There are two ways of reading Romeo and Juliet, one of which is correct, in the sense that it is the way that Shakespeare meant it to be read and understood, and the other is incorrect, in the sense that it violates and perverts Shakespeare’s intentions.
The incorrect way of reading the play, which is the way that modern critics and teachers read it and teach it, involves what might be called a romantic reading. This way of seeing the play perceives the love between Romeo and Juliet as being blameless and beautiful. The feuding families, and especially the parents, are blamed for the tragedy. The correct way of reading the play is what might be called the moral or cautionary approach in which the tragedy is caused by the abandonment of reason in the face of erotic love or communal hatred.
Romeo sets the scene for his own iconoclastic approach to virtue at the very beginning of the play when he expresses scorn and contempt for Rosaline’s vow of chastity, a prefiguring of the same contempt for chastity and virginity that he will show at the beginning of the famous balcony scene. He also describes love as “madness,” demonstrating his enslavement to, and his enshrining of, mere emotion to the exclusion of the Christian understanding of love as a rational choice to sacrifice oneself for others.
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As for Juliet, Shakespeare presents her as being considerably younger than she is in the source poem by Arthur Brooke which inspired the play. Surely, it is no mere coincidence that Shakespeare makes Juliet only thirteen-years-old, the same age as his own daughter at the time he was writing the play. Romeo, on the other hand, is old enough to defeat the fearsome Tybalt with his swordsmanship. He is, therefore, considerably older than Juliet, who is a mere child.
The imagery that Shakespeare employs with respect to the first kiss between the lovers is that of the exchange of sin, an imagery that re-emerges with Juliet’s kissing of Romeo’s poisoned lips, prior to her stabbing herself fatally with his dagger, the latter act being itself an image of the deadly nature of their sexual union. As for the nature of Romeo’s love for Juliet, it is as unhealthy as his earlier obsessive and ultimately lustful “love” for Rosaline, which is made clear in the prologue to act two when we are told by the dispassionately objective voice of the Chorus that Romeo is “belov’d and loves again, alike bewitched by the charm of looks.” Nothing has changed. He “loves” in the same way. He is bewitched erotically by mere physical beauty. How indeed could his feelings for Juliet be otherwise when he had never seen her or spoken to her before and does not even know her name?
After Juliet’s symbolic “fall” from the balcony, seduced by Romeo who stands symbolically amongst the fruit trees in the garden below, the two bewitched lovers descend into an idolatrous relationship in which each deifies the other, preferring their shared darkness to the light of either the sun or the moon. “If love be blind it best agrees with night,” says Juliet. “Heaven is here where Juliet lives,” says Romeo.
Throughout the play, the palpable absence of the cardinal virtues of prudence and temperance paves the way for disaster. The absence of such virtue in the lovers is exacerbated by its absence in other crucial characters who, being older, are perhaps even more culpable than the play’s principal protagonists. As Friar Laurence states, such “violent delights have violent ends.”
Although Friar Laurence begins by giving sagacious advice, he fails to practice what he preaches in his rash agreement to marry the lovers in undue haste in the naive hope that the marriage might bring peace between the feuding families. He confesses his foolishness, accepting whatever punishment might be due to him. However, he is told by the Prince at the end of the play that “we still have known thee for a holy man,” a judgment which has been borne out, for the most part, by his actions.
The same can hardly be said of the other characters. Capulet begins with a seeming desire to protect his child from a premature marriage but then insists upon forcing her into an unwanted marriage to Paris; the Nurse fails to support Juliet, even suggesting that her young charge proceed with the bigamous marriage. It is clear, therefore, that Juliet is betrayed by those who should have saved her from her own immature folly. This failure on the part of the adult characters serves as a moral counterpoint to the treacherous passions of youth. It is as though Shakespeare is illustrating that the young will go tragically astray if not restrained by the wisdom, virtue, and example of their elders.
The final tragedy is that this lesson is only learned by the Capulets and Montagues in the wake of the deaths of their children. The lesson is learned, however, and the consequent restoration of peace provides a sad but consoling catharsis. Whether such a cathartic turn can be considered a happy ending is a moot point. It is, however, an ending that restores not only peace but sanity to the surviving protagonists, and this is surely a source of joy, even if a joy tinted with sorrow.
Ultimately, the peace that reigns at the end of Romeo and Juliet is much greater than the worldly and merely political peace that emerges in Verona. It is the knowledge imparted in the midst of the tragedy by Friar Laurence that “a greater power than we can contradict has thwarted our intents.” The greater power of divine providence is not contradicted. Its harmony and its peace remain. It cannot be thwarted by the imprudent impudence of the sinful intentions and actions of those who defy and deny the moral law.
“This sight of death is as a bell,” says Lady Capulet, indicating that death itself is the knell of doom which brings the feuding parties to their senses. “All are punished,” says the Prince, acknowledging the bitter price of the sinful disregard of virtue.
Editor’s Note: This is the eleventh in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”
[Image: Henri Pierre Picou (1824-1895), “Romeo and Juliet”]