Why the modern view of this romance should be questioned and reframed
|The emergence of modern thinking has been generally credited to the work of humanist scholars in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, who started the process of secular and non traditional thought via a systematic resuscitation and rehabilitation of the history, philosophy and science of the pre-Christian classical period. This movement also paralleled the beginnings of new scientific research, the schismatic devolution of centralized religious authority based in Rome, the rise of commercial/industrial cities, and the absolute monarchies that increasingly ruled over them, who either owed very little to the old world order, and/or it owed a very great deal to them.
The story of Romeo and Juliet originated in Italy in the late fifteenth century, was translated into English just after the mid sixteenth and Shakespeare wrote his version of it as a play in its last decade.
Over that century, modern ideas had taken root, and by its end, were making their way into popular culture via theatre. This romantic tragedy encapsulates the beginnings of a journey that would start with a world populated by overwhelmingly powerful adults who, supported by a long and dense tradition of parental authority, ruled their children absolutely. Children of more powerful families were cyphers to the strategic reproductive alliances formed by the heads of their clans. Personal choice was not an option.
‘Childthink’, as first laid out in this tale through the eyes of two very young lovers, starts its journey as a brief subversion of this powerful adult oversight, in a fictional late medieval Verona, and ends four hundred years later in mass intergenerational role reversal throughout the consumer economies of the late-modern world.
Shakespeare plots the first moves towards what would ultimately become an infantile adolescent consciousness, run by an equally overwhelmingly powerful, dense and institutionally re-enforced totalitarian power of the state rather than family, and then, its apotheosis, the market.
The modern ‘take’ on Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ has tended to emphasize the thwarting of romantic love by an adult society too full of its own agendas and conflicts to have much room or regard for its passion and beauty. Part of the playwright’s consummate skill is that while he does dramatize our sense of the power and rapture of young love, he also shows what happens when willful, naïve, egoistic, high risk taking and eventually desperate young people confront much more powerful social forces. The lovers rapidly find themselves hopelessly out of their depth and forced to gamble against ever multiplying risk contingencies, ever heavier odds and ever higher stakes.
Friar Laurence, the one supposedly responsible mentoring character who through judicious delay and counsel could have assisted these two very young people to exercise some caution and judgment, ends up indulging their instant marital whims for reasons scarcely less unworldly than his proteges. He actually thinks that an unsanctioned elopement with anyone, let alone a representative of a bitter family enemy, might be acceptable to either the Montagues or Capulets and might even bring their bitter feud to an end to boot!
Much more likely, such an illicit match would only serve to enrage everyone, make life extremely difficult for the young people and further inflame inter-clan tensions. By agreeing to marry this couple in secret, he is feeding highly explosive material into an already volatile environment.
Juliet’s old nurse, who knows exactly what is going on from the beginning of her mistress’s affair, behaves without any regard for her (Juliet’s) long term interests or any sense of obligation to her parents and long time employers. Instead of treating Juliet as if she had taken leave of her senses, remonstrating with her and if necessary, warning her parents (which she was duty bound to do) she indulges folly and betrays the trust that has been placed in her.
Romeo and Juliet were not so much star crossed lovers as children whose ill luck was heavily leveraged by their own inconsequential, self indulgent, rebellious and deceitful conspiracy, then compounded by inexcusable failures of mentorship and family loyalty by people who should have known better, and capped by the destabilizing dynamic of a powerful and conflicted adult milieu that had no idea what these two young scalawags were up to.
If anyone was crossed it was their parents and family members who were killed, or left to grieve their terrible losses afterward. None of the victims of this romantic imbroglio would have been killed had any of the conspirators met the reasonable expectations of their employer, ecclesiastical calling, family and social station.
Passion is no excuse for irresponsible behavior, nor is it a defense against the ‘bad luck’ it creates for itself. Neither is the indulger of such behavior any less accountable for its disastrous outcomes than the main protagonists. If I had been a parent to one of those children, I would have had friar Laurence’s hide for codpieces. If I were Capulet, ‘Dear Nursey’ might only fare a little better because her willfulness was almost matched by her stupidity.
The clan feud didn’t cause all that mayhem. It was hardly more than a backdrop to it, which makes all that family remorse and repentance at the end of the play seem so much schmaltzy tear jerk. Struggles between powerful families within Italian city states of the period in which the play is set, were an unavoidable consequence of the factional oligarchic governance that blighted all of them at one time or another.
Such struggles couldn’t be curbed until much more powerfully centralized authority brought them to heel and absorbed them into its processes. This could not be accomplished merely by threats of force to contain the violence (which is what happens in the play) but through substantial institution building, i.e.; the creation of absolutist monarchies that had emerged as nation states in the seventy-five to a hundred years prior to ‘Romeo and Juliet’ being written.
Shakespeare was speaking to Tudor audiences for whom the political disturbance and instability of the late medieval period in England were still fresh in the collective memory. The considerable benefits of concentrating power into the hands of monarch, royal bureaucracy and growing national institutions were as obvious to them as the nearly brand new theater they were standing in. And Shakespeare was not backward in implicitly backing this emerging new order by drawing attention to the deficits of the old one.
But what he was also insinuating to his audiences, was that at the edges of this came subversive ideas about the sovereignty of the individual over the traditional claims of family, community and Church.
The playwright picks up on this by making a romantic hero and heroine out of very young people behaving willfully (at least by the standards of the day) and then shifting the blame for the terrible outcomes onto their parents, and the unstable old world order they inhabited.
Yet he is not so modern as to fail to recognize the chaotic and deadly possibilities inherent in asserting individual choice against responsible judgment and the still very powerful collective will. In the end he comes down on the side of modernity, but only just. Thus he gently maneuvers his contemporary audience towards the beginnings of a modern world view, without jarring them to the extent of compromising the entertainment, or getting himself into trouble with ‘The Authorities’.
His ambiguity in this continues to weave latter day modern audiences into the story as if it were their own, because from their viewpoint, the tragedy is of the traditionalists’ making. We sympathize with the self indulgent and indulgent attitude of the young and adult conspirators as being ‘romantic’ and ‘reasonable’ in some sense (albeit ‘risky’ behavior about which we suspend at least some of our judgment). The admissions of ‘fault’ by traditional society in the last scene confirms those prejudices and leaves the audience with an emotionally compelling and a neatly satisfying end to what is to them is a self justifying moral tale of the legitimacy of young love and the right of individual agency against all comers.
One might speculate that Tudor audiences would have had much more ‘robust’ alehouse and dinner table post mortem debates about that. In an age of severe social and religious conformity, the bard was being subversive in ways that would be risky outside of a theatre, which had a reputation for disreputability anyway, to the extent that not long after his death, all theatre was banned for a generation.
Perhaps if Shakespeare had been writing more recently, our Hero and Heroine’s increasingly hazardous plans might have been allowed to work, but their grand romance may not have survived a life of exile and the very likely poverty of disinheritance. One suspects that the sequel would have been an ugly tragi-comedy of hand-to-mouth squalor and disillusionment, only to be mercifully ended by a Capulet assassin and Juliet’s kidnap back to Verona and a nunnery. Perhaps it is just as well they died romantically at the end of the first and only episode, for a second one would only serve to underline how very unlikely and contrived the original plot was.
The world has come a long way since the late Medieval period in which the play is set. Our children hardly have to contend with traditional family and institutional expectations anymore. They have been so weakened they are not capable of exerting much authority. It is the world of adolescence that has now become powerfully institutionalized. Our little Romeos and Juliets rule and the adults suck! They have rights! Their bodies are sacrosanct in ways that were once only tolerated for princes and princesses of the royal line. Parents have been turned into their servants and in-house ATM machines.
Of course they do not really rule, nor do the anonymous adults that manipulate them and entrench adolescent values suck. Behind the scenes the children are contained, channeled, indulged and exploited by the Pied Pipers of Cool in ways that are every bit as damaging to them as the earlier work of fascist and communist youth movements, and the fictional characters who helped to undo poor wretched Romeo and Juliet, all those centuries ago.
In the play, the wayward youth managers, the priest and the nurse, cause an inter-clan massacre that kills everyone who was anyone under twenty.
The Waffen SS veterans who in 1944 so successfully trained the elite boy soldiers of the 12th 'Hitler Youth' SS Panzer Division, doomed most them to be killed-in-action in the vicious battles following the Normandy invasion.
The millions of young Red Guards who during Mao zedong's cultural revolution of the mid to late 1960s, were encouraged to drag their parents, other adult relatives, teachers and local Party Officials before Peoples' Courts, beat them up and accused them of counter-revolutionary crimes, were themselves grotesquely scarred by these terrible events. Many suffered long and very adult periods of 're-education' when the political tide went against them after Mao died. And it was not the sort of ‘education’ that would make up for the years of lost schooling and normal family and community life.
Today's little 'Consumerbabelets', who have been stripped of all mentorship except for messages from the sponsors, are condemned to a life without moral or existential boundaries, or emotional security, or the capacity to discipline themselves and ultimately their own children, when their turn comes to mentor another generation. And the consequences are that they become the most abject servants of the pervasive, persistent and paralysing voices that continually get into their heads with messages proudly brought to them by…..
The only difference today is that the most recent damage sites tend to (but not always) hemorrhage psychological software instead of blood. This can still chronically disable or wipe the victims out in scenes every bit as distressing in their own way as the finale in Shakespeare’s play, or the battlefields of Normandy or the disrupted family life, schools and universities of China.
If the responsible agents in any society cannot or will not appropriately protect, guide, discipline and nurture their children into secure, responsible, thoughtful and unselfish individuals, not only do they betray them, but the society’s future as well. . And that applies today every bit as any other time in history.
Some things just never change.
PS: If you found this of some interest, have a look at my follow up piece on the subject of adolescence and the modern Romeo and Juliet....