Although I’ve seen Romeo & Juliet performed many times (I most recently re-watched Zeffirelli’s 1968 beautiful and seminal film), I have never read it before. Shakespeare paints a picture of love so exquisitely that it’s almost painful to read. Perhaps romantics would say that a love this deep cannot survive the pressure of its own intensity; it is destined to implode. But I disagree, because I feel that this play ultimately focuses more on sacrifice than love.
One could argue that R&J’s ardor is no more than ardent adolescent puppy love. Romeo, smitten to the point of distraction with Rosaline at the play’s outset, drops her like the proverbial untouchable tuber when he sees Juliet, only 13. Even in an era when marriage and childbirth happened much earlier than they do now, she is a child.
The tragedy lies not with the “star-cross’d lovers” (Prologue,6), but in the fact that Romeo knows on some deep level initially, and more consciously as the play progresses, that he must sacrifice himself to ameliorate the feud which none of the participating Montagues and Capulets ever really explain. He must make peace in the Veronese valley, because the adults have mucked everything up beyond repair. Even the ruling Prince cannot coax them to behave.
Romeo’s love for Rosaline must be unrequited because it is not with her that he will affect change. Only through his chemistry with Juliet can he perform alchemy and lay himself down as a conduit of peace between the warring factions.
There is no suspense in this. The Prologue tells us all we need to know about the plot, with nary a spoiler alert:
“A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;/Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows/Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.” (Prologue, 6-8)
Shakespeare immerses us in Romeo’s innate and then overt understanding of his role in the family, the community, and the play. Ere we even meet him, Benvolio tells us that he suffers from a deep melancholy:
“With tears augmenting the fresh morning dew,/Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs,” (I,i,132-3)
Romeo himself waxes so inanely metaphysical about his crush on Rosaline that it is a)absurd, and b)clear that something much larger concerns him:
“Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love./Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!/O anything, of nothing first [create]!/O heavy lightness, serious vanity./Misshapen chaos of well [-seeming] forms,/Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,/Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!” (I,i,175-181)
His overly oxymoronic world is turned topsy-turvy. He think it’s because Rosaline won’t return his calls. We know better. If it were just her, he’d have said her name. He never does. There’s something rotten in the state of Verona. His existential crisis arises from generations of irrational animosity: “Tut, I have lost myself, I am not here:/This is not Romeo, he’s some other where.” (I,i,197-8) In fact, like the J. Geils Band, Romeo thinks Love Stinks: “Is love a tender thing? It is too rough,/Too rude, too boist’rous, and it pricks like a thorn.” (I,iv,25-6)
As the action unfolds, Romeo constantly expresses self-awareness. He knows in his bones what’s coming and rushes headlong toward it:
“I fear, too early, for my mind misgives/Some consequences yet hanging in the stars/Shall bitterly begin his fearful date/With this night’s revels and expire the term/Of a despised life clos’d in my breast/By some vile forfeit of untimely death.” (I,iv,104-111)
Even in one of the most tender moments in the play – perhaps in all of literature – he knows he, like Icarus, is destined to burn in his quest: “Juliet is the sun.” (II,ii,3) They are both “poor prisoners” (II,ii,179) in this passion play that is bigger than both of them. And more than in almost any other Shakespeare play I’ve read so far (29 down and nine to go) the language itself tells us this constantly.
Friar Lawrence sees a “tomb” and a “burying grave” in the earth he tills (II,iii, 12&13). Mercutio and Benvolio claim that Romeo is “already dead,” as they await him, and again “O flesh,/flesh, how art thou finished!” as he arrives. (II,iv, 13&37-8) Dead man walking.
At the altar at his own nuptials Romeo welcomes “Then love-devouring death do what he dare.” (II,vi,7). Friar Lawrence confirms his dark premonitions: “These violent delights have violent ends,/And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,/Which as they kiss consume.” (II,vi,9-11)
In the rumble scene (think West Side Story) Romeo intentionally puts himself in harms way by putting himself literally, physically in between his Montagues, and, now, his Capulets, as a Bridge Over Troubled Water. He”steps between them,” (III,i,89 stage direction) and in doing so, steps off the edge into tragic immortality.
After R&J finally consummate their relationship, Romeo speaks not of bliss, but of the end: “Let me be ta’en, let me be put to death.” (III,v,17), and “Come, death, and welcome.” (III,v,24)
Honestly, it’s like Shakespeare created foreshadowing just for this play. He beats us over the head with it. But I feel it’s so heavy-handed to make us realize that the love, while it’s lovely, is not the point. Obviously, the Montagues and Capulets will be immensely pissed off at and resistant to R&J’s union. But their short-lived marriage will give birth to the progeny they never get to have by rebirthing Verona.
Ironically, Romeo is happiest in exile in Mantua. He feels optimistic now because he is on the verge of sacrificing himself to fulfill his destiny:
“My dreams pressage some joyful news at hand/My bosom’s lord sits lightly in his throne,/And all this day an unaccustom’d spirit/Lifts me above the ground with cheerful thought.” (V,i,2-5)
This is, ostensibly, the last thing in the world he ought to feel now. The Prince has exiled him upon penalty of death for killing Tybalt. He may never again see his new wife, who is being forced to marry Paris. Yet it’s almost as if he’s become enlightened. His ethereal self has already risen above quotidian worries, and seeing the finish line brings him this sense of peace.
When he hears, ignorant of Friar Lawrence’s plot, of Juliet’s untimely death, he rushes to her side, and takes his own life, thereby fulfilling his mission, “Thus with a kiss I die.” (V,ii,120). It’s almost too sad to read when she awakens to find him dead, tries to die by kissing the poison from his lips, and finally falls on his dagger.
Then, and only then, does the fractured collection of Veronese become a community. The “plague a’ both houses” (III,i,91) that Mercutio cast on them has come to fruition. For the first time, Montague and Capulet look to each other for comfort. “O, brother Montague, give me thy hand.” (V,iii,296) Romeo was forced to be brave to give create this new world.