“For never was a story of more woe. Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
It would seem that Romeo & Juliet was meant as a cautionary tale. But works which aim to promote or excite audiences have been known to use the concept of cautionary tale as a figleaf.
So, did Shakespeare really mean Romeo & Juliet to be a cautionary tale? Was it actually meant to be something to look up to? Was it just a non-moralistic examination of a particular state of mind and relationships in which the same way that The wolf of Wall Street can look at crooked people without actively condemning or condoning them?
I’ve met (and dated) people who seemed to think of Romeo & Juliet is an inspiring, perhaps the best, love story. What elements would draw someone to Romeo & Juliet as an example to look up to? How do they minimize the obvious ways in which that kind of love is destructive?
There are a lot of things that Romeo and Juliet might be, but a love story is definitely not one of them. We’re talking about a thirteen-year-old girl, and a boy probably not much older than that who jumps from one infatuation to the next at a drop of a masque. The only way anyone could think it’s a love story is if they’ve never actually seen it, and just heard references and maybe the occasional quote.
I will leave others to give their opinions on the Play as it’s been quite some time since I read it. However, always be wary of people who tell you what Shakespeare really thinks. Shakespeare by-and-large is not didactic. What he’s good at is giving opposing views a sympathetic hearing.
As with all of his plays (save possibly The Merry Wives of Windsor) Shakespeare adapted an existing work, in this case The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke, 1562, which was in turn taken from a novella by the early 16th century Italian writer Bandello. The main thrust of both the source works is tragical, as witness Brooke’s title, although of course love plays a hugely important part in the tragedy. Shakespeare mantains this thrust, while transforming the tale to pure gold.
You’re free to interpret it as something-other-than-a-love-story if you want, but arguing that only someone who had never seen or read the play could see it as a love story is just silly. I have read, seen, and taught it many times, and I think it’s a love story. (That doesn’t, of course, preclude it from being about lots of other things in addition to love, which it certainly is.)
I don’t want to argue that the “this is a tale of two infatuated teenagers doing something stupid and rash” interpretation is absolutely anachronistic for the period (the narrator in Shakespeare’s source, Arthur Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet, does state that the poem’s message is something along these lines, although even there, it’s complicated by the fact that the audience is clearly supposed to pity and empathize with the young lovers). Shakespeare’s play, however, does nothing in particular to push the audience toward that interpretation, and plenty to pull against it; Romeo and Juliet get all of the good poetry and pretty nearly all of the audience’s sympathy, and the only character who expresses the view that they may not be mature enough to fall in love is Friar Laurence, who briefly chides Romeo for changing his mind about Rosaline, but is persuaded to marry them anyway. I’d add that Elizabethan audiences 1) did not generally have a problem accepting the idea of love at first sight – it’s a staple element in drama and fiction from the period, and most of the time it’s not framed as something we’re supposed to be skeptical about*; and 2) would have regarded Juliet, who is within days of her fourteenth birthday, as young but essentially adult, fully capable of consenting to marriage.
Pretty much the only element in the play that would tend to encourage skepticism, in this particular case, is Romeo’s prior infatuation with Rosaline, but one can argue far more convincingly that this is meant to be a touchstone so that the audience can see the contrast between his love for Rosaline (which is solitary, one-sided, and expresses itself mostly in by-the-numbers Petrarchan musings about love) and his love for Juliet (which is reciprocal, and the way they talk with each other is fundamentally different from the way he talks about Rosaline).
The fact that Juliet is only 13 (and Romeo not much older) was not unusual at all from the time it was written until fairly recently (the prudish, Victorian age). English common-law age of consent was generally 12 up until then. And the word ‘tragedy’ today means something very, very, unusually bad. Back then it was just a story trope, and a rather popular one…
I won’t spoil your reading pleasure by quoting at length but the author asks the question in the title because of stuff like:
Romeo tried to pay Rosaline to have sex with him.
Lord Capulet doesn’t stand in their way.
Romeo was probably twice Juliet’s age in the original story.
The actual starring roles of the play were the nurse and Mercutio. In fact Juliet speaks more lines to the nurse than to Romeo.
When the average life expectancy is around 45 for males and even less for females because of the dangers inherent in childbirth, it ain’t surprising that people married young and started having children (at least some of whom would die in infancy) as soon as they were able! Nor is it surprising that many men would marry more than once, and often to women much younger than they.
Love stories have always included just bare infatuation–that’s generally the most interesting part. It’s not just lust, as that would not have resulted both lovers killing themselves. The infatuation is considered a part of of love–a love that, in this case, never got a chance to blossom beyond that stage.
They make brash decisions, it’s true, but they aren’t unsympathetic. Juliet is to be married to someone she doesn’t love, so she secretly marries someone else. Unlike what is said in that Huffpo article above, she has ever reason to think that her parents would not approve. The fact that she was of marriage age means she was considered capable of making that decision, and her father flat out says that she has a choice.
Romeo is less sympathetic today, as we know he just got out of a relationship with someone else. But his commitment to marriage is meant to show that Juliet is more than just another girl to him. He’s willing to fight for her and to try and save her from being married to someone she doesn’t love.
Romeo and Juliet is a love story–but a tragic one. Shakespeare specifically calls them “star-crossed lovers.” He doesn’t blame them. He ultimately blames their families and their feud. It is that feud that sets everything in motion. It’s the only reason why Romeo and Juliet think they have must be married in secret. And it is the feud that continues even at the end.
I remember reading once (possibly on Wikipedia) that Juliet actually was pretty young to be marrying by Elizabethan standards. She was old enough for it to be legal, but several years younger than was normal for English noblewomen of the period and younger than was considered ideal for marriage/childbearing.
It’s actually more dangerous for a girl who’s not yet fully grown to give birth. A 13 year old would not typically have “childbearing” hips yet.
It may have been unusual, but Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII, was married for the second time at the age of 12. (Her first marriage was unconsummated and annulled.) She was a widow at the age of 13, and later that year gave birth to her only son, Henry, Earl of Richmond from his birth.
(She lived long enough to see her second grandson king.)
I don’t see that Romeo’s language about Rosaline is particularly any different than his language to Juliet. And while it’s true that his infatuation with Rosaline didn’t last, neither did his infatuation with Juliet. Yeah, yeah, it never had the chance to last, but does he even know her for as long as he’s been pining over Rosaline?
Looking to other Shakespeare works, the only other example of such turn-on-a-dime switch of infatuation is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that’s just because the lovers are under a literal magical spell. It’s hard to label that as “True Love”.