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April 28, 2021

PONTIN | ‘In Fair Verona’

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Shakespeare has long been hailed as a playwright far ahead of his time, crafting stories that fit just as well in our own world as they did in the 16th century when he first penned them. Residues of his plotlines are visible in everything from Disney classics (Hamlet in The Lion King) to 1990s staple rom-coms (The Taming of the Shrew in 10 Things I Hate About You), serving as flexible templates for chronicles of the human experience. 

Perhaps none, however, have been as widely adapted as Romeo and Juliet, the ultimate prototype for the “star-crossed lovers” storyline. If love really does conquer all, why is it that we remain so attached to a tale in which the protagonists are instead conquered by the love they share for one another?

In the span of roughly the last half-century, Romeo and Juliet has seen countless revivals — each a unique breed of the story it is based upon, yet undeniably a reproduction of Shakespeare’s blueprint. Take the Broadway blockbuster West Side Story, for example, which, rather disturbingly, sets ballads and ballroom dance numbers against a troublesome backdrop of gang rivalry. The tragedy is even made palatable for children in the adorable 2011 animation Gnomeo and Juliet, an anecdote of infatuation between two garden gnomes belonging to competitive neighbors. 

More explicitly, film versions of the play have been known to draw major names (and thus major budgets) to the big screen, from Leonardo Dicaprio and Claire Danes in Baz Luhrmann’s edgy 1996 adaptation to Ed Westwick and Paul Giametti in the 2013 version produced in part by Downton Abbey legend Julian Fellowes. It’s hard to imagine any other Shakespeare play being transformed into a widely marketable film in the same way — can you picture yourself settling in for a Macbeth movie night? I’ll pass. (I once had to recite a Lady Macbeth monologue in high school. I’m still a little scarred.)

What is it about the Romeo and Juliet narrative that so vehemently, so viscerally and so vitally appeals to us? The story is stationed about as far as it gets from a feel-good piece. Even the lovingly romantic party and balcony scenes, practically dripping in teenage angst, are spoiled by the ubiquitous awareness of the bitter downturn that waits in Act V. Could it be that we are so enamored by the fleeting love that we choose to look past its preposterous conclusion? Are we drawn to the tragic finale as some sort of twisted consolation for our own failed attempts at love? Do we rationalize the young lovers’ premature ends by casting the eponymous characters off as foolish, naive and overly emotional? 

These inquiries are, of course, almost obscenely cynical. In lieu, I’ll propose the following: although the play takes their names, Romeo and Juliet isn’t really about Romeo, and it isn’t really about Juliet, either. They spend such little time together that we, as the audience, are only barely privy to their blossoming affair; there is only the slimmest opportunity for us to fall in love with the love they have created. Instead, the story is unwaveringly about the seemingly groundless rivalry between the Capulets and the Montagues. This perpetual confrontation is the architectural framework for the entire play, giving it structure and catalyzing each driving event. 

Romeo and Juliet, then, are mere proxies in the battle between their two overarching families. Neither of them are fully developed characters on their own; neither of them are dynamic in the sense that they see profound personal evolution. Their defining characteristics have nothing to do with their personalities or their emotional tendencies, and have everything to do with their last names. 

If anything, the plot seems to center more around Romeo and Tybalt than Romeo and Juliet. It is the tripartite skirmish between Romeo, Tybalt and Mercutio — and the subsequent slaying of the latter two — that serves as the ultimate impetus for the deterioration of the fragile romance just narrowly established in Acts I through III. (Not to mention, Romeo was head over heels for Rosaline up until the very moment he encountered Juliet. Rebound, anyone?) In this way, Romeo and Juliet’s brief relationship is little more than a casualty of the larger conflict.

The resolution between the Montagues and Capulets at the close of the play only concretizes this notion. Romeo and Juliet’s tale is simply a vehicle for exhibiting the larger story of tension between the two families. While the two young lovers lack a redemptive ending, we are comforted and reassured by the presumably far more consequential making of amends between the two houses. It is the positivity inherent in this final ending that legitimizes the tragedy we are forced to bear in Act V; it is this turn of events that completes Romeo and Juliet’s metamorphoses from fatalities into martyrs. 

Romeo and Juliet is a story that feels universal. I feel it would be an oversight, however, to designate it purely as a love story. It is an account of deep-rooted tension, of superfluous strife and of needless violence, with love riding along in a sidecar. The disentrenching of this hatred — not the scarcely-fleshed-out and overwhelmingly superficial connection between Romeo and Juliet — is what validates this piece in Shakespeare’s repertoire as an impenetrable classic. 

Megan Pontin is a sophomore in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She can be reached at mpontin@cornellsun.com. Rewind runs alternate Wednesdays.