In Defense of Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet. Everyone knows the name. The classic love story, Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, and possibly one of the most retold tales since storytelling began. The plot is a simple one of forbidden love, paid for by the deaths of those who deserve it least. The original tale is thusly:

In Verona are two feuding families who have been at war for centuries. The entire city is torn apart by their bloodlust and hatred. At the time our story begins both houses have only one heir. Juliet Capulet is fifteen and innocent. Romeo Montague is sixteen and already world-weary. Romeo’s friends, in an attempt to cheer him up, take him to crash a Capulet masked ball. Here Romeo and Juliet meet, fall in love, subsequently marry, and through a series of most unfortunate events, die. Juliet actually dies twice. The rest of the death toll includes Romeo’s best friend Mercucio, Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, and Juliet’s suitor Paris. Heartbroken, the parents swear over the graves of their children to end their feud and live peaceably together.

The story is, in all senses, absolutely tragic. And yet there are those who hate the story. I have no idea why. Some of the standard reasons are that the characters marry without their parents’ approval and that it’s a tragedy. The only thing I can think of is that these people are judging the story by the synopsis and have no idea what they’re missing. The first reason is pretty self explanatory. The second one is the story of real life.

So the children openly defy their parents. Take a look at these parents! Not exactly the best role models. According to their parents they should hate each other. Since when is hatred a good thing, even when commanded by parents? And their parents have to be arrogant fools to even be continuing that feud so, again, not really the best people to be deciding their children’s future.

And Romeo and Juliet didn’t act without guidance. Sure, they didn’t listen to their parents, but they did listen. and the Friar who married them was more of a father to Juliet then the man who actually claimed the role, and he approved. He could have told her it was a fool idea and sent her home, but he didn’t. He said it was actually a very good idea and that if they played it right they might even find a way to end the blood feud between the two families! Which would be a Very Good Thing.

So on the tragedy front, it begs a little bit of supension of disbelief. Not only is there a very high death count, but some of the characters die more than once! After Romeo is banished from Verona, Juliet is told she must marry the nobleman Paris. Juliet is already married to Romeo, but it’s a secret. So what is a girl to do? Marry twice? Tell her father the truth? She goes to the friar and begs his help and he gives her a sleeping potion to make her appear dead. Do such things exist? I have no idea.

Then he sends a letter to Romeo to tell him to come and fetch Juliet out of her grave. Juliet is dead now, so they can go into exile together and live happily ever after. But Romeo never gets the letter. Convenient plot device? Maybe.

Romeo hears about Juliet’s death and is devastated. So he goes to an apothecary and gets some real poison. He then goes to Juliet’s tomb, weeps over her dead body, and kills himself.

Meanwhile the friar knows that the letter miscarried and goes to rescue Juliet himself. But somehow he doesn’t get there in time…

And Juliet wakes up! Alone, afraid, in a really nasty crypt, and lying beside the newly dead body of Romeo. Does she ask “What’s going on?” No, she has no clue why Romeo killed himself, only that he’s dead. So she cries and she kisses him and then she takes his dagger and she stabs herself.

Of course it’s tragic. It’s a tragedy. But that’s what makes it so worth reading. I mean, if Romeo and Juliet really had succeeded in escaping Verona to live happily ever after what would the point of the story have been? Seriously! Yes ,the tragedy is a bit over done (how many death scenes do we need?) but that was the style of tragedy in Shakespeare’s day. High death count was the fashion then. It doesn’t invalidate the point of the story.

Instead, after all of our long beautiful death monologues, the survivors of the play shows up. They’re confused, and alarmed. What is Romeo doing here? How can Juliet be bleeding fresh when she’s been dead for days? What devilry is this?

And in comes the friar. Too late to save Juliet he gives a stern lecture to the assembled parents. Grief- and horror-stricken they repent of their selfish and arrogant ways and vow to never fight each other again. And so the feud is ended after hundreds of years of bloodshed, through the sacrifice of their innocent children.

That’s the crux of the story – if Romeo and Juliet were not a tragedy than the feud would have continued. And which is the greater travesty? The untimely deaths of two beautiful and innocent people or the continuation of hatred and bloodshed and murder that permeated Verona for so long?

And so the defense rests.Really, if you don’t believe me, go read the story. The original Shakespearian version. Romeo and Juliet is the number one example of how to write love scenes, and poignant tragedy, and Shakespeare is unequaled in usage of the English language. To ignore his masterpiece is a crime of literacy.

As a postscript I would like to point you in the direction of the most remarkable adaption of the story I’ve ever seen – a french musical version that really brings the story to life. Really, Romeo and Juliet was made for the french.  So go watch it. I promise you won’t regret it.

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