Friends, I come before you today to address an injustice. For too long have we, as a culture, allowed ourselves to take Romeo and Juliet for granted.
For too long have we sneered at it as adolescent and mawkish when compared to brooding Hamlet or tragic Lear! For too long have we tolerated those pedants who like to smugly opine that if you think Romeo and Juliet is romantic, you’re reading it wrong! For too long have we cast it into the dark pits of eighth-grade language arts curricula, tainting it with memories of Brian G. and Natasha S. protecting their mouths with their hands during the kissing scenes!
No more. There comes a time in life when everyone has to take a stand, and mine is that Romeo and Juliet is good, actually, and furthermore, it’s astonishing that we don’t just spend every day talking about how good it is.
Obviously we all know that Romeo and Juliet is influential. It’s the basic template for all our culture’s tragic love stories, and it’s the reason we’ve got West Side Story and Shakespeare in Love and that early 2000s action classic, Romeo Must Die. But we don’t pay enough attention to the reason it has such a presence, the reason it is as influential and foundational as it has become: namely, that it’s managed to keep working all the way from the 1590s, when it was first written, into the present.
Romeo and Juliet is early-ish Shakespeare, and there’s an argument to be made that it’s his first really beautiful play. After the bawdy slapstick of Comedy of Errors and the bloody horror of Titus Andronicus, after the cynicism of Richard III and Richard II — after something like five years of turning out steady journeyman dramatic work, then Shakespeare wrote lovely, lyrical Romeo and Juliet, with its series of love sonnets embedded into the dialogue. “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright,” Romeo says on seeing Juliet, and with that line Shakespeare became “mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare,” celebrated by his contemporaries for the sheer beauty of his language.
Romeo and Juliet isn’t only beautiful. It’s also funny and sexy, sometimes shockingly so. “O, I have bought the mansion of a love but not possessed it,” Juliet laments as she awaits her wedding night, “and, though I am sold, not yet enjoyed.” So intense is the force of her desire that she starts to fantasize sadistically, declaring that after she dies, someone should “cut [Romeo] out into little stars” and hang them in the sky. Romeo, for his part, can’t manage to look at anything touching Juliet — gloves, sleep, prayer books — without rhapsodizing about how much he wants to be that thing. Never were there two characters in English literature quite so ready to bone.
Perhaps because Juliet and her Romeo are so palpably lusty and teenage, killjoys are apt to remark smugly that they were absolute idiots for dying for one another, and that for this reason it’s a mistake to read the play as romantic. It remains a testament to Romeo and Juliet’s powers that even if you choose to read it so cynically, it still works. It is entirely possible to consider Romeo and Juliet to be stupid horny teenagers who would have broken up within days if they’d survived the end of the play, and still find yourself crying at the end as they die.
And in the end, perhaps that’s what remains most taken for granted about Romeo and Juliet: that it is an indestructible play. We can pelt it all we like with our mockery, our indifference, our misreadings, our bad eighth-grade productions. It is so perfectly constructed that we will still find ourselves holding our collective breath in the final act, hoping that this time Friar Lawrence’s message will get to Romeo in time, and he and Juliet won’t die. It can survive swings in cultural attitudes on sex and romance and childhood rebellion, can make it through the bawdy Elizabethan era through the prudish Victorian age and into the sex-crazed 1990s, and always still seem perfectly modern, perfectly of our moment.
This play is bigger than us. It can take whatever we throw at it, and it will still be beautiful and funny and sexy and tragic, no matter how badly we treat it. Romeo and Juliet always die, but Romeo and Juliet will always survive our scorn and endure. It lives forever.
You can find Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet streaming on HBO Max, and Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet for rent on most streaming services. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.