peter's Church,
Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither."
Capulet may be entirely in the wrong and Juliet in an impossible position, but what parent of a teenage child does not hear their own voice just a little in this lecture?

The way their story ends, tragic as it is, is also rendered slightly farcical by their teenage impetuosity. Romeo kills himself because he thinks Juliet is already dead. Still caught up with thinking about Paris' death he notices that her lips are still crimson, but does not pause to think any more about that. Both characters are clearly caught by the dark glamour of death. Romeo cries "O you/The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss/A dateless bargain to engrossing death!" and Juliet, talking of the dagger entering her body says "there rust, and let me die."

So the play clearly contains a very sad story of two adolescents caught up in the heady passions of love and death. However what drives the narrative is not this young love but the "ancient grudge" of the prologue. The play starts with a fight between the Montagues and the Capulets and ends with the resolution of their differences. The turning point in the plot is Tybalt's killing of Mercutio and Romeo's of Tybalt in Act 3 scene 1. These events have nothing to do with the love story. Indeed, although Romeo initially tries to prevent Mercutio and Tybalt (Juliet's cousin) fighting, in the end it comes to a choice between his love for Juliet and his loyalty to Mercutio and hatred of Capulets. The latter wins out and his killing of Tybalt is what leads to his exile and the tragic ending.

In fact Shakespeare makes clear where Romeo's priorities lie when he bemoans the fact that he let Mercutio die with the words "O sweet Juliet,/Thy beauty hath made me effeminate/And in my temper soften'd valour's steel!" It is surely hard to maintain the belief that this is the greatest love story ever told when the central character, a typical teenage boy, is furious that his love for his girlfriend has weakened him in front of his mates.

So if this is not the greatest love story ever told, why do so many believe it is, and why has the play survived? The answer I believe lies in the final scene. The death of the central characters is not the end of the play. The Prince has been desperate throughout to end the fighting between the Capulets and the Montagues, so seizes on the youngsters' love and death to say "Capulet! Montague!/See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate," and force the families to resolve their differences. Capulet and Montague in response compete with each other as to how costly a gold statue each is going to build of the other's child. So the feud is over and the prince can round off the play with the rhyming couplet
"For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo."

So the process of mythologising Romeo and Juliet's brief, passionate, adolescent love affair begins within the play itself. As he so often seems to do, Shakespeare is not just engaging us in a story but engaging us in thinking about the story too. Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?) is in the end not about his love at all, but about the poem itself, as its final couplet makes clear:
"So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
 So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."

In the same way Romeo and Juliet is not so much the greatest love story ever told as a play about the genesis of "the greatest love story ever told" - how that story came to be created and used for political purposes by the Prince (or for educational purposes by generations of English teachers).

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