Last week, I came across a fabulous post by Emily from Roseread, which discussed the question: should Jane Austen be included in the canon? It led me to the wonderful meme Classic Remarks from Pages Unbound, which poses weekly questions about literature. I was keen to try my hand at one of the questions, and this week’s prompt is particularly interesting:
Is Romeo and Juliet a tragic love story or an ironic comedy? Should we take the play seriously when its protagonists are so young?
You can bet I just couldn’t wait to get my teeth stuck into this ‘timeless love story’. Seeing as I’m a massive cynic, it probably won’t take you too long to figure out where I stand when it comes to the question of Romeo and Juliet. (And since this is Shakespeare, fair warning, I will be making several lewd jokes. Because I’ve got the sense of humour of a thirteen-year-old boy, apparently.)
Let’s begin with why we should be more than a little suspicious of Romeo and Juliet‘s status as ‘love story’. Most of these reasons have been recounted many times, but let’s go over them again, in part so that I can make my point but mostly because I just enjoy writing numbered lists:
- At the beginning of the play, Romeo is in love with another woman, but he quickly changes his mind when something better comes along. Doesn’t that just scream ‘romantic’? Romeo’s the kind of guy who buys a box of chocolates and then takes a bite out of every single one just to see which one he likes best, instead of figuring out which one he likes first and then sticking with it.
- Juliet is young. I mean really young, even by the standards of Shakespearean England. Her father says “She hath not seen the change of fourteen years” which basically means she’s thirteen years old. I’ll pause for the collective shudder.
- Insta-love. Today it’s considered a lazy trope, particularly in YA fiction. The fact that Romeo and Juliet fall in ‘love’ so fast suggests that perhaps what they’re actually feeling is less a warmth in the heart and more a warmth in… other places, shall we say?
- Quickie weddings. Because that’s exactly how I imagine my own Great Love Story unfolding. If Romeo and Juliet were to take place today, they’d probably get drunk at the Capulet’s party and wind up in Vegas in front of an Elvis impersonator before you can say “Wherefore”.
I think it’s fair to say that Romeo and Juliet is far from being the perfect love story. And while I personally don’t think it rates very highly on the ‘romance’ scale, I do think it qualifies as a tragedy (here, let’s define ‘tragedy’ as a play where everyone goes off and dies at the end, as opposed to a comedy, where everyone gets off – sorry, gets married – in the end).
But Shakespeare’s tragedies are never so cut-and-dry. Yes, they follow a trajectory which ends in death and destruction, but they’re not all doom and gloom. They’re by no means free from irony, dramatic and otherwise, and by no means free from humour and playfulness either. Just look at the character of the Nurse in the play, and the bawdy speech she makes about a young Juliet:
And then my husband–God be with his soul!
A’ was a merry man–took up the child:
‘Yea,’ quoth he, ‘dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit;
Wilt thou not, Jule?’ and, by my holidame,
The pretty wretch left crying and said ‘Ay.’
Again, leaving aside the creepiness of this passage, young Juliet’s innocent assent to the lewd remark made here (that she’ll end up wanting sex when she’s older; apparently Elizabethans disturbingly found this sort of thing a hoot) turns out to be rather prescient, because of course we do see the awakening of Juliet’s sexual desire in this play. But there’s a dreadful irony to it too, because of course Juliet also literally ends up ‘on her back’ in the final scene – dead. And this time, it’s not a euphemism. There’s a kind of black humour buried in the bawdy remark.
What it shows, though, and what the other euphemistic speeches in the play reveal, is that when performed, Romeo and Juliet can elicit laughter as well as tears. And depending on how it’s acted, this play could well treat the love story with irony rather than sincerity, which frankly sounds a lot more interesting than watching two teenagers make eyes at each other for three hours.
Having said all this, however, I personally believe that Romeo and Juliet remains a tragedy. A tragedy, but not necessarily a tragic love story. For my part, the real tragedy in Romeo and Juliet is not that the young lovers die but the general, catastrophic waste of young life that occurs throughout the play. Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris… Romeo and Juliet are just the last in a long line of young people who fall victim to the ongoing feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. In reality, Romeo and Juliet are sacrificial lambs: their blood is finally enough to appease the angry gods (Capulet and Montague) and put an end to years of misery and violence. The ultimate tragedy is perhaps that not all strifes are so easy to set aside, and some feuds see much more innocent blood spilt than does the one between the Capulets and the Montagues.
Do you think Romeo and Juliet is a tragic love story?