Redeeming "Romeo & Juliet": Is it Possible?

Last night I attended a production of Romeo & Juliet here at TAMU as a requirement for my Shakespeare class.   Now, I could easily list about 300 other ways I would have rather spent those 3 hours on a Tuesday evening.   But, since there was no way around it, I’m going to make the best of the situation and analyze the things I saw.

To focus briefly on the “positives” of the evening: first of all, Romeo and Juliet is by no means my Shakespeare play of choice.  That being said, the actors of the Traveling London Stage nevertheless performed incredibly well.  There were only five of them (two women, 3 men) and so each one played multiple parts.  In addition, they chose to perform using only the simplest of props: no settings, no backgrounds, only a few chairs and some assorted hats and scarves to indicate different characters.   I liked this because it forced the audience to focus on the characters and plot without a distracting setting. 

Now for the not-so-positive part.  I know I may be treading on a few sacred cows, but here’s my opinion, plain and simple: Romeo and Juliet  is a stupid and potentially harmful play

Yes.  In terms of literature, it may be a brilliant work; I do not deny that, for I love analyzing literature’s different components and I have a great respect for those who can write such masterpieces.  But, when it comes down to the nitty-grittiness, what makes Romeo & Juliet such a pop icon—and one that has endured the test of time?  

Before I turn to moral criticisms, I want to give a brief personal-opinion rant about Romeo and Juliet‘s basic plot. There are many definitions of a “literary tragedy”, but, basically, Romeo & Juliet is considered a tragedy because—obviously— the  play ends with the death of the main protagonists.   Literary brilliance notwithstanding, I consider this utterly ridiculous. It would be different if the dead protagonists were true heroes, but that is not the case with this play.  Last night, I almost laughed out loud at the very end, when Romeo and Juliet are lying dead in the tomb and their respective fathers have just discovered them.  Instead of weeping wildly over their unfortunate children, the fathers instead shake hands over the bodies and discuss plans for a gold statue in the couple’s honor, all as calmly as if they were merely making lunch plans.  And Romeo and Juliet themselves?  The poor things had at least gotten married…why couldn’t Shakespeare have let them stay alive AND let their families be reconciled?  Again, this is only my opinion.  I like happy endings, that’s all.  🙂

Now for the moral criticisms.  An element of the play that seriously bothers me is the whole “daughter-defying-father” deal.   Granted, Juliet’s father is presented as an exaggerated “cruel & heartless father” stereotype (and he is!), so it’s not surprising that she wants to escape that.   However, the very fact that he is stereotyped is a big problem.   We often hear young lovers teasingly called “Romeo and Juliet” in modern culture, to the extent that such a love story is almost expected among unbelievers (and, indeed, even some believers) today .  How many silly love plots have you ever heard of that involve the daughter defying her father’s wishes for the sake of “true love”?   They are countless.

It calls to mind a popular song, entitled “Love Story”,  by the artist Taylor Swift—a smash hit among young women, in particular.  I first heard this at my cousin’s wedding last year and was appalled by the lyrics: 

We were both young when I first saw you
I close my eyes
And the flashback starts
I’m standing there
On a balcony in summer air…

That you were Romeo, you were throwing pebbles
And my daddy said stay away from Juliet
And I was crying on the staircase
Begging you please don’t go, and I said

Romeo take me somewhere we can be alone
I’ll be waiting all there’s left to do is run
You’ll be the prince and I’ll be the princess
It’s a love story baby just say yes

So I sneak out to the garden to see you
We keep quiet ’cause we’re dead if they knew
So close your eyes
Escape this town for a little while…

Some young ladies on JibeNow may like this song; I do not condemn you.  But this song only serves as a powerful example of the way Romeo & Juliet has impacted our culture.

Which brings me to another thought.  I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but our society has missed the mark BIG time when it comes to “true love”.  Romeo and Juliet glorifies the idea of “love at first sight”…something that I believe is completely untrue.  There is no way you can immediately “fall in love” with another person upon seeing him/her for the first time, without knowing anything about that person’s personality or character.  True, you may think you are in love.  But emotions based purely on outward appearances are dangerous things, and must be handled with gloved hands. 

So, is it possible to redeem Romeo and Juliet?  The church mocked, parents defied, and suicide embraced…these are certainly not things worthy of emulation.  I do realize that most Christian homeschoolers will be reading this play for its literary aspects and not for its moral standards.  However, the question of redemption is food for thought because  this play’s “values”  have infiltrated our culture.   Romeo and Juliet needs a serious makeover.  I would love to see Christian filmmakers/playwriters rise to the occasion and produce a love story that reflects God’s truth.   Our culture is closely embracing a skewed view of “love”.  It’s time to break up that bear- hug.

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7 Responses to Redeeming "Romeo & Juliet": Is it Possible?

  1. Brian JM says:

    Very good thoughts, I think.

    My sis got Love Story with my account on iTunes. I don’t care for the song myself, but I maybe can put up with it for the last stanza.

    You knelt to the ground,
    And pulled out a ring and said,
    “Marry me, Juliet, you’ll never have to be alone.
    I love you, and that’s all I really know.
    I talked to your dad, go pick out a white dress,
    It’s a love story, baby just say yes.”

    So, I don’t know that I’d say the song is from Satan, but it’s still got some bad undertones.

  2. An awesome post!!! I completely agree, and do not have any sacred cows in this area!! : )

  3. @Brian: Yes, I like the last stanza, and no, I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater by condemning the whole song. I’d say that the *ending* is okay, but I don’t like the whole way the “love story” started, ya know. 🙂

  4. I’ve always felt rather uncomfortabe with that play…I love Hamlet and MacBeth, though. Thanks for expounding!

    Hehehe. I have a personal disgust for that song.


  5. Owen Stroud says:

    Grrr. That song.

    If Taylor Swift is “country”, then Johnny Gimble is a rapper.

  6. scottishclaymore says:

    What’s interesting to me is the fact that almost every culture has a story like this. It’s why every state I’ve been to has at least one location (and I know of two in TX, and two in GA) called “lovers leap” where a Native American couple is supposed to have plummeted together to their doom. I wonder what the human psyche’s preoccupation with starcrossed lovers is all about, anyway? Probably has something to do with the fact that we like being free from authority.

  7. Alex Adams says:

    First off, I’m not a very big fan of Taylor Swift, period.

    Second of all, I have to agree with you. While “Romeo and Juliet” is indeed the most famous play ever written, I never really enjoyed the fact that it all ended with suicide and then a lame “let’s be friends” make up between the two families.

    In my mind, this tragedy occurred because there was a total separation from God. This whole “my love can withstand the strongest storm” kind of thing drives me *insane*!!!! The only way love can withstand any storm is by God’s grace, and not our own strength.

    Thanks for the post!

    I’m reading “Hamlet” right now and it is excellent!

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