Story of the Month, January 2010

One of several covers for the play Romeo and Juliet. Thanks to iliadreader.co.uk for the use of this image.

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).

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Published in: on January 16, 2010 at 2:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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Character Map for Romeo and Juliet

Here is a map that I have created for the characters of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in the hopes that it will help readers better understand and visualize the relationships between characters in this play. I believe that this character map is a little less cluttered than my Pride and Prejudice map, and hopefully my character maps will only continue to improve in visual quality.

(NOTE: Right-click the link below and choose “Open in New Tab” or “Open in New Window” to view the character map without leaving this blog post.)

Romeo and Juliet Character Map

Published in: on February 21, 2009 at 2:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Top 10 Classics, According to That’s Classic!

Any Top 10 list of classics would be highly subjective, just like any list of Top 10 albums or movies would be. (Is it any wonder why the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies list changed so much in ten years’ time?) It all really comes down to personal preference and what you look for when you pick up a book. Action? Drama? Dialogue? Scene? Characters? Mind candy? Well, chances are, if you’re looking merely for mind candy, then you’ll be disappointed with this Top 10 list. Because this list is all about books that stretch your mind and your beliefs and your morals. This list has books that change you, that take you on a journey, that reveal something about life—and yourself—to you. This is my list of Top 10 Classics. These are the books that have changed my life. I hope that you’ll give them a chance to change your life, too. And, this goes without saying, they all come with my highest recommendation. (Complete analysis soon to follow.)

  1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky-I can’t help but put this epic of classic literature at the top of my list. C&P follows Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, a young ex-university student who, like most of those around him, can barely get by. He convinces himself that he is a “superman,” and therefore doesn’t need to follow the same moral code as everyone else. As a result of this belief, he plans to murder a local pawnbroker, someone who he feels has wronged him and many others by paying small amounts for their prized possessions they must sell to survive. When he does finally kill the pawnbroker, her sister catches him, so Raskolnikov has no choice but to kill the sister, a murder he had not planned on. He spends the rest of the book battling his conscious and madness–which are perhaps the same thing–as he weighs his options. To confess or not to confess? To succumb to guilt or prove to himself that he is indeed a superman and without guilt? While the setting of this book is foreign to modern-day readers, Raskolnikov’s struggle with his own guilt and mortality are things that today’s readers can understand, or at least relate to. Dostoevsky writes with such honesty and really explores the human mind. He is able to sway our prior convictions about murderers and convinces us to sympathize with Raskolnikov and his moral ambiguity. For more about this masterpiece, please see the Story of the Month, December 2008 by clicking here.
  2. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  3. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
  4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  6. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
  7. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  8. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  9. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
  10. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov-This book completely took me by surprise. I had heard mixed reviews of it; I think people either hate it or love it. There’s a similar reaction to the book’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert: people either hate him or love him (in a manner of speaking). There’s no real surprise there. Humbert’s a man in his thirties who seems “normal” to everyone he meets but confesses to us readers (in Nabokov’s expertly-crafted novel-as-mock-deposition) his deepest and darkest pedophilic thoughts. In this almost journal-like novel, Humbert re-tells his sexual history including how he met, seduced, and carried on a relationship with the pre-teen Lolita. As disturbing as that may sound, it is nevertheless a wonderfully written book. The reason this book surprised me so much was that I really liked Humbert. I found him unbelievably interesting and clever and oh-so-charming. Like Dostoevsky teaches us to accept and even like Raskolnikov, Nabokov teaches us to at least listen to the ever-amusing Humbert Humbert. He is truly one of the most interesting characters that I’ve ever encountered.