The Crux of the Tragedy

All my adult life, I had intended to never read Romeo and Juliet.
on Jul 1, 2020 · 7 comments

Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language. I know because everyone says so. Like most of you, I was compelled to experience his greatness in school, and I did not particularly enjoy it. (It was Othello. I could not work out the math by which the Great Handkerchief Scandal resulted in murder.) Earlier this year, I decided to give Shakespeare another go. I browsed Amazon for options and, scrupulously applying my principles, chose the most cost-efficient: the complete works of Shakespeare, bound into one enormous volume that could probably be used as a murder weapon but cost, used, $10.

The table of contents covers well over two thousand pages. I searched it for a place to begin and, intimidated, settled on the beginning. I proceeded on this direct approach only to be confronted by Romeo and Juliet. All my adult life, I had intended to never read Romeo and Juliet. But it was the next story in the collection and so, for a sense of completeness, I read it. The play has four centuries of hype to live up to and, as you would expect, it doesn’t.

It has its points, of course. My experience of Shakespeare is limited – Romeo and Juliet is only fourth in the book – but he seems to have been the kind of writer whose work is often uneven but never meritless. There is wit and gorgeous verse in Romeo and Juliet. The dramatic irony is interesting. The graveyard denouement, and Juliet’s living burial with her dead relatives, are evocatively horrible. And although Shakespeare probably didn’t intend it, it is kind of funny to watch Romeo drama-queen all over the stage.

And yet, as a love story, Romeo and Juliet is hasty and shallow. The two meet at a party and marry the next day. By the time they commit suicide, they have known each other perhaps a week. Granted, it was a jam-packed week, mostly with murders, but still. I know they were passionate to the point of hysteria. I know they gave some pretty speeches. I hold, nonetheless, to the principle that one of the requirements of a grand love affair is that it outlive milk.

If not a grand love story, Romeo and Juliet is a great tragedy – needless and self-inflicted, unredeemed by nobility. Neither hero nor heroine was courageous when it might have helped. Both, once they discovered each other, became cruel to everyone else – whether it was Juliet declaring her cousin’s death a good thing or Romeo skewering poor Paris. When the apothecary protested that he could be executed for selling the poison, Romeo goaded him into it by scorning his hunger and poverty. He put the man’s life at risk and pressed him into the guilt of complicity with another’s self-destruction. These are great moral crimes.

Mostly, Romeo and Juliet distinguish themselves by their absolute lack of wisdom and good sense. They were not star-crossed lovers. They were simply and inexcusably wrong about everything. Their secret marriage was a disaster in the wings from I do. That was so exceedingly obvious even they should have seen it. The only question was whether the crisis would be forced when Juliet got pregnant or when her parents chose a husband for her. Romeo and Juliet might have at least tried the honest approach. Rejecting that, they might have run away together. Either brave frankness or open rebellion could have saved them. But they would literally have rather killed themselves.

The only sensible reaction to Romeo and Juliet is Children, you are really very stupid. And that is the crux of this tragedy – that they were little more than children in need of adult supervision, and nobody was it: not the Nurse, not Friar Lawrence, not their awful parents. Romeo and Juliet got drunk on their first sip of sexual love and ruined everything. That is not a beautiful love story, nor an ennobling tragedy, but it is piercingly poignant.

Shannon McDermott is an author of science fiction and has been occupied for years with constructing scenarios of the colonization of Mars. Her first Mars-centric novel will be released by Enclave Publishing in late 2024. Her earlier works include “Jack and I” (Once Upon a Future Time: Volume 2) and “The Fulcrum” (Hidden Histories: Third Flatiron Anthologies Spring/Summer 2019).
  1. notleia says:

    Ha, I probably have that same book bludgeon I kept from college. ALL the plays, and ALL the sonnets, in one not-actually-convenient package.
    But yeah, R&J is a picture of immature love. They were star-crossed in the sense that they were born into families/a society that set them up to fail. Would Romeo have killed himself over Rosalind? Heck, he didn’t, because he could respectably moon over her until he got over it.
    The (better) play about a more mature love would be Much Ado (with Benedict and Beatrice rather than the two boring chits that have top billing).

    • Autumn Grayson says:

      I read Much Ado About Nothing on a whim and actually enjoyed it. Though the title is extremely fitting :p

      • Lauren Beauchamp says:

        I actually was going to bring up Much Ado About Nothing too! One of my favorites. As a whole I like Shakespeare’s comedies better than the tragedies. Best college class ever — and I saved all my English major textbooks too — all my Norton anthologies and the giant Shakespeare brick of a book. Prepping for their 5th move and I’m still keeping them!

  2. Chris says:

    Hilarious! It almost makes me want to read R&J, but I am steadfastly resisting on the grounds that I’m supposed to be reading one book a week in my genre.

  3. My parents forced me to go to see Henry the IV, part 1 when I was 10. I went in grumpy, but was awed by the pre-show troubadors, then awed by the swordfights on stage, then humored by Falstaff’s locker room level jokes (plus, the actor actually spit his drink all over the first three rows, which I thought was the height of comedy – I was 10). I was bored by the history, but the sword fighting was wonderful! I vowed to read and or watch everything written by Shakespeare. I did. It took me 14 years. Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be performed. They are best in the context of history, of his time and of their references. R&J was one of his first plays and reads like it. He based it on an Italian play and the original source – a Greek myth of Pyramus and Thisbe. He later made fun of R+J and his sources in Midsummer Night’s Dream. While I no longer have a poster of Shakespeare in my wall like I did in college and while I never loved R+J (and have never thought of it as romance), I still enjoy The Comedy of Errors (performed is better than read), Macbeth aka the Scottish play, and many others.
    Shakespeare was flawed. His time was not perfect. But he did something unique that has lasted, and not only because he’s required reading for many.

  4. Abigail Falanga says:

    I’ve never READ Romeo and Juliet, but I did listen to it – an excellent dramatized production starring Kenneth Brannagh and Sophie Thompson. I was struck by the same thing you were, that the whole thing was almost senselessly tragic. But one thing I loved about it was how the production emphasized that Juliet knew this. She was much more mature than Romeo, wanting to avoid their foolish choices, but swept along by passion. They were both children, but at least she knew it.

  5. Romeo and Juliet is a great way to look at teen love. Everything is life and death and the world is ending.
    Once you look at it in that light, it can really help you enjoy it more.
    But reading it as a freshman in high school all I could see was how the enjoyment of a great play was destroyed by pedantic teaching.

What do you think?