Even in Romeo and Juliet, dying is not easy

Alyssa Rosenberg wrote last week in a short essay at Slate on a new production of Romeo and Juliet: “Romeo and Juliet—a play about children—is full of terrible, deeply childish ideas about love. And as much as I want to see more interracial couples in pop culture and more diverse casts on stage and screen, I don’t want to see them cast in material that is so horribly depressing.”  I cannot abide such a deeply flawed understanding of Romeo and Juliet, from one of the keenest culture writers on the internet no less,  to pass un-noted.

I love Romeo and Juliet. I love it. I want teenagers to read the play and experience flight of fancy that is romance and chaos and Shakespeare. And I want adults to read the play as adults, and discard any memory of that week in high-school in which the play was “discussed” as a flight of fancy about romance and Shakespeare.

If one can ignore our modern impulsive reactions and engage in the actual play, there is such humor and sadness and magic to be found.  As a Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet is strangely forthright, if not hyper-direct. It’s also considered to be among his weakest works. That’s wrong, and the play deserves defense against the unmerited notion that Romeo and Juliet is silly childish romance incapable of carrying it’s weight 400 years later.

I defended Romeo and Juliet in college to a professor who would reject it out of hand. I wrote at length about the play in grad school, amongst ‘very serious Shakespeare students’ who sought to leave such kids’ stuff behind in favor of countless new historical interpretations of Caliban and feminist readings of Twelfth Night. I don’t care much about the academic rejection of Romeo and Juliet, because at least the simple, striking exuberance of Romeo and Juliet has remained valued by the popular culture at large. Which is where, at heart, Shakespeare belongs.

Now, even that appears at risk.

RandJ

Detractors of the play, in this case Alyssa, find its themes “childish,” the intemperate behavior of the plays characters and their notions of love “embarrassing and unsettling for today’s theater audiences.” Perhaps this is true. It’s possible today’s audiences cannot sufficiently suspend themselves to engage meaningfully in Romeo and Juliet. But if so, it says more about our failure to teach Shakespeare, or produce it effectively, than it does to the failures of Romeo and Juliet.  But this is not the point I most want to address.

What I want directly to engage here is the manner in which Alyssa addresses the ending of Romeo and Juliet. Says Alyssa:

“But beyond that, the vision of Romeo and Juliet’s deaths uniting their families is an adolescent fantasy of death solving all problems, a “won’t they miss me when I’m gone” pout. There’s a reason that, in the best modern riff on Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Maria lives after Tony’s death to shame the Sharks and the Jets, her survival a seal on the truce between them. Dying is easy. Living to survive the consequences of your actions and to do the actual work of reconciliation is the hard part.”

My goodness, this is wrong. Dying is easy? In what world is dying easy? The reconciliation of feuding families at the death of their children is, indeed, fantasy. But even in this fantasy, dying is not easy.

In fact, with a bit of trepidation, I might argue that death in Shakespeare is never easy. Death in Shakespeare is hard, and cold, and terrifying. It may be meted out with little concern by madmen, but the act of death does not pass lightly. Even at one’s own hand death is never quick or easy. And mourning for our dead is equally all of these things.

Revisit Romeo’s final soliloquy. He is both mourning Juliet’s death and about to die himself. Her “death” is ruse but being unaware of this fact, Romeo stands in a tomb above his lover’s corpse, which remains as yet beautiful and untouched by her new paramour, death. His words are filled with beauty, and loss, and fear about the fate of his dead Juliet. “Unsubstantial death is amorous;” will he take her as his new lover? Rather than leave his love to be claimed by “death’s pale flag,” Romeo will die to protect his lover from the “lean abhorred monster.” Romantic and poetic musing on death; and a fantasy. Romeo knows what death really means: stuck in a tomb, forever, with worms as “thy chamber-maid.”

It’s a beautiful, tender soliloquy from a man whose love is dead. That he takes his life is not easy; it’s not heroic or romantic or strong. It is simply tragic. This is tragedy after all. The striking element of Romeo and Juliet is that Romeo and Juliet are not meant for this end. The play’s first two acts are comedy, not tragedy, and Romeo and Juliet are meant to fall in love and marry, as so many other of Shakespeare’s comic couples*. “The quickness with which [Romeo] throws over a former flame for Juliet,” as Alyssa highlights to show Romeo’s immaturity, in the play establishes the reality of his love for Juliet and their ensuing romantic thrills. But fate is cruel, and without cause or accord, their lives are thrust into the claustrophobic grip of tragedy, and they cannot escape their deaths.

The reconciliation that arrives in the end of Romeo and Juliet is not a salve, it does not represent victory in the play; the world is not made right, it is made more wrong, on account of the lost lives of young lovers. The deaths of Romeo and Juliet are not a plot mechanism, a deus ex machina meant to correct a social wrong, or provide reconciliation to two feuding families.

What Alyssa calls the hard part, “the actual work of reconciliation,” that she believes Romeo and Juliet avoid by doing the easy thing, dying, does not occur in Romeo and Juliet. There is no “actual work of reconciliation.” There is no peace offered by Shakespeare to the Montagues and Capulets. They shake hands and exchange jointure–itself not a moment a parent likely finds reconciling. The audience for Romeo and Juliet is not asked to learn about reconciliation. Nor are we to asked to forget the darkness or remember that this is just fantasy, as Shakespeare advises elsewhere. Here, the audience is told to “go hence to have more talk of these sad things.” Because death is sad. And tragic. It is not easy.

All are punish’d. The end.

*For more on the comedy/tragedy dynamic, read Marjorie Garber’s excellent Romeo and Juliet chapter in her book, Shakespeare After All.

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