All this talk about booklearnin' and whatnot has got me thinking about Shakespeare. Considering that my Blogspot blog is entitled "Comics, Beer, and Shakespeare," I figured that maybe I'd write a little bit about ol' Bill W's works. As I mentioned in a previous entry, it's hard to write about him without saying things that have already been said ad nauseum, and it's hard not to sound like a pretentious ass. I'm going to risk it though. I don't know if this will be a series of entries, but I'm going to start off with some thoughts on Romeo and Juliet and my personal experience with that particular play. If the occasion strikes me, I might also write about Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, and Hamlet. Those aren't the only ones that I know, they're just the ones that I know enough about to have something to say about them. (In other words, I've taught them. I really like Othello, but I've only read it once, and that was some time ago. Same could be said for Richard III, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Much Ado About Nothing.)
I'm starting with Romeo and Juliet because that's the first work of Shakespeare (must...resist...temptation...to...call...him..."The Bard") that I was exposed to. It was in Mr. Byson's freshman English class, and I remember enjoying it tremendously. I'll be honest - I probably didn't understand it very well, but Mr. Byson was a good teacher, and he explained it so I could get enough to appreciate it. There was something about the language that appealed to me. I once had a French roommate who said that I had a "love for the (English) language". That's probably true, and it's probably a qualification for being an English teacher. So obviously, the verbal gymnastics of Shakespeare was right up my ally.
Of course, I took it as a love story - or the ultimate love story, as so many people think of it. After all, how many songs in popular music have made allusions to the two of them? The two young lovers are practically synonymous with true love. So, that's the way I took it. After all, they were willing to DIE for their love! Can't get more romantic than that.
Now, when I went about rereading it when I started teaching, I had been greatly influenced by conversations that I've had with friends who were teachers. Also, with age came a great deal of cynicism. I no longer saw it as a story of true love, but as a (like my friend Nolan puts it) "cautionary tale." They're clearly foolish and not mature enough to properly consider the weight of their actions and the promises that they make. After all, the play starts with Romeo whining about how a girl named Rosaline has no interest in him, since she's going to become a nun. He acts like he can never possibly fall in love again, and his whole world is over. However, BAM! as soon as he sees Juliet, all of that changes.
When you're an adult, you can remember being like that. How often did my attentions go from one girl to another when I was a teenager? A friend of mine from high school was surprised to learn that I had a crush on her - she shouldn't have been, I probably had a crush on nearly every attractive girl that I spoke with at one time or another.
But is that Shakespeare's point? Is he trying to make fun of his young lovers? I don't think so, and my view has changed quite a bit over just the past few years. One of the things that Shakespeare is famous for, and why he appeals to people who study psychology, is that he understands human nature. You ARE supposed to feel for the two characters. Their love IS real. However, it's real young love. He's not trying to create two characters with a relationship built on mature love. After all, if they were mature, you wouldn't believe any of their actions! Part of the reason why they wind up killing themselves is because of their passion that comes with youth and seriously declines (for good and bad) with age. (And this is why the 1930s movie version of the play sucks - both of the actors are in their 30s! Who would believe that somebody that old would be so impulsive! It takes an incomplete frontal lobe to think that banishment from Verona is worse than a death sentence!)
Another thing that I didn't notice until I taught it for a few years is just how totally senseless, and therefore even more tragic, their deaths are. At the party scene, where Juliet's hot-headed cousin Tybalt is ready to kill Romeo, her father, Old Capulet, tells Tybalt to chill out. For one thing, he doesn't want a blood bath at his party. What's even sadder in context though is that he talks about how he's heard only good things about Romeo, and he considers the young guy to be a decent gentleman. The thing is, the feud is perpetuated by the young - as the older patriarchs only get violent when rioting has broken out. The old men are pretty much ready to call it all quits right from the start. Had Juliet only told her father of her love to Romeo, Capulet probably would have been glad to hear the news! Yet, youngsters rarely see more than what's right in front of them, so they continued to keep it a secret.
All this reminds me of why I love this play so much (as well as his others). They're eternally rewarding. I imagine that there will be things that I'll discover ten years from now that I'm just not insightful enough to get right now! (Who knows, maybe the whole point of the play is that the second servant is a Christ figure! Ummm...okay, probably not that.)
So is it about true love? Yes, it is, just a particular kind is all. I do wish that so many songs would stop referencing it though. True love or not, you really don't want to wind up like them.
Best Romeo and Juliet allusion? Millhouse, on The Simpsons, lamenting the fact that his girlfriend has had to move away from him, "We were just like Romeo and Juliet but it ended in tragedy!"
Hey, Romeo, aren't you a little old for this shit?