Review: Romeo and Juliet

People are overwhelmed unto death by forces larger than their own lives, but which also include their own virtues and vices. That’s the classical meaning of tragedy, it happens in real life all the time, and Christians should meditate deeply upon it. 

Many find it irritating that, today, Romeo and Juliet is received as the quintessence of Shakespeare, and therefore of all literature in English. At least for the moment, everyone who reads books will know something of the story. Two young people from feuding families fall in love at first sight. Romeo (of house Montague) and Juliet (of house Capulet) profess love on a balcony at night. They are secretly married. There is violence in the streets and a plot to elope. Juliet fakes her own death so she can have Romeo forever. Romeo thinks she’s really dead, and so kills himself. Juliet awakens from feigned death, finds Romeo dead, and so naturally kills herself as well. In the wake of love and death, Montague and Capulet resolve for a chastened peace.

No other story from literature has so successfully made the crossover from “high art” to “pop culture.” In film, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 production is considered the most successful film adaptation of any Shakespeare, and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet the most influential. The story became a 1957 Broadway musical as West Side Story, also adapted into Academy Award winning movies in 1961 and 2021. As I write in ambivalent expectation of the 2024 Super Bowl, I recall that Taylor Swift’s 2008 song “Love Story,” which was the first country song to reach number one on the mainstream Top 40 charts, is an extended allusion to Shakespeare’s story: “…You were Romeo… and my daddy said, ‘Stay away from Juliet.’”

And, again, many find all of this irritating. Some irritation may be due to just this current over-exposure to the “star-crossed lovers” trope, but some certainly has to do with Shakespeare’s story itself, at least as we understand it. I write for traditional Christians, but for such as have been touched by modern sensibilities. I concede that some things may irritate modern people, some things may irritate traditional Christians, and, to the degree that our readers may be both, the same things may irritate us for more than one reason.

Here, then, is a list of things about Romeo and Juliet that might irritate modern people. First, we’re cynical of love at first sight, skeptical about people in its grip. There is not enough distance, enough emotional intelligence, between Romeo and his own feelings. Second, we’re rather too self-centered to take seriously Juliet’s conviction that this one, this Romeo, does and shall always provide such meaning and happiness to life that without this Romeo life itself is not worth having. Finally, we’re too jaded to believe, as do Romeo and Juliet, that permanent, monogamous matrimony is an advisable consummation of teenage infatuation (Juliet is not yet fourteen; Romeo is older, but not the more mature).

To encourage such world-weary moderns to read the play anyway, I would say this: None of these issues are really modern, nor are our anxieties and doubts more evolved or sophisticated than Romeo and Juliet’s earnest passion. Shakespeare understood all the reasonable caveats, and you will understand them better when you read about them in his play. 

Likewise, a list of things that might irritate traditional Christians. First, Romeo and Juliet defy parents and other authorities to pursue their adolescent drives along destructive paths. They do not obey their fathers, and so do not live long in the land (Ex. 20:12). Second, such youthful drives, romantic or otherwise, never conduce to wisdom. These kids need more Proverbs, less passion. “Flee youthful lusts,” says St. Paul (2 Tim. 2:22). Finally, since Shakespeare’s story is supposed to romanticize and glamorize such foolish, disobedient, risky ways, it has little to offer the discerning, Christian consumer of classical literature.

Fair enough. But, again, the expression of such concerns is part of the purpose of the story. Shakespeare himself held to an objective, traditional morality, but his play is not a parable about the dangers of passion or the evils of patriarchy any more than it is a celebration of adolescence or a valorization of maturity. People are overwhelmed unto death by forces larger than their own lives, but which also include their own virtues and vices. That’s the classical meaning of tragedy, it happens in real life all the time, and Christians should meditate deeply upon it. 

Romeo and Juliet are robbed of life, love, and marriage; Capulet and Montague are robbed of their children. Shakespeare does not expect you to decide who are the heroes and who are the villains. Rather, as you read, you should try to sympathize with the characters at the same time that you think about the virtue and vice, wisdom and folly of their actions. In life and literature, hate mixes with honor, love with vice, shame with peace, and virtue with violence and death. 

The play you remember, the one that irritates you, is probably not the one you’ll find in Shakespeare. Read it to soften your cynical modern soul, and sharpen your moral wits.

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Rev. John Henry III

Rev. John Henry III is Pastor of St. James Lutheran Church in Northrop, MN and Zion Lutheran Church in Fairmont, MN.

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