In this series Emily Hay explores whether or not classic works of literature deserve their sanctified places on our bookshelves. All opinions are her own as an avid reader of books. Don’t @ her.
Due to some *ahem* opinions expressed in the comments’ section of some of my previous columns, I’m opening this one with a quick disclaimer: I am not bashing Shakespeare here. I am not denying the literary prowess of the bard, nor am I saying that Romeo and Juliet in itself as a play isn’t worth reading. I actually do think there are sections of Romeo and Juliet that are wonderful and rewarding to read, and while it isn’t my favourite of Shakespeare’s works (nor do I personally think it’s his best), I do think it is perfectly acceptable that we study it in the way that we still do.
But, and it’s a big but, what I don’t think is acceptable is the popular representation of it in our culture. The idea of lovey-dovey couples being “Romeo and Juliet” is bandied about a lot in our society, as well as quoting from the play being depicted as this sweeping romantic gesture – a thousand Valentines cards were launched on Romeo’s sea of generic romantic statements. I hate to break it to you, but the star-crossed lovers are really not the type of couple you should be aspiring to be in your own relationships, which anyone who has ever read the play should be painfully aware of. Granted, I think these aspirations may generally come from those who haven’t actually read or seen the play, but by god please at least read the SparkNotes summary before referring to your significant other as your Juliet or your Romeo. I’m begging you.
Romeo and Juliet isn’t just some chick-lit romance, it’s a tragedy – and a pretty brutal one at that. It’s, quite literally, the definition of the term “unhealthy relationship”. If you’re one of those people throwing around Romeo’s wild declarations of “love” hoping to catch a partner, here’s just a few reasons you may want to reconsider shouting up at random women minding their own business on their balconies:
Juliet and Romeo barely know each other when they get married.
They had known each other for – wait for it – one day. That’s it. One. Day. They meet at a party at the Capulet house on Sunday night and get married on Monday. I’m sorry, but to me that’s too soon to even be having a first date, let alone declaring your undying love for one another. I mean, I know marriages and relationships moved quickly in the 16th Century, but even this takes the biscuit. The balcony scene, in which the two declare their love and agree to marry the following day, occurs only hours after they first set eyes on one another at the party. I think whirlwind is an understatement here. I would suggest you spend a little, actually, a lot more time on your relationships before taking that eternal leap of faith and love. Which brings me to the content of that balcony meeting…
Those declarations of love seem to start out a tad one-sided.
Romeo is on the rebound when he meets Juliet, whether you want to hear that or not. His previous romantic interest, Rosaline, has just rejected him as she’s taken a vow of chastity (how dare she) and Romeo seems to see Juliet as a way of rebuilding that precious masculine ego of his; and now that he’s found that new romantic interest he is not letting up even when she seems, shall we say, a little less than interested. After being bombarded with words of love and longing Juliet, with a sensible head on her shoulders, says: “Although I joy in thee / I have no joy of this contract tonight; / It is too rash, to unadvised, too sudden”. To which Romeo, then, kind of coerces her into professing her love for him, asking for “Th’ exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine”. Yes, alarm bells should start ringing at this point. I would say you may want to reconsider your potential partner if they try to guilt you into feeling a certain way for them, especially if that relationship may jeopardise a family relationship you deeply care about. Just a thought.
Their communication skills leave quite a lot to be desired.
Healthy adult relationships are built on communication, right? Romeo and Juliet’s relationship is a prime example of, well, not that. Despite all of these poetic declarations of love passing between the two of them can you believe that the biggest tragedy of the play comes because Romeo didn’t get Juliet’s message? The irony is actually painful. Rather than wed Paris, the man her father tries to make her marry, Juliet goes to Friar Lawrence to get a potion that will make her appear dead to the world (not her best idea, but we’ll let that slide for now) and sends a message for Romeo, so that he’ll know she’s not actually dead. He doesn’t get the message (obviously, because this is a tragedy), and upon discovering her “death” he goes to her crypt and commits suicide by poison, so grieved is he by the death of his love of four days. Then Juliet wakes up, discovers Romeo dead beside her, and decides to become the sheath for his dagger - she stabs herself. The end.
The moral of the story is to talk to each other kids, don’t leave important messages to be delivered by other people because they will inevitably never get there. There’s also probably something in this about not having vital relationship conversations via text but I’ll leave that one up to your own personal interpretation. In all seriousness, it’s not healthy to kill yourself in the wake of the death of a loved one, especially one you’ve only known for 4 days. Cry a lot, eat some chocolate, get some help if you need it – but please, please don’t kill yourself.
Personally, there’s plenty of Shakespeare’s worlds I’d rather explore than fair Verona, but I do believe Romeo and Juliet can still hold its own as a work of literature in the modern day. However, it is not a healthy model to base your romantic relationships on, that’s not even up for debate. Its position in popular culture as the ultimate romance needs a bit of a rethink – it does neither the play nor all the lovely, healthy, stable relationships out there any justice. Next time you want to use a literary reference in your own life, maybe just make sure you know all the gory details first.