Thousands of high school students in English classrooms across the world read, under-analyze, and hate Romeo & Juliet each year. Why is what’s arguably become Shakespeare’s most recognizable tragedy met with such vitriol from students? Can they not relate to the teenage angst exhibited by the titular characters? Is the language too complex? Have all of us made a pact to disavow Shakespeare in an effort to stick it to our high school English teachers? I think the answer is simpler than any of these options: the play, a work of literary art by most accounts, is taught as a cautionary tale for teenagers who go against their parents’ wishes.
Unfortunate, especially if you’re in the throes of that all-encompassing teenage angst yourself.
In reality, Romeo and Juliet are complex characters thrown into a world of feuds largely against their will, looking for their own ways to survive and thrive. Whether their love is exaggerated or not, they cling to each other because they’ve been able to find complements in each other and chances to live their own lives instead of the lives their parents prescribe. The play isn’t a caution against teenagers in love; rather, it’s a caution to parents and authority figures who reduce adolescents to children with no free will.
Juliet Capulet is known as one of Shakespeare’s weaker female characters. She meets a boy, falls in love, and then kills herself. On the surface, she lacks the depth of some of his more revered heroines (Lady Macbeth, Rosalind, Beatrice, etc.). At first glance, Juliet is nothing but a stupid, rash teenage girl. However, she exists within horrifying constraints typical for a woman of her time. No viable options outside of marriage. A controlling father who exercises complete control over her major life decisions. How could she not be looking for a way out? If that way out just so happened to be an attractive, sensitive boy who listened without being condescending? Come on, ladies.
“Out, you green-sickness carrion! Out, you baggage!/You tallow face!” Juliet’s father screams at her after she expresses her displeasure at the thought of marrying Paris, a man older than her, whom she does not know beyond a name and face (3.5.160-161). In her father’s eyes, she is but a nuisance he no longer wants to deal with. Because Juliet doesn’t want to marry the man who has imposed himself on her family, she is no longer a person.
I recently had the pleasure of studying abroad in Oxford, where we took a few trips to Stratford to see productions from the Royal Shakespeare Company, and their interpretation of this scene was striking. Juliet’s father went from normal, slightly perturbed father to a towering, yelling abuser in the span of a few minutes. He slapped her, turning her next lines all the more upsetting: “Is there no pity sitting in the clouds/That sees into the bottom of my grief?—/O sweet my mother, cast me not away” (3.5.2-8-210). Instead of Juliet coming off as foolish or rash, her decisions make perfect sense. If her own family isn’t going to respect her autonomy, does it really matter to them if she lives or dies? If Romeo is the only person who cares about her happiness, why not risk everything to see him again?
Coupling specific acting choices with the words from Shakespeare’s script clarifies Juliet’s character beyond lovesick thirteen year old to that of a constrained young woman fighting for her right to individuality.
David Hewn recently released a retelling of Romeo & Juliet, originally in audiobook form narrated by Richard Armitage for Audible, where Juliet actually survives the onslaught of deaths in her tomb and leaves Verona altogether in search of independence. In his Juliet & Romeo, both characters are fleshed out beyond what a two hour play can offer: Juliet craves education as a fiesty, proto-feminist, and Romeo is being forced into becoming a lawyer against his wishes to be a poet. Of course, as an adaptation, we can’t take Hewn’s interpretation as fact, however, his choices must have some basis in Shakespeare’s original text.
Romeo as a charismatic poet-type isn’t unfounded in the script at all. We’re first introduced to him in a state of heartbreak, upset that the object of his affections isn’t interested. At first glance, his response to Benvolio’s inquiry as to what “sadness lengthens [his] hours”—”Not having that which, having, makes them short,”—is melodramatic, not endearing (1.1.168-169). Furthermore, Romeo’s quick turnaround to Juliet in lieu of Rosaline might be an example of fickleness. He can’t have one girl so he moves on to another without much of a thought. If that were the case, Romeo would move on once he realized Juliet is the daughter of his father’s sworn enemy. He certainly wouldn’t trespass on her family’s grounds just to see her again.
In the RSC’s production, Romeo was just as charismatic as he appears in the text and other interpretations. He had an almost sexual chemistry with all of his comrades on stage, but only sought to further a romantic connection with Juliet. If he was just after sex, he could have looked for it anywhere. Instead, the production claimed he wants a real connection. He finds it in Juliet.
In the text, Juliet is rational (to the extent that a Shakespearean tragic heroine is allowed to be) while Romeo throws himself headfirst into his emotions—an interesting reversal of gender norms, which typically place women at the helm of emotional outbursts. This dynamic is most easily observable in the balcony scene, when Juliet begs Romeo not to swear his affections by the moon:
Lady, by yonder blessèd moon I vow,
That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops—
O, swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.
What shall I swear by?
Do not swear at all.
Or, if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,
Which is the god of my idolatry,
And I’ll believe thee (2.2.112-121).
She knows that the moon is too fleeting to be worth any oath, but Romeo is so in love he wants to swear on something. These opposing aspects of their personalities make them a great match, not just an expansion of lust at first sight or puppy love or any one of the ideas high school teachers like to provide in defense of why Romeo and Juliet are nothing more than naive teenagers.
But, just as a good interpretation can make their relationship more complex, a cheesy or melodramatic one can tarnish its already-precarious reputation. Take Warm Bodies, a YA romance in which Romeo is R, a zombie with no memories of his human life who falls for the very much alive Julie. Juliet risking her life to love an actual menace to her health and wellbeing undermines her rationality. Even the critically acclaimed West Side Story is troubling as an adaptation—Tony and Maria take somewhat of a backseat to the Sharks and Jets. The most popular song from the whole soundtrack is “America,” which has nothing to do with our star-crossed lovers. Maria is scolded by her best friend with really reasonable concerns. Making Bernardo her brother dissuades me from siding with Maria when she chooses Tony. Why would you marry the guy who murdered their brother? I just don’t buy it.
Romeo & Juliet is more than an unrealistic love story wherein two inexperienced teenagers believe they’re in love and both directly and indirectly cause the deaths of friends and family. Juliet may be young and naive, but she’s also an opportunist. She’s about to be forced into marrying an older man she has no connection with. When Romeo enters her life, she sees a way out. It takes brains and guts to hitch your waggon to a guy you barely know, but Juliet has both and weighs the pros and cons herself, coming to the conclusion that this Montague boy might just be the break she’s been looking for. Romeo, for his part, just wants love. His world is not the evil, conniving thing it is to his parents; rather, it is something to be shared with people, with a beloved.
If love languages existed to any extent in Verona, Romeo would know his by heart. He feels things so intensely; necessarily, he needs someone to counteract that. Juliet is perfect, not only in that she shares his affections, but she’s shockingly levelheaded when the time calls for it. All in all, the tragedy of these star-crossed lovers is not their fault; it’s the fault of those of us who, like their parents, reduce them to simple-minded adolescents who couldn’t possibly know about love.