Happy Valentines Day (I think?) from Tony.
The story of the ultimate romantics: everybody dies.
If that’s never given anyone any pause before now when considering the story of Romeo and Juliet, chalk it up to the skills of the man we’ve come to know as William Shakespeare, rather than any sense of reality, love or…well, sense. He’s got form in this respect, has Shakespeare – it’s unlikely Mark Antony ever gave his famous speech after Caesar’s death to his ‘friends, Romans, countrymen…’ And if you think of Richard III as the evil hunchback skulking in the shadows, ready to do everybody in to wear a crown – or come to that, of Macbeth as a blood-soaked tyrant – you’ve fallen under the spell of a truly remarkable teller of tales. In the same way, if you think of Romeo and Juliet as the ultimate love story, you’ve been swept away by language, but then with Romeo and Juliet, that is at least part of the point.
There’s a difference between love and romance. Between care and romance. Between consideration and romance. The fact that no-one seems to understand that has, to be fair, been the start of many interesting relationships, but it’s also the key to understanding why Romeo and Juliet is a great romance, not a great love story.
Romance, more than anything, is the collection of tactics, techniques and chicaneries by which a supplicant party wins the heart (or at least the consent), of the object of their desire. In our day and age, it’s the chocolates, the flowers, the Hallmark sentiment, and if you want to be cynical or even honest about it, they’re all tokens of expense, laid at the feet of a would-be lover to say ‘I want you this much, I’ve given up this much money to catch your eye.’ That, really speaking, is all the love there is in Romeo and Juliet – the urge of a lusting teenager to conquer the new apple of his eye, and the sheltered gullibility of a girl who believes every word he says is in everlasting earnest.
Not for no reason is Romeo and Juliet a tragedy. The artistic mark of Shakespeare’s tragedies is that they show ‘otherwise good people with one fatal flaw, brought down by the flaw and their lives left in ruins.’
Romeo and Juliet then is a folie a deux, a meeting of flaws that teaches us harsh lessons if we go beyond the prettiness of the language and the seeming impulsive passion of the lovers. To judge them perhaps a little harshly in modern parlance, Romeo’s fatal flaw is a lust that doesn’t ever acknowledge its limitations, but which re-shapes the world as a grand passion – and which costs lives all around him. Juliet’s flaw, though less severe and significantly less her own fault, is a wide-eyed acceptance of romantic words and grand gestures as being of great consequence, believing the actions of a day are strong enough to shape a lifetime. If Shakespeare is warning us of a single great flaw in Romeo and Juliet, it is the flaw of romance, the self-aggrandisement of passion without any self-restraint.
Romeo, as his friends and particularly Mercutio, go to some pains to tell both him and us at the start of the play, and of every movie version worth its salt, is a fly-by-night, a flibbertigibbet, hot with ‘gotta have that’ cat-scratch fever till he gets his way or gets distracted by the next bright shiny thing, then his passions quickly cool, and he throws his lovers over. He’s a jock led by his strap to chase where it leads, to say what it needs, to do whatever is necessary to get his way, but he’s too young and flighty to ever give weight to the consequences of his own actions as being any fault of his immaturity – he sees them as miniature tragedies in his life, terrible things that happen to him, but that couldn’t be helped, because life is an opera, a story of grand sweeping passions, to which everything, from the position of his family to the pains of his friends to the lives of his enemies have to give way. If his actions were those of a grown man, we might call him a narcissist and make him president. But they aren’t, they’re the actions of a teenager let loose in a world of adult responsibilities, with a sword and a family blood-feud and hot damn, that Capulet chick is fiiiiine…
That’s the drive of Romeo – he’s a teenager led by his hormones, subduing all the realities of the world to his wants, his needs of the moment, using every scrap of poetry and noble sentiment he has to woo a girl he wants. Life is a game to him, and when the consequences of the game hit home, they hit him as personal slights of fate – the death of Mercutio, the death of Tybalt, as far as he’s concerned are things that happen in the ongoing attractive tragedy of Romeo. Rosaline’s seeming lack of interest, or at least her caution of his fiery protestations of love, make life too difficult for Romeo, meaning when he sees Juliet, Rosaline, his previous grand passion, becomes in his mind merely the folly of a child, and he transfers his obsessive interest to the new girl on his radar in the blink of an eye, claiming this is a real, grown-up, manly passion. Romeo is a teenager blinded by his love of his own legend.
Juliet, for her part, is booooooooored.
She’s had a sheltered life of obedience, and no-one has ever found it necessary to explain to her that men will say anything, do anything, to get what they want from her. They’ve never found it necessary because they’ve always assumed they will have control over who she meets and marries, and they’d never choose a hound dog for their precious princess. Her wooing by cousins is staid, socially acceptable and utterly dull. Romeo, when he comes into the scope of her eye and ear, blows the doors off her world. While other, approved suitors woo in straight lines, Romeo romances her, duelling wits like a tango, every move, every exchange an advance towards a consummation she begins to believe she wants. He breaks into her family’s house, mortal enemy to the house though he is, and the rashness of such a move, performed for her, she believes means he’s a man of grand passion, and she the source and unique inspiration of it – unlike his friends, she knows nothing of his previous infatuations with the likes of Rosaline, but thinks it’s his love of her that moves mountains, that dares him to risk the loss of his life so he might see her. Juliet has never been equipped with any compass to navigate the world of men, and so in Romeo’s romancing of her, she sees exactly what he sees in himself – a man of consequence, driven mad with all-consuming love for her. Her head is turned, her consent given, and the teenagers have their night of passion. What’s perhaps telling is that they’re aided and abetted by a man and a woman both old enough to know better, but both oddly lacking in passion in their own lives – Juliet’s nurse and Friar Laurence. Both should counsel them against letting their passions and their taste for dramatic self-endangerment wreck their lives, but no, the friar and the nurse, both aware of what lives without passion look like and lead to, encourage the youngsters to indulge, to experience, to taste the fire.
And Shakespeare shows us the result. The passion burns bright, brief, rash and deadly, Romeo and Juliet following their immature, melodramatic romance to its ghastly conclusion. But it’s probably important to imagine what would have happened if they hadn’t taken poison and stabbed themselves. Romeo, having had his way with Juliet, would soon begin to find the drama dull, and very likely move on from her, as he moved on in a handful of heartbeats from his obsession with Rosaline. Juliet, in the day in which the story is set, would have been ‘ruined’ as well as heartbroken, and the Montague-Capulet feud would have burned ever brighter, probably consuming both families – and Romeo probably still wouldn’t have learned his lesson.
Love is, as has been noted, a many-splendoured thing. It’s also a multi-faceted thing, and passion should absolutely be a part of its appeal: if you’re not with someone who can make you come over all unnecessary and Elizabethan with a look, a line, a thought or a memory, then maybe you’re not with the right person. But Romeo and Juliet is not by any means a celebration of love – it’s a warning against the shallowness of romance, and of taking all the easy tokens of passion too seriously. Look for love in any way you can find it, absolutely, but beware the sickly sweet blandishments of romance.
Remember – believe in romance and everybody dies!
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk