I had a really difficult time deciding which story to pick for the first Story of the Month for 2010. A short story? A novel? A work of creative nonfiction? Or, for a change, how about a play? And then it hit me: I’ve never picked a story by my favorite writer, arguably one of the most prolific writers of all time. And that made the decision a lot easier to make. So, here we go! That’s Classic!’s Story of the Month for January 2010 is none other than William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet!
I’ll assume that most of you have read the Bard’s most infamous play, but for those of you who haven’t: Romeo and Juliet is a five-act play about two young “star-crossed lovers.”
Romeo and Juliet’s families (the Houses of Montague and Capulet, respectively) have been feuding for as long as they can remember, and are known to fight each other to the death in the streets of Verona. To make a long story short (as Shakespeare does), the Capulets throw a masked ball, Romeo and his friends sneak in, he ends up meeting the fair Juliet, and they fall instantly and irrevocably in love…of course, without knowing that they are each other’s sworn enemy. And when they do figure that out (later that night, at the ball), they’re upset about it, but decide to put the feud aside rather than give up on true love.
I’ve read the play three or four times by now, and seen it done (on the stage and in movies) more than that, but it took me reading it just over a year ago in my Beginning Shakespeare class to really get into it. Sure, it’s about the undying (pun definitely intended) love between these two young lovers. But upon my latest read of the play, I’ve realized that Juliet is who steals the show.
Okay, so Romeo’s good looking. He knows how to fight with a sword, or at least how to hold one well enough that he can slay Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt. He can climb up to a second-story balcony. He can ride a horse like the wind to get to his beloved Juliet, whom he believes is dead. But, upon this last read, I realized that he whines through most of the play. “Woe is me. I’m in love with my enemy. I’m too spineless to talk to Daddy or Big Man Capulet about it. Instead, I’ll just mope about and make the Friar and Juliet’s nurse, and even my sweet, sweet Juliet, take care of everything. Oh, woe is me!” (Don’t even get me started on the fact that he kills himself with measly poison.) But you get the idea? It gets to be a little much rather quickly.
But Juliet is an almost silent, unsung tragic heroine. To me, the strongest scene in the entire play is the one where Juliet’s in her bedroom, and her arranged marriage to poster-boy Paris is fast approaching. She had the foresight to beg the Friar for some means by which she could escape marrying Paris and keep her marriage vows to Romeo (since they eloped at the end of Act II, I believe). He gives her a sleeping draught that will temporarily stop her heart, so she’ll be presumed dead. Then the Friar would send word to the banished Romeo (for slaying Tybalt) to come back and wait for the fair Juliet to reawaken and they could flee to another town. But it is what’s going through her head before she drinks the draught that really struck me.
Juliet experiences something in this moment that no other character undergoes anywhere else in the play: true fear. She weighs the possible scenarios of her taking the potion and realizes that none are that great. She could drink the draught and it kills her, then she’ll never see Romeo again. She could drink it and awake too soon, and thus still have to marry Paris. Or she could drink the draught, escape marrying Paris, but awake before Romeo gets to her in the Capulet tomb, and she’d die of either a heart attack (from being surrounded by corpses of her ancestors) or she’d suffocate from being sealed in the tomb.
She can’t bring herself to see any positive outcome. Still, any of those scenarios is better than taking no action and succumbing to her parents’ wish for her to marry Paris. She decided to take the draught and fight for her marriage, to fight for Romeo. It turns out not to kill her, but her fears were valid. It turns out, in the last act of the play, that she had every right to fear the worst.
Whether it was intentional or not, Shakespeare presents Juliet as a rather strong and independent character, considering the time period in which this play takes place and when it was written. Okay, sure, she goes from obeying her parents to obeying her husband, Romeo, but she has a depth to her that I had never previously seen in her. As much as she was crazy in love with Romeo, as much as she was caught up in their whirlwind romance, when it came down to it, she was able to carefully and logically sort out realistic outcomes to her actions in her head. She, unlike the Montagues and Capulets, could slow down and be rational. She, unlike Romeo, actively fought to save their marriage. (Plus, the fact that she plunges a knife into her heart is pretty impressive, considering that Romeo wussed out and chose death by poison.)
But Romeo and Juliet is more than the sum of its parts. It’s more than just a love story about two young lovers that bring about their own demise. It’s a timeless classic of, yes, love, but about how your own selfish actions can forever change your life, the lives of those you love, and even your entire town. And the language—oh my gosh, the language!—it’s written in is genius work all its own. That’s what helps to make the play so memorable: that insanely beautiful iambic pentameter that Shakespeare made look as simple as dotting i’s and crossing t’s.
Really, Romeo and Juliet is an unparalleled masterpiece of literature. So if you haven’t experienced its wonder and majesty yet, then I urge you to give it a read. And if you’re one of the many lucky ones who have already experienced it, then I urge you to give it another read. Perhaps you’ll be as surprised as I was about Juliet, or perhaps the Bard will surprise you with something completely different. It’s all there. All you need to do is give it a read (or a re-read).