Romeo and Juliet is debatably the most famous play that William Shakespeare ever penned. Sure, it doesn’t boast the depth and psychological turmoil of Hamlet. Unlike Macbeth, it forgets to add bloody murders of kings and children to the plot. Hell, there are times that Romeo and Juliet forgets it has a plot as the two main characters simply stare at each other. Unlike Midsummer Night’s Dream or Twelfth Night, it’s not even particularly funny. Not intentionally, anyway.
What Romeo and Juliet does have going for it, however, is a good old heaping bowl of teenage angst. If you think the Twilight series started that trend, then look back almost 5 centuries. Romeo and Juliet has it pegged.
Think about it. You start off with the lackluster hero. He’s misunderstood by his whole family, who doesn’t get why he’s all moody over a girl that doesn’t like him back. Spoiler alert: it isn’t Juliet–the play starts off with Romeo mooning over a chick named Rosaline…a girl who mysteriously has no lines in this play. He’s a white guy born to privilege who’s young, handsome, and looking for love. Cue the meet cute with Juliet, who’s also young, gorgeous, and looking for love. They lock eyes at a party that Romeo and his family crashes, and boom. Instant lust.
These two crazy kids meet again that night when Romeo follows Juliet home to her bedroom window. It’s lucky he was so dishy. Anyone else would have gotten either a bullet or a restraining order for his trouble. They exchange vows of love and decide to get hitched the very next day. Even during the Renaissance when this play was written, that was kind of a rushed courtship. You could argue that they were just that much in love, but come on. We all know the real reason they decided to tie the knot on their second date. Juliet wasn’t going to put out otherwise, and Romeo was a teenage boy. He wasn’t actually thinking with his brain.
Fast forwarding through this lackluster plot, Juliet’s cousin Tybalt challenges Romeo, who eventually slays him. It turns out that Romeo’s family the Montagues and Juliet’s family the Capulets hate each other. I’m sure they’ll explain why later. Anyway, Romeo’s banished from the kingdom, and Juliet’s dad is forcing her to marry another dishy stalker: Paris. To avoid bigamy, Juliet fakes her death, and Romeo’s letter telling him her plan is lost in the mail. He shows up and poisons himself (after killing a grieving Paris for no reason, by the way). Juliet wakes up, sees what happened, and stabs herself. Their families decide that those crazy kids really were crazy and mend their feud. They’d probably forgotten just what they were fighting about. Goodness knows we have. The end.
I bring this play up tonight for a variety of reasons. First of all, I love Shakespeare. I keep encouraging students to learn all that they can about his work, but they always name Romeo and Juliet as the play they most want to learn about. This is understandable, even if I have a hard time with this request. It really isn’t my favorite. I’m not sure this play even ranks in my top 10 favorite Shakespeare plays. However, I can definitely understand the appeal from the perspective of a teenager. The plot isn’t particularly intricate, so it’s easy to follow. The two main characters are young and obsessed with each other, so it resembles a great deal of modern young adult fiction. Add in parents who are forcing their daughter to marry someone they don’t love and a couple of swordfights, and teenagers today are totally on board. The tragic ending’s just a bonus.
Despite my criticism of the play, though, there are a few brilliant moments that stand out for me. As an English major, I had to hear countless professors talk endlessly about certain monologues in Shakespeare’s plays: the “To Be or Not to Be” speech in Hamlet, the “All the World’s a Stage” speech by Jacques in As You Like It, or even the various rants given by both Macbeth and his wife in their play. While I’ve always felt the “To Be or Not to Be” monologue was overrated, as Hamlet contemplating suicide rather than taking a stand on anything is sort of lame, the other examples have lived up to the hype. Jacques tackles the concept of both the futility of aging in a society that values youth as well as the mimicking nature of acting. It’s some powerful stuff. And both Lady Macbeth and her husband are just bug nuts. It’s fun to hear what nut-bar thing they say next in Macbeth.
Even so, my favorite monologue of all time has got to be Mercutio’s description of Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet. Mercutio’s a friend of Romeo, and he eventually dies when he picks a fight with Tybalt for no reason. Before that, though, he makes this speech. When Romeo pines over Rosaline, he cannot sleep, so Mercutio says:
“O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers;
Her traces, of the smallest spider’s web;
Her collars, of the moonshine’s wat’ry beams;
Her whip, of cricket’s bone; the lash, of film;
Her wagoner, a small grey-coated gnat,
Not half so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazelnut,
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
And in this state she ‘gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on cursies straight;
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees;
O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are.
Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail
Tickling a parson’s nose as ‘a lies asleep,
Then dreams he of another benefice.
Sometimes she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five fadom deep; and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,
And being thus frighted, swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plats the manes of horses in the night
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish, hairs,
Which once untangled much misfortune bodes
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage.
This is she-“
I love this speech. I love how it starts off with such descriptive imagery, what with Queen Mab’s collars “of moonshine’s wat’ry beams,” but then the character adds depth to his depiction of this fictional dream queen. What started out playful turns existential. The speech even ends on some telling thoughts on women’s roles of the time period. There’s a lot to analyze here.
Yet, there’s one more thing about this play that I love to point out to my students. When Romeo dies, he dies in complete ignorance of just what he’d done. It’s true. He lived a rather clueless existence, considering he jumped from one love of his life to the next, then he got himself banished for killing a guy on impulse. Now, Romeo decided to one-up himself by jumping the gun and committing suicide next to his presumably dead wife’s body. He even kisses her before downing the poison, just to add to the gross factor.
But Juliet isn’t ignorant. She wakes up and feels the horror of what just happened in its entirety. The truth of it is so painful that she stabs herself in the chest (a much more violent death’s than Romeo’s, oddly enough).
Which is why I love the 90’s version of this play starring Leonardo DiCaprio. To be frank, there’s some really weird things in this version. The costumes make no sense, and some of the filters were only considered edgy twenty years ago. The film feels dated at this point. Plus, I don’t like how they did the Queen Mab speech. Despite this production’s many flaws, I’ll love it forever for one very simple change they made to the original play. Juliet wakes up the moment that Romeo drinks the poison, so he realizes that she’s still alive before he dies. I’m not the biggest DiCaprio fan either, but he acted the hell out of that moment. The look on his face as Romeo understood just what he’d done, even as he dies…well, that’s the sort of drama that attracted me to Shakespeare in the first place.
So, while Romeo and Juliet the play promotes a lot of cheese with its obvious shout-out for star-crossed romance, it’s still worth perusing. If you’ve got a teenager, I highly recommend you have them read it. Or, at the very least, watch the DiCaprio version.
Photo from ET