Romeo and Juliet: “Why Do We Read This Play?” (Part II of 3)

Romeo and Juliet: “Why Do We Read This Play?” (Part II of 3)

Posted on August 23, 2012 by Open Air Shakespeare NRV

Hello loyal subscribers and first time readers!

On Tuesday I posted an article about why schools are required to read “Romeo and Juliet.” I’d like to continue with another answer that is not quite as good, but has shaped the course of the play’s history.

Romeo and Juliet: Why Do We Have To Read This Play?

Answer # 2: We still read it because at one time, Romeo and Juliet was considered to be good for ‘moral instruction.’

In the 1770s, Shakespeare’s plays were read aloud, not as dramatic literature, but moral lectures to teach people about jealousy or love or ambition (Source: This American Life). Shakespeare was considered by many to be “The best judge of human nature,” as the dedication page says on the 1753 edition of Romeo and Juliet. This 18th century concept continued into the 19th, as evidenced in this painting, The Reconciliation Of the Capulets and Montegues, 1854.

“The Reconciliation of the Capulets and Montegues ” by Frederick Leighton, 1856.

Notice how in this picture, we see Romeo and Juliet as the lightest objects in the play, while their parents are directly center, holding hands. The “glooming peace” starts with the window, reflects off the dead lovers, and inspires the parents.

To readers and playgoers in the genteel age of the 18th and 19th centuries, Romeo and Juliet seem to champion love and peaceful co-existence, making the play seems to be a good play to teach young people. There is evidence in the play that supports this idea that Shakespeare was judging the youthful Romeo and Juliet to be morally superior to their parents. Shakespeare describes their parent’s hate as a canker or a parasite, sucking the life out of a flower, the feud has infected so much of Romeo and Juliet’s world, that it makes it impossible for their love to take root. In response, the young fight with their peaceful love to save the destructive world that their parents have created, and die as a sacrifice to true love. Looking at it this way, Romeo and Juliet take on a Christ-like status, dying to redeem their parent’s sins, which certainly would have appealed to the predominantly Christian audiences of the 18th and 19th centuries.

This approach does have its problems though:

  • Problem #2: The Language is FILTHY! When people like David Garrick adapted Romeo and Juliet, he cut all of Sampson and Gregory’s dirty jokes, and most of Mercutio’s. Even audiences today might be shocked to learn that one passage in Romeo and Juliet is still considered by modern standards to be PG-13:Problem #1: Although he dies nobly, Romeo also engages in many immoral behaviors, including his attempts to seduce Rosalind at the start of the play, his hot-blooded murder of Tybalt, and his purchase of illegal drugs from the Apothecary.
  • Mercutio:
    • Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
      And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
      As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
      Romeo, that she were, O, that she were
      An open a**, thou a poperin pear!

Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene ii

I won’t go into what Mercutio is actually talking about when he mentions the pear-like medlars, which women used to joke about when they were alone. Suffice it to say that if you ever believed that Shakespeare ennobles us because he only speaks in proper, age-appropriate language, I can only say that you are:

  • Problem #3: Nobody ever thinks in this play!
Claire Danes from “Romeo and Juliet” (1996) holds a gun to her head, and threatens suicide rather than marrying Paris.
Claire Danes from “Romeo and Juliet” (1996) holds a gun to her head, and threatens suicide rather than marrying Paris.
    •  Even though their parent’s feud is morally wrong, neither Romeo nor Juliet try to deal with it in a lasting, practical way, but instead try to run away from the problem. As Peter Saccio says in his lecture on Shakespearean tragedy, this approach is highly flawed: “Romeo and Juliet cannot live outside the social strata that their parents have created,” which means that they can’t run away forever or their lives will literally waste away. However lovely Romeo and Juliet’s  love is, it blinds their judgement too.
    • Even Friar Lawrence acts rashly as this wonderful video demonstrates:
  • Problem #4: The parents, (especially Lord Capulet), are also terrible moral figures-
  • As you can see in this lovely video from the BBC, Capulet attempts to fix his daughter up with an arranged marriage to manipulate the Prince to favor the Capulets. When Juliet refuses, Capulet reacts violently and threatens to disown her and hit her. Hardly an example of proper fatherly devotion.

Looking at all these examples, one could make the argument that Romeo and Juliet is a better example of immoral behavior. One could even argue that the tragic death of the two lovers was just the natural consequence of  their hasty, overly passionate affair.

As dubious as the morals in this play are, they can and have been used to construct several moral arguments, such as arguments against  pre-marrital sex,  or  arguments to pursue peace, or arguments for young people to be wiser in relationships. Each one is legitimate and Shakespeare gives each one its time to shine.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for Part III!

-Shakespeare Guru

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