Insta-Love and Innuendo: Just How Romantic is Romeo and Juliet?

Romeo Juliet Fishtank

Romeo and Juliet: distorting our understanding of romantic love since 1597.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Juliet is youngI 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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).

Romeo Juliet Death

I know it’s supposed to be terribly sad, but all I can think about in this scene is how ugly Romeo’s shirt is.

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.

Gnomeo and Juliet

But somehow when they’re animated lawn ornaments I find them endearing.

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?

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19 thoughts on “Insta-Love and Innuendo: Just How Romantic is Romeo and Juliet?

  1. I completely agree! I have never thought the play was terribly romantic. Even giving a pass on how quickly everything happens “because it’s a play” (and time doesn’t matter?), everything about the relationship seems wild and sometimes superficial. Both of them are completely overdramatic. Maybe it’s an infatuation more than a love thing?

    Now I’m off to see why our main link-up post for this topic doesn’t seem to be up yet…

    • I agree, infatuation seems a much more likely explanation. Considering how sheltered a life Juliet leads, her reaction to Romeo is probably a little more understandable, but Romeo’s motives have always seemed really shady to me.

      • I feel like Romeo was experiencing puppy love with that other girl, and that with Juliet he experienced actual love, and that’s why he dropped the other one. I don’t think the other one even actually knew he was alive. He was in love with his idea of her. Juliet might be the first one to love him back. Maybe! I might be gullible. I like that Juliet immediately stands up and says, “Romeo, I love you.” She’s not messing around. She’s speaking candidly. This, and the way she is with her mother and the nurse, suggest to me she’s highly intelligent and would see through an act, if Romeo is playing one…

        • I kind of believe in insta love. I think it’s rare, but possible. The chemistry, the sparkle in the eye, the “you think exactly as I do, I have been waiting for you all along” love that cannot stop for common sense. x

        • That’s a good point! Juliet is definitely an easier character to like for me, I think because she is, as you say, very candid about her feelings and doesn’t mess around. I’m personally still inclined to be a little suspicious of Romeo, but I definitely think that Shakespeare gives us the option to read him either way – as experiencing a genuine love for Juliet or as a brash young man. It makes for a very interesting play, and I think actors probably have a lot of options when they decide how to play Romeo. :)

  2. Ah! I actually just commented over at Pages Unbound (currently awaiting moderation), but I love your thoughts here! Romeo and Juliet as sacrificial lambs — yes! I saw their death in a more positive light (their love transforms the feud to end all feuds), but it can be seen in a darker light, too…

    Great thoughts, as always. :)

  3. Wonderful post! I agree with all the points you made! I think it’s definitely meant to be a tragedy and really shows all the rash mistakes you make when you’re young…but to the extreme. But Shakespeare totally knew that, too. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream he totally makes fun of himself for Romeo and Juliet the the “play-within-the-play,” Pyramus and Thisbe and it’s hilarious.

    • Oh, I love Pyramus and Thisbe! Midsummer Night’s Dream is in general one of my favourite Shakespeare comedies, and Pyramus and Thisbe is still hilarious when it’s performed today. It’s nice to know that although we take him so seriously today, Shakespeare knew how to laugh at himself. :D

    • Great point! I find that such a curious thing, considering I love postmodernism: intertextuality, pastiche, etc. We value originality so highly even today, and yet the concept of originality only really emerged in the late 18th/early 19th century. Shakespeare certainly borrowed, alluded, and rewrote.

  4. I agree – it’s a tragedy, with a large dose of infatuation. I guess the major themes – forbidden love, families at war – will always endure.

  5. Great post! I recently read something from Memoria Press about some of the issues you brought up in R&J. The author claims that R&J is a travesty of the SELF. In other words, R&J is a story about selfishness, which I think you make obvious in your suggestions. So if you are interested, here is the article: https://www.memoriapress.com/articles/of-thine-own-self-beware/

    I’ve always felt that their love was totally dysfunctional, and more about lust (as you make reference to). What a dangerous emotion it is! (Same can be said about West Side Story.)

  6. The young age of the protagonists doesn’t really bother me — at a time when people generally died very young, the age of adulthood was much earlier. But it’s true that the romance is too wild, sudden and extravagant to express all the many sides of mature love. I don’t think it’s only about lust; it is possible for people to feel a true heart-and-soul connection quickly, and express that physically without being purely selfish, but if one has the chance to grow older and wiser with a partner it brings many more challenges and opportunities for growth. The tragedy is that R&J never had that chance — along with all the other young people whose lives are cut off by the feud, as you say.

    • It’s interesting to speculate about whether Romeo and Juliet would have stayed in love of they’d survived; I agree that growing older with someone changes your relationship but also gives you the opportunity to develop in a different direction together. I like the expression “mature love”. :)

  7. Of course you’re right in pointing out how hasty and lust-based their relationship was, but I want to offer the opposing view. I think they are a good couple. Their language mimics each other quite a bit and Juliet seems to be Romeo’s intellectual equal, referencing classical gods and so forth, despite probably not being educated.They also balance each other out – Juliet is more practical and grounded, whereas Romeo is more emotional and impulsive. It’s kinda weird how reversed the gender roles there are. They even die in the wrong way – Romeo by “feminine” poison, Juliet by “masculine” dagger. Juliet also tougher than most girls would be portrayed at the time, she deceives everybody but Romeo and the Friar and stands up to her yelling father. See how weak the Nurse is, wanting Juliet to marry Paris again, which would be adultery and punishable by death, and super irreligious.

    P.S. the Baz Luhrmann film really took all of the complexity out of their relationship though, most of all by not having Romeo murder Paris.

    • That’s a really interesting point! Juliet is definitely an interesting character, she does come across as a lot more decisive than the wishy-washy Romeo, who’s in love with someone else when the play begins. I do think the Luhrmann film took some of the complexity out of their relationship, but I think that’s mostly because Luhrmann focuses much more on the violence and civil unrest in Verona than he does on the young lovers. It’s interesting that the film versions seem to struggle to make Romeo into a more sympathetic character, either by downplaying his earlier romance or by not having him kill Paris. He’s clearly a less appealing leading man than most people think.

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