‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo. ’(Shakespeare, 1972). These words have resounded across stages in theatres over and over again, through the centuries and up to the present time; they are still as powerful and as well recognized as they were when they were first said. On more than one occasion, I have tried to picture a modern day Romeo and Juliet, who find themselves under the same circumstances. Because of a deep and longstanding enmity between their two families, maybe arising from political rivalry, they are not allowed to have a relationship, let alone marry.
Would the present day couple go to the same extremes that Shakespeare’s lovers do? The circumstances would be vastly different, of course, but I do wonder if emotions run as deep now as they did then in the time of Shakespeare. By looking at Shakespeare’s work, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, I will try to surmise what take the Great Shakespeare had on this ever interesting subject and how much the concept of what love constitutes has changed since then. Romeo and Juliet in our time Romantic love remains romantic love, no matter the time and age.
In the first scene of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Benvolio is empathizing with Romeo on matters of the heart, the subject- Rosaline. Romeo is suffering the standard symptoms of infatuation; he is restless and miserable as he is almost totally preoccupied with Rosaline. He bemoans the hours spent away from her presence; he tries to describe to a patient Benvolio the overwhelming attributes of her glowing beauty. Cupid’s arrow has struck him straight in the heart. Benvolio, just as a male ‘buddy’ would do today, listens with a reserve of patience and understanding. Probably he has seen this phase before, when his friend was taken by another girl.
He knows the rush that comes in the first stages of attraction. He probably perceives better than the afflicted Romeo, whose judgment is impaired by ’love’, that what his friend is suffering from is a high level crush. His remedy is too close to what a man would tell his buddy today it is eerie; that Romeo should try and distract himself by looking at other girls. Like a prophesy being fulfilled along comes Juliet; Rosaline, now just a faint wisp of a dream, is summarily dismissed. The ease, alacrity and finality with which Romeo dismisses his former love leaves us in doubt about the strength of Romeo’s character.
Is he a person whose emotions are easily and constantly swayed? Does he really love Juliet or is it another case of Rosaline-fever? Is he attracted to Juliet just because she represents the ‘forbidden fruit’? Romeo’s statement when he first sets eyes on Juliet reaffirms our suspicions that he might be rather shallow. He says to Mercutio, that he believes he has never loved, since he has never seen a girl as beautiful as Juliet is. Romeo gauges the strength of his feelings on the physical. Juliet on the other hand has just learnt that she is betrothed to a man (Paris) for whom she holds no affection.
Though her nurse praises him to the high heavens, he is not her choice and she lives in dread of meeting him face to face. Though in the western world today the instances of parents choosing one’s spouse are rare and far between, it was the norm at the time. Juliet did not favor the arrangement, but neither did it occur to her to go against her father’s wish. She had resigned herself to her fate, at least until Romeo came along. For Juliet, Romeo is the equivalent of the knight in shining armor. From the word go, she is besotted with Romeo; he represents everything that Paris does not, starting from his physical attributes.
Again, there is the element of the forbidden fruit. Romeo is of the house of Montague, her father’s sworn enemy. The Friar, who is in full knowledge of the feelings Romeo had for Rosaline is troubled by the sudden change in the tide. He is in doubt of the resilience of Romeo’s love for Juliet. He asks of Romeo how deep his affections run and on what is it grounded. Romeo takes offence because for him it is enough that he loves Juliet. The friar does agree to wed them since the young couple cannot have it any other way. All through the play, the animosity between the two families are constantly highlighted.
The bitterness between the Capulet and Montague runs so deep that even their servants cannot abide the presence of each other. In the infamous balcony scene, Juliet warns Romeo that if he were to be found within the courtyard, he would be as good as dead. This is the level of opposition that the two lovers face, yet they do not despair. They are determined that their love shall be consummated (Forker, 1990). But fate, if fate is what determines the destiny of the two lovers, thwarts their efforts even if humans cannot. Juliet kills herself thinking that Romeo is dead, she cannot leave without him.
It is a double suicide, the climactic ending to their short-lived and intense romance (Forker, 1990). Shakespeare, without appearing unsympathetic draws for us an accurate picture of what the passion of the young can lead to because a good dose of passion it seems, chases out rational thought. Neither Romeo nor Juliet had to die, but in their young hot blooded passion fogged minds, there was no middle ground, they had to have each other or nothing at all. How many times, do we use phrases along the lines of ‘love is blind’? It appears that the more things change, the more they stay the same (Cartwright, 1987). Conclusion
Basic human emotions remain unchanged with time. Be it in four centuries ago when Shakespeare lived and penned his dramas, or in the present day and time, our lives are still wracked with jealousy, pain, hate and love. For love, the rules of the game have not changed much either. Society might have altered a few rules here and there such as how one displays their affection, or that one gets to choose their spouse, but the basic plot is the same. The player’s roles are as much as they would be today: ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the hero and heroine, so absorbed in their world of love that they cast everyone else to the periphery (Cartwright, 1987).
The man’s ‘buddies’ or his ‘boys’ Benvolio and Mercutio, telling Romeo exactly what a man would tell an infatuated friend today, that to get her off his mind, he should go see what other fish there are in the sea. On Juliet’s side her nurse plays the role of girlfriend and confidante, whose loyalty is with her (Juliet). Though at first she praises Paris and encourages Juliet to consider him because she feels it is in Juliet’s best interest, she colludes with Juliet to in the latter’s elopement scheme. All of a sudden, Romeo is much better than Paris, because Juliet thinks it so.
How often does a girlfriend tell her friend exactly what she wants to hear? Girlfriends are unfailingly loyal, one who hurts her friend, hurts her as well. Friar Laurence is the unheeded voice of reason who tries to reign in the impulses of the two lovers because in his wisdom he knows that unchecked passion might lead to a tragic end. Of course, as would be the case today, he is an ‘old stodgy man’ and his voice goes unheard. Paris, the spurned suitor and Rosaline are there to illustrate that love is not forced but comes naturally. Lovers cannot be told who to love, love just happens at its own time and of is own volition.
The grown ups from both sides of the families-the Capulets and the Montagues, stand for the challenges that lovers do face. A name, in ‘Romeo and Juliet’s case, is a curse, just as today it might be social class, or race or even education. It is up to the lovers to see if their love is greater than the challenges they face, what measures they can take to do away with them and how much they are willing to sacrifice in the name of love. For Juliet and Romeo, the price ended up too high, though tit did not go to waste since it brought about the re-union of their families. Love is an overwhelming passion which seems to be Shakespeare’s message.
From ‘Romeo and Juliet’, to Othello and Desdemona, he illustrates that love is all consuming, emotion that is not to be toyed with. The characters in Shakespeare’s plays take their commitments extremely seriously.
Cartwright, Kent. Shakespearean Tragedy and Its Double: The Rhythms of Audience Response. Pennsylvania: Penn State Press, 1987 Forker, Charles R Fancy’s images: contexts, settings, and perspectives in Shakespeare and his contemporaries Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990 Shakespeare, William & Perry, Ruth. William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Chicago: Dramatic Publishing, 1972