Romeo and Juliet…sigh. I remember watching the Leonardo DiCaprio/Claire Danes version many times in middle school and high school. The romance! The passion! And fate! Oh, it was the perfect love story in my eyes, except, of course, the ending, which always left me heart-broken and disappointed that the story never changed.
Twenty years later I’ve returned to my favorite Shakespearean work with a book from Ignatius Press called Shakespeare on Love: Seeing the Catholic Presence in Romeo and Juliet by Joseph Pearce. Pearce examines the story of the star-crossed lovers through the lens of history and religion and offers overwhelming evidence that the bard was not, in fact, holding up this relationship as the ideal of romantic love but had instead crafted a powerful cautionary tale against lust and the perils that come from absent authority figures. As a mother, I find this reading of the story deeply gratifying, and Romeo and Juliet remains my favorite work by Shakespeare, though now for different reasons. For the skeptics, I will let you read the book and be persuaded by Pearce himself, but I will leave you with the most telling evidence of this reading: Shakespeare’s own daughter was thirteen when he wrote Romeo and Juliet.
Perhaps even more surprising to the modern reader than the possibility that Shakespeare was not advocating for a person to totally abandon himself to his passions might be Shakespeare’s views on moral relativism. In the third act, after Romeo had been banished from Verona for killing Juliet’s cousin Tybalt shortly after having married Juliet but before their marriage had been consummated, Romeo and Friar Lawrence have an exchange that centers on punishment, justice, and mercy. The Prince, instead of having Romeo killed outright for his crime, banishes him from the city: an act of mercy. Romeo, in his self-centeredness, cannot see this as an act of mercy because he still cannot have what he wants: Juliet, who remains in Verona. Pearce says this confusion of mercy (being exiled instead of killed) with hell (Romeo despairs because he is still apart from Juliet) is madness, and Friar Lawrence says just the same, calling Romeo a “mad man” (3.3.52).
Romeo, being scolded by the friar for not seeing mercy where mercy justly is, retorts:
Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel.
Wert thou as young as I, Juliet thy love,
An hour but married, Tybalt murdered,
Doting like me, and like me banished,
Then mightest thou speak. (3.3.64)
Pearce notes, “Romeo’s riposte is the relativist position stripped of all sophistry. He asserts that his own feelings are the only judge of reality” (p. 101). The friar denounces this thinking as “mad” and the fruit of Romeo’s self-referential morality is suicide. If we ourselves are sole judges of our existence, there will no doubt come a time in our lives when we decide that existing is far too painful. We all need a higher authority to save us from ourselves.
With Valentine’s Day around the corner, Shakespeare on Love serves as a great reminder of what love truly is and offers a sure guide in reading Shakespeare, a must-read, especially if you have a teenager in the house.
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Copyright 2016 Meg Matenaer