Despite a degree in English, my understanding of Romeo and Juliet hadn’t changed substantially since middle school when I first saw Leonardo di Caprio and Clare Danes in the modern film version of the book. I understood the play as an extravagant tale of love at first sight that for some horribly twisted reason had been doomed from the beginning. The whole thing just wasn’t fair. And then everyone died. The two had simply languished in Fate’s hands. What a waste. Despite my “grasp” of the play, I was forever unsettled by the story because it seemed a bit heavy-handed—why did they have to die that way? Why did the plot have to unfold at such a breathless pace? Why was it all so tragic if it was meant to be a love story? I didn’t like it. And I felt like I was missing something.
Then my darling husband gave me for Mother’s Day this year the Ignatius Press Critical Editions version of the story, edited by Dr. Joseph Pearce (formerly of Ave Maria, now teaching at Thomas More), a series I have recommended in the past for anyone looking to study Shakespeare through the traditional lenses of faith and history. I devoured the introductory essay on the way to my in-laws’ house, intermittently letting loose such enlightened expressions of understanding as “yes!”, “no way!”, and “this is awesome!”.
So, how about this: what if Romeo and Juliet weren’t a story about a fated case of true love after all? What if, let’s say, the author—who himself had a twelve-year-old daughter at the time—chose to rewrite the story of Arthur Brooke’s Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet which begins “To this ende (good Reader) is this tragicall matter written, to describe unto thee a coople of unfortunate lovers, thrilling themselves to unhonest desire, neglecting the authoritie and advise of parents and frendes, conferring their principall counsels with drunken gossypes, and superstitious friers…abusying the honorable names of lawefull marriage, the cloke of shame of stolyne contracts, finallye, by all means of unhonest lyfe, hastyng to most unhappy deathe”, dropped the age of the heroine to thirteen (to further scandalize Elizabethans who viewed early marriage as a detriment to one’s health–the average marrying age at that time was twenty-six and twenty-four), and surrounded the young lovers with self-interested guardians (Capulet at first seems to want to protect Juliet from too-early marriage though ultimately tries to press her into it), all to hit home the point that unrestrained passions of youth in the absence of sound parental guidance and example will result in disaster (x-xxiv).
Dr. Pearce makes an astonishingly simple argument for the above, and I wondered why I had never heard it before. He notes the selfish interests of the parents and poor judgment of the nurse and friar. Of course. He highlights the similarities between Romeo’s lusting after Rosaline (who in her maturity turned down his rather forceful advances) and his almost immediately thereafter fixation on Juliet. Obviously—how could he have changed substantially into a decent man in a matter of a few hours? And Dr. Pearce points out that their first kiss is robed in the metaphor of sin, suggesting that Romeo and Juliet’s “love” is something significantly less. “Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urg’d! / Give me my sin again” (107-8).
I was blown away—here, a perfectly sound, clear understanding of the play. It was so simple. The tale wasn’t a mysterious study of Fate or a glamorous portrayal of total, pure love; rather, it was about virtue, and what lack of it can do to people. Why had such a plain explanation eluded my teachers and university professors?
I now knew why the whole story seemed a little off, frenzied, and why they had to die at the end. That’s what sin and self-interest does to us. I am so grateful for Dr. Pearce for making Romeo and Juliet more relevant to me now than when I was thirteen.
Dr. Pearce with his usual good sense and clarity writes, “Juliet was ‘too soon marr’d’ by the neglect or manipulation of callous and heartless adults. At the play’s tragic heart is the broken heart of a child.” (xxi)
Copyright 2012 Meg Matenaer