Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Romeo and Juliet (Themed Week Day 3)

It honestly wasn't deliberate, but I seem (thus far) to have picked love stories that, when trying to pinpoint why they work or last, these reasons can be boiled down to two. Romeo and Juliet is no different, but I think some of my thoughts on this story are going to be met with much outrage.

So, here we have it, mid-week, and I'm talking about the love story of all love stories. They're a by-word in popular culture, they're often the first play anyone thinks of when they hear the words William Shakespeare, they've been the subject of songs, retellings, adaptations, movies, good God, this list could go on. They're the Romeo and the Juliet, and I don't think anyone can name their child Romeo or Juliet these days without a whole world of connotations (poor little Romeo Beckham; is he ever going to live up to the romantic ideal girls will attach to him?).

Today I'm going back to the original play. A rose by any other name, and all that.


What works

Forbidden love
Ah, the lure of the forbidden fruit. This trope hasn't yet gone out of style, and I don't think it will. There will always be a market for forbidden romances, star-crossed lovers, and the like, so if this is what you write, then you can be sure a lot of people will love your story!

I'm not psychology student, so I couldn't really explain why the forbidden is so appealing to us. I just know that it really is, at least to most of us, and this is one of the two core reasons why I think Romeo and Juliet is immortal. While it certainly wasn't the first to set the forbidden trend, it's the story of star-crossed lovers, it's the tale of feuding families and forbidden love and the consequences thereof.

Realistically, would Romeo and Juliet have been half as memorable if it hadn't ended with such devastating tragedy? There's something immeasurably stupid - and therefore tragic and memorable - about such hideous misunderstandings that lead to two suicides that could so easily have been avoided. I'm sure that the frustration many of us feel, that urge to shout for God's sake, Romeo, she's freaking alive, damn you, is part of what makes the story click; as readers, we need to be anguished, and frustrated, and want to shout; we need to be moved.

The deaths themselves have their own merit because, of course, what says true love better than dying because the one you love is dead? It's melodramatic, it's not exactly selfless, and it's certainly not what any of us want to be doing in real life, but it's very appealing to our dramatic souls when we read it and watch it in fiction. 

And now, for the controversial part...

What DOESN'T work

What? you cry. There's something about the great romance that is Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet that doesn't work? Well, yes, I think there is.  

The characters, quite frankly, suck. Of course, this is purely my opinion, so feel free to tell me I'm being an idiot. I don't mean all the characters, because I rather like Mercutio, the Nurse, and even Benvolio for all his mild-mannered not-doing-much-really-ness. 

It's the lovers I find sorely lacking. I mean, this love story has become immortal, legend. But it's not because of Romeo or Juliet. It's because of their circumstances, their tragedy. These characters have nothing memorable or distinctive about them. Romeo appears to be somewhat indecisive, hot-headed, and full of pretty words. Juliet seems to swing like a pendulum between being meek and being rebellious, she's somewhat indecisive, and she's got lots of pretty words in her pretty head too.

What about either of these two, as characters alone, appeals to you? I genuinely can't find anything that appeals to me. The truth is, if someone were to transplant these exact characters into a book or movie today, disguised under different names, I don't think I would think twice about them. I might be mildly entertained by the book, but would then put it down and never again think about these characters or the story, simply because there would be nothing sharp about it, nothing that later clings to you.

Ultimately, I think there's a great formula to be found in Romeo and Juliet, and it's been used countless times, recycled, reused, and we're still not utterly weary of it.

But Romeo and Juliet, minus the italics? Well, they might be the star-crossed lovers, the epitomes of tragedy and of forbidden love. But I think it's been done much, much better elsewhere.

I'd love to know how the rest of you feel about them.


  1. I can't stand that story, because I feel like it's not a love story at all but an example of stupid selfish teenagers. Romeao hardly even knew Juliet, was he really in love with her? He was "in love" with someone completely different at the beginning of the story. I hate how melodramatic and idiotic both of them are throughout the whole thing.
    Sorry for the rant, I just really hate that story!

  2. I think Romeo and Juliet appealed to me more when I was a teenager and everything seemed way more tragic and "life sucks." Now that I'm in my 30's, all I can think is, "Where are your damn parents?" The theme itself (forbidden/doomed love) is universal, but the main characters are stock (smooth-talking teenage boy and whiny, clingy teenage girl). Still, I must admit that I love those stories of star-crossed lovers...

  3. I'm actually with you on this one, because Romeo & Juliet is a big old...meh...for me. Just not interesting - and truly a ridiculous mashup of overwriting and stupid teenage decisions :D But great way to get me thinking about why some literary titans' work just doesn't, well, work.

  4. haven't read this one either. When I think Shakespeare, I think Hamlet. Maybe MacBeth. Meh. Cool times ripping it though!

  5. Haha! Neat everyone agrees. Romeo and Juliet, as characters, leave a lot to be desired...
    That said, I've always been a Mercutio fan.;j Though I'd be hard pressed to say if it were for more than the beautiful line "Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man"!

    I suspect that the stupidity of characters is one of the reasons the story is so popular. A catharsis for reaching for the forbidden, a sympathetic moment's shared delight, and the smug reassurance that the forbidden (that most don't reach out for) is rewarded with tragedy and death.

    I don't agree with Zoe though... Over writing? Provided that you like the style, the style is the main savior of this piece for me. While the story yarn doesn't grab there are some beautiful one liners in there. : j

  6. Alesa, I agree, there are some lovely one liners in the play (as in most Shakespeare), but the story and characters, overall, fall short.

    I think it's partly because we're used to retellings of the story - most of which are more complicated, sophisticated and geared to audiences of today - and so we can't help feeling disappointed by the 'original'.

  7. Hmmm... Well, this specific story I first read in the original form, and I don't really like any of the retellings I've seen of it.

    Just to name one, do you really think the Luhrmann's Rome+Juliet was "more complicated, sophisticated and geared to audiences of today"? Do you feel it added anything to the original?

    I'd still rather be forced to reread the original than to be forced to rewatch that movie, however cute they made Mercutio. ; j
    But over all, I'd rather do something else altogether. Buy myself and read a copy of "Echoes" perhaps. Heheh.

  8. Well, I was more or less referring to the fact that the general 'forbidden love' or 'tragic star crossed lovers' stories have been done better since Romeo and Juliet, rather than any direct retellings of Romeo and Juliet being much better.

    That said, I quite liked Baz Luhrmann's version when I first saw it a few years ago, though I think it was because it was the first time I had ever seen Romeo and Juliet 'staged' (off the paper) and I marvelled at how much less effective a play is when read on the page instead of watching it being performed in some way.

  9. Haha and yes I would so totally recommend 'Echoes'! One day.

  10. Oh! starcrossed lovers in a world gone mad (and 1000 elephants) was done better both before and after R&J. ; j
    And yes of course, you're right... That hook has been done more recently in forms that are better suited to the current audience.

    Interesting! I find that staged versions of classical plays (and anything really) usually falls short of what I had imagined. Except if it has something spectacular, like talented actors who can outperform the ones in my mind, or astounding sets/music, etc... But for some reason I can't reproduce that when reading movie scripts. Shrug.