Romeo and Juliet is not the only Shakespeare play that the modern world, modern critics and modern teachers get wrong. Truth be told, Shakespeare abuse is rampant. Just about every play is being mistaught and misrepresented. Romeo and Juliet is, however, taught more often than most, probably more often than any other of the Bard’s plays except, perhaps, Julius Caesar. It is, therefore, abused more often, with disastrous consequences, not just on our understanding of the play but on the moral outlook of the numerous high school students who are mistaught it every year.
The fact is that Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, not a romance. This should be obvious from the fact that the play does not end happily ever after with a marriage, as befits a comedy, but possibly damnably ever after with a suicide pact, as befits a tragedy. The problem is that we read the tragedy through the emotion-obsessed eyes of Romanticism, a movement in art and philosophy which would not emerge until almost two hundred years after the play was written. To read the play in this way is not, therefore, to read it in the way in which Shakespeare wrote it. To put the matter bluntly, seeing something noble in the lovers’ self-obsessive and self-destructive passion is to see it with eyes that are blind to the moral that Shakespeare teaches.
Here, in a nutshell, are the facts about the play that emphasize its tragic moral.
Beginning with the context, Shakespeare makes Juliet two years younger than she is in the poem by Arthur Brooke, which is probably his source. In Brooke’s poem she is almost sixteen. Shakespeare chooses to make her only thirteen, a mere child, barely even a teenager. Shakespeare’s own daughter, Susanna, was around the same age as Juliet when Shakespeare is likely to have written the play. The play is, therefore, written by the father of a girl of Juliet’s age. Furthermore, and contrary to the supposition of many of those who teach the play, marriage was not commonplace between teenage girls in Shakespeare’s time. The average age for women to marry was around 24; the average for men was about four years older. (There are no figures for marriages under the age of 15.) In addition, many social historians believe that children reached puberty later in sixteenth century England, the consensus being that girls matured at fourteen or fifteen, and boys at around sixteen. There’s no escaping the fact that Juliet would have been seen by Shakespeare and his audience as a child.
Significantly, Shakespeare chooses to make Romeo older than he is in Brooke’s poem, thereby accentuating the difference in age between the two lovers. Although we are not given Romeo’s age, he is clearly old enough to banter with experienced and worldly peers, such as Mercutio, and is able to beat the fearsome Tybalt in a swordfight. Equally significant, we are told by the Chorus, the nearest we can get to an objective and authoritative voice, that Romeo’s obsession with Juliet is as unhealthy as was his earlier obsession with Rosaline. The Chorus informs us, immediately after Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting and first kiss, that Romeo’s “old desire” is dying because “young affection gapes to be his heir” (the old love makes way for the new). We are told that Romeo “is belov’d and loves again” (making no distinction in kind between Romeo’s obsession with either of the objects of his desire). And most important, the Chorus informs us with its aloof and impartial objectivity, that Romeo is “alike bewitched by the charm of looks.” He is bewitched alike by both women, his feelings in both cases being governed purely and simply by their physical attributes, “the charm of looks.”
The imagery of the first kiss is of the exchange of sin. It is sin that is passed between the lips of the lovers. This same imagery returns in their final kiss, Juliet seeking to share the poison on Romeo’s lips that she might die with him. She then stabs herself with Romeo’s dagger, itself a powerful sexual image depicting the deadliness of their relationship.
“Violent delights have violent ends,” warned Friar Lawrence. His words went unheeded and, therefore, became the words of prophecy, not merely of caution. “All are punish’d,” says the Prince at the play’s gloom-laden conclusion. The Capulets and the Montagues for their enmity towards each other and their neglect of their children, the Prince himself for his negligence in turning a blind eye to the feud between the families, and Romeo and Juliet for allowing “violent delights” to bring them to their “violent ends”.
If there is an innocent victim, it is Juliet, the child thrown unprotected into an adult world for which she was not prepared. As for Romeo, older and therefore having less excuse for not being wiser, he is an incorrigible cad.
Joseph Pearce is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A native of England, Mr. Pearce is Director of Book Publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, editor of Faith & Culture, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. He is the author of numerous books, which include The Quest for Shakespeare, Tolkien: Man and Myth, The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, C. S. Lewis and The Catholic Church, Literary Converts, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile and Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc.