by Hannah Gunson-McComb, dramaturg
I believe it was my sophomore year of high school when my ability to “even,” as it were, officially tapped out; after three consecutive years studying this play in school, I couldn’t read or appreciate Romeo and Juliet anymore. I was surrounded by classmates who accepted, without question, that theirs was a story of love, fate, and star-crossed-ness. And as I looked around the room, all I could think of was, “This is why all of your relationships last two class periods.”
Not much has changed in the way of cynicism from then to now, as pertaining to Romeo and Juliet. I still bear a rather fierce animosity that has almost certainly been built upon as the play continues to haunt me. Beyond that, it’s incongruous— it’s difficult to consider Romeo and Juliet as “the greatest love story of all time” when the plot is less Stephanie Myers and more Quentin Tarantino. No less than six people die (more if you kill off the servants in the first scene), but there’s only one off-stage sex scene. So, how can I reconcile an age difference that invalidates the maturity of their “love?” I can’t believe that such love was created over the span of three days (barely three days, I might add), and I certainly can’t believe that Romeo, hot-headed, impulsive and fickle Romeo, is capable of rational thought.
Fortunately, just as Rey rose in light to challenge Kylo Ren and the dark, there are scholars who criticise the tragic pair enough to successfully contradict years and years of public opinion and tradition. So I’m not alone in my distaste. Allow me to contribute to the Valentine’s Day spirit by destroying Romeo and Juliet for those of you still holding to romance.
Friar Lawrence warned the pair, saying “these violent delights have violent ends. And in their triumph die…” so really, their demise was inevitable, and not in the least because Romeo felt an ominous foreboding and Juliet imagines her new fiancé in a tomb as he repels from her balcony. Juliet herself recognizes their affair is “too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,” yet runs headlong into romance anyways. When you consider their impulsivity (evidence to follow), their star-crossed fate becomes less Greek Oracle and more justification of self-victimization. It would be much easier to explain posthumously (however that might work) that your end came about because the Universe commanded it so, rather than your Latin blood boiled so quickly that the only viable options of conflict-resolution were roofies, poison, and daggers.
So let’s consider our lover boy, Romeo.
If you’ve seen our production, then you know Romeo’s entrance involves a poorly-played ukulele and some pining over the emotionally unavailable Rosalinda (or Rosaline, as she’s more commonly known). Yet, within mere minutes of entering the Fiesta de Capuleto scene— despite days spent in a depression— it takes nothing but a glance to convince Romeo that Julieta could “teach the torches to burn bright” with her beauty. This a common criticism of Romeo’s character, but it nonetheless debunks the force of Fate by introducing Romeo as unreliable and inconstant… actually, the only reliable thing about Romeo is his inconstancy. Later on in the play, he refuses to fight Tybalt, telling him: “I love thee better than thou canst devise… [your] name I tender as dearly as my own…” And then Mercutio dies (incidentally, because of Romeo), and with him so goes Romeo’s love. Granted, his actions make more sense than falling in love literally at first sight, but take a look at Romeo’s lines! The same tenderness with which he speaks to Juliet is present, and in our production, Romeo even attempts to tell Teobaldo he loves him. If we are to believe Romeo’s affections for Juliet, we cannot ignore his compassion for Tybalt. Or, we have to accept that his love for Juliet is just as susceptible to change. The last piece of evidence against Romeo is as he’s on his way to kill himself at Juliet’s tomb. When confronted by Paris, he kills him, but then immediately mourns him, is nonplussed about Paris almost marrying his wife, and promises him a “triumphant grave.” Don’t forget, he’s about to drink poison.
Ultimately, what makes Romeo so dangerous is not his body count, but that his body count includes his new bride. He just can’t keep his angst to himself. Taking their ages (and shocking age gap) into consideration, it’s conceivable that Romeo dragged an unsuspecting and impressionable 13-year-old girl into his raging hormones. It’s clear that Juliet hasn’t thought much about marriage until her parents bring it up and upon reflection, she doesn’t sound enthusiastic about the prospect. She’s not particularly jazzed about a romantic relationship with a man at all until she’s given flirtatious, sensual attention from a charismatic stranger. The excitement, intrigue and danger of falling and being in love with the son of your most hated enemy are enough to sweep any 13 year old off her feet… And that’s what scares me so much about Romeo and Juliet.
Big life decisions were made without the counsel of life experience or wisdom… and no one in my English/Dramatic Literature classes was questioning it.
The dramatic romanticising of forbidden love, I fear, would influence us to seek such explosive sparks and accept nothing else. Hollywood and Broadway are packed with such similarly “rash,” “unadvised,” and “sudden” relationships and we are asked to accept it as reality. Ask yourself, would Romeo and Juliet be as entertaining—would we be as obsessed with the play— if it all ended happily ever after and not in double suicide? To mess around with one of Juliet’s lines: if we look to theatre to learn, if we look to like what’s being shown, what are we learning and liking by looking? If we look to Romeo and Juliet as an example of true and enduring love, we will all be disappointed when our relationships are filled with late-night Chipotle runs and Netflix-binging (which, ironically, is real and enduring love).
So what’s gotten me through seven months of working on this show? Our director adapted it— she took out the fate and romance bits and replaced it with a lesson we really need to learn.
Adaptations can do some pretty powerful things. By taking a well-known story and putting a new spin on it, a production can become relevant regardless of what year the play was actually published. Such creative liberties, taken by inspired directors, can make these old and out-dated plays personal and relatable. Shakespeare’s plays are really good material for making endless adaptations— as noted by the common saying “every story is either the Bible or Shakespeare done over.” Guess what? You can break traditions. You can focus on a different theme.
By way of side note (and example), when West Side Story premiered on Broadway, what stood out the most to many critics was, as an article from Time magazine said: “The story appealed to society’s undercurrent of rebellion from authority… [it] shows the triumph of the spirit over the obstacles often faced by immigrants. The musical also made points in its description of troubled youth and the devastating effects of poverty and racism.” To the audience of late-50ʼs America, what meant the most to them was to see Tony and Maria, two dreamers attempting to overcome their surroundings. This Romeo-and-Juliet story was less about romance and more about the hopefulness of any soul willing to transcend. That tragic trauma that is the ending of every Romeo-and-Juliet story then becomes a pointed finger of a warning at the audience— don’t let this happen to you; you can prevent this.
Our production of Romeo y Julieta similarly takes away the theme of inevitable and tragic love, replaces it with youthful abandon, and thus focuses on the dangers of “othering” something that is foreign to us.
Perhaps in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, we consider the extent of true love: empathy, compassion, and listening to understand. It’s easy to love our charismatic characters, our significant others, our families. But it’s so much harder to love someone you don’t understand, someone who is “opposite” of you. Consider how you react to the strange and unfamiliar— do you immediately reject it? Do you violently reject it? Do you destroy it for fear of it? Now consider the most frustrating parts of Romeo and Juliet— if only the Capulets and Montagues didn’t hate each other so much, if only there had been better communication between Romeo, Friar Lawrence and Juliet. Six people could still be alive at the end of this play if these two families would just bury their hatchets and practiced active listening.
Here in the BYU Theatre and Media Arts department, we’d like to use Romeo and Juliet to tell a different story: this is a story about us. This is an invitation to love despite our invisible boundaries that separate human from human. You don’t need to see the end of the play to know what the consequences of silence do to a community. We invite you to reach out to your “other” and seek to understand them. You don’t have to agree with them; just try to bridge those gaps between you. As Friar Lawrence would say: “For this alliance may so happy prove To turn your households’ rancor to pure love.”
Happy Valentine’s Day, BYU. I hope you celebrate love.