What's Love Got to Do with It?
I admire Shakespeare’s knack for characterization. Gore Vidal once said, “Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players, and Tennessee Williams has about 5, and Samuel Beckett one — and maybe a clone of that one. I have 10 or so, and that’s a lot. As you get older, you become more skillful at casting them.”
In other words, all authors have a finite amount characters they can write. They might switch the character’s name or gender, add a speech impediment, but they remain the same character.
Plenty of brilliant authors have less than 10 characters in them. Shakespeare had more than anyone. Mercutio is different from Romeo who is different from Juliet who is different from Hamlet, Laertes, Cordelia, Falstaff, Brutus, Iago and so on.
Shakespeare had no qualms about borrowing plots from myth, history and other writers. There are, after all, only so many stories to tell. His genius lay in the language and his characters.
I both enjoy and respect Shakespeare. (I read plenty of authors whom I respect but do not enjoy — Dickens, for example — or enjoy but merit less.) What I do not enjoy is when people call “Romeo and Juliet” a love story.
It’s a great story; but it is not, as News-Herald theater critic Bob Abelman called it, “the world’s greatest love story.”
Instead, “Romeo and Juliet” is one of the best stories about teenage lust and morbidity.
Romeo is capriciously amorous. He’s already smitten by Rosaline before the curtain rises but forgets her with one glance at Juliet. Had Romeo lived, I’m sure he’d regret his quick marriage and pine for the next bella in less than a month.
(Can you imagine Romeo and Juliet five years later, disaffected and arguing over whether to name their son Tybalt or Mercutio.)
Meanwhile, Juliet is obsessed with mortality. She threatens to kill herself four of five times before her happy dagger finds the mark. “Nurse, tell me what happened to Romeo or I’ll kill myself.” “Dad, if you make me marry Paris, I’ll kill myself.” “Cook, if you make macaroni one more time, I’ll kill myself.”
Even when she’s happy, death fascinates her. After she marries Romeo, she notes that when her husband dies, she wants to chop him into tiny pieces and throw him into the sky so he can shine like the stars. This is not just a pretty soliloquy. It’s a glimpse into her morbid mind.
Who — moments after their marriage — starts talking about burial options and dismemberment?
Romeo and Juliet are both teens — prone to hormonal overreaction. One is a fickle lover, the other a necro-obsessive. Their shared tragedy is guaranteed from the opening monologue.
So, no, “Romeo and Juliet” is not about love. It’s about lust, isolationism, prejudice and the deluge of emotions that come with puberty, but not love.
Of course, that doesn’t make it any less brilliant.
-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com