Romeo and Juliet and a Tube of Toothpaste

Romeo and Juliet on the Balcony

And the Truly Ridiculous Award Goes To...

Sometimes, doesn't it just irk you that Romeo and Juliet are supposed to be examples of this great love story when its dubious that they ever had to survive a week of sharing the same tube of toothpaste? Regardless of this horrible reality, the story of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare has served as a motif for many other love stories that are written -- usually with characters who also miss out on this exciting phase of a relationship. The most recent example of this can be seen in the film New Moon. Near the beginning of the film, the camera shows Bella waking up with a very visible copy of Romeo and Juliet next to her. Later in the film, Bella and Edward watch Romeo and Juliet in class and discuss Romeo’s suicide. Edward and Bella both have moments where they almost follow in the footsteps of their literary characters. Like the book it portrays, both the movie and book’s use of the Romeo and Juliet tragedy enhances the message it tries to communicate to the audience: Bella and Edward are star crossed lovers willing to go to great lengths for their love of one another.

Although this sentiment has the power to fascinate some, it also disgusts others. Who hasn’t listened to someone scoffing at how exaggerated Edward’s actions are in regard to Bella? Dying for love seems a little extreme. Yet Edward is not unique in being ragged on for this trait. Even in high school when we were studying Romeo and Juliet, most of us decided that dying for love wasn’t romantic, just naïve and stupid. After all, Romeo and Juliet barely knew each other. How could they really know if they loved one another? They certainly never experienced the agony of sharing the same tube of toothpaste.

Unfortunately, most of us cast off that story as something that was elegantly written with silly characters who hardly seemed rational. Even now, going back to the text, I can’t help but find the characters to be a little risible. One moment, Romeo is mooning over Rosalind and declaring that he shall never find another beauty like her. In the next moment, he’s head over heels in love with Juliet. Even Friar Laurence, Romeo’s friend and mentor, seems a bit disturbed with the rashness of his acts and it’s this man that provides a more rational, level-headed voice for the passionate lovers. Yet if all we take from this story is the stupidity of Juliet and her Romeo, we miss the deeper story that Shakespeare was telling.

If you’ve ever thought Romeo and Juliet to be just a trite, pubescent story, you might try taking another look at the prologue, which shall be provided here:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

Notice the first two words? They aren’t what you might think they ought to have been. Not on “star-cross’d lovers” does our attention lie bur rather “Two households.” Psychology states that it is the beginning and end that most people remember. That Shakespeare chooses to focus our attention on two households indicates that this story is not just about the stupidity of two star-cross’d lovers. Instead, Shakespeare draws us into a world – Verona in particular – where there are two households raised on good values (both alike in dignity) that nevertheless have an intense hatred towards one another. It is this that provides the compelling backdrop and obstacles over which Romeo and Juliet must climb – and it is this that our attention is first drawn to.

Part of what compels us to regard Romeo and Juliet as one of the pinnacles of all love stories is the great risks that they take for each other. They both know full well what their households would say of their newfound love if it were discovered. The hatred that compels their families to frivolous acts of violence and hostility provides the basis for Romeo and Juliet’s equally rash, seemingly frivolous acts of love (climbing up on a balcony seems a bit over the top). Yet when we get to the last act where Romeo and Juliet kill themselves because they cannot be together, we often end up discussing how irrational the two lovers were. But alas, if that’s what we discuss, we have missed the deeper story that is being told.

If the story were just about the ill-advised deeds committed in the throes of passion, the play would end with the death of the two lovers. Instead, the play ends with the Prince addressing the two households both alike in dignity. Take a look at his words:

Where be these enemies? Capulet! Montague!
See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish'd.

As you can see, the Prince is not condemning Romeo and Juliet for their rash, hasty decision making skills but rather the foolishness and hardheartedness of the two households for being unable to bury their strife with each other. And isn’t that more ridiculous in some ways than Romeo and Juliet’s rash decision? By ending with a critique of the two households from the Prince, Shakespeare shifts the audience from thinking about the irrationality of Romeo and Juliet to thinking about the irrationality of the two households’ hatred for one another. Think it’s just a coincidence, or did Shakespeare intuitively know that what lies at the beginning and ending of a story is remembered more than what lies in the middle. By beginning and ending with the two households, Shakespeare’s arrangement serves to highlight the truly ridiculous cast in the play: two households, both alike in dignity, who for all their civil blood, cannot bury their strife until they bury their children.

Feel free to think Romeo and Juliet are ridiculous – they certainly are –, but go one step further and think that the households from which they came are the truly ridiculous ones. For had the two households not held such an intense hatred for each other, perhaps Romeo and Juliet would not have acted as they did. Had Romeo and Juliet been permitted to love, they might have been given the chance to act as harbingers of peace by bringing together two opposing households through the creation of a new household. Had the two households not intensely disliked each other, the brace of kinsmen the Prince mourns might not have been lost. Had the two households learned to overcome their hate, Romeo and Juliet might learn to stand the test of time and maybe even experience the horrors of sharing toothpaste.

Some people might think it ridiculous to study Romeo and Juliet. If the highlight of most discussions about that play will continue to be about how the two of them were stupid for dying for love, then they would be right. Yet Romeo and Juliet remains a very powerful, interesting story that continues to have a lot of significance around the world – provided people pick up on the message of the consequences of hate learned by two households. You think Romeo and Juliet are foolish? What about the decisions of people to bomb train stations and government buildings as a response to the hate that exists between cultures? Are those decisions not just as irrational as those of the two households? At least Romeo and Juliet were acting for love – but they will always die so long as intense hate continues to pervade society, allegorically speaking at least.

Yet is there any basis for the hackneyed comments about the sheer absurdity of risking all for love? Let’s return to New Moon. It is my judgment that the story of the two lovers, Bella and Edward, while very thrilling and entertaining, still lacks the depth that Romeo and Juliet offered. In this book, there is no great strife to bury by their love. No second story exists to shed light on society. Their love, for the most part, seems based on physical attraction. Also, did you notice how all their conversations are mostly about their impossible relationship? What will they talk about when their relationship isn’t impossible? In this instance, though it does provide a good story, I would have to pass along my high school judgment of Romeo and Juliet to the New Moon story and say that Edward and Bella are both ultimately ridiculous in their decision making skills and very silly to risk their lives for love.

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