Book Review – Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

books, reviews

Rating: 2 out of 5.

I’m a fan of Shakespeare. I think he’s way more accessible than people give him credit for. I can also understand why so many people don’t get along with him. For me, it all comes down to how you first experience him. For most of us, we’ll come across our first Shakespeare play at school. If you go through this with the right teacher then he you’ll be able to embrace the Bard fully. If you don’t have the right teacher then you’ll just think he’s old and boring. Thankfully, the first play that I studied was Macbeth and it ended up being a lot of fun. Then I got stuck into Othello, Hamlet and King Lear. By the time I was 16, I was already pretty hooked on old Willy. Although, I’ve never been a big fan of a couple of his most popular plays. Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Nights Dream tend to be ones that most people are willing to watch. I guess they’re more like traditional romantic comedies, so they might be easier for modern audiences to get behind. Really, I don’t know why people love these plays so much. For me, they’re two of his most tedious plays. And, yes, I have studied the histories. Certainly in the case of Romeo and Juliet. I just think it’s stupid.

But, last month, I decided to read the story of the star-crossed lovers in fair Verona. I guess I wanted to see if my opinion had changed over the years. Spoiler alert: it hadn’t. I still think this play is terrible. It’s based on a very childish and unrealistic version of love. I’d also argue that it doesn’t actually offer any real insight into human existence. I don’t understand why there is still such a fascination with this play. I don’t see what appeal there is in deciding to put on this play. It’s just not interesting. This is one of the main reasons that modern productions take so many liberties with the setting. Would Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation have been quite so successful had it not been set in contemporary America? Was it not the fact that Romeo and his chums brandished guns instead of actual swords? I doubt it.

That’s the main problem with this play. On its own, it really isn’t that exciting. That’s why you need to rejig is to include gangsters or rival football teams or whatever. You need an added context to really make it work. As it stands, the play does little to establish itself or its context. It doesn’t really care. We just know that these families are at war. Do we need to know why? Not according to Shakespeare. It’s just way to increase the melodrama and give these teens something to really get upset about. There’s such a lack of depth within this play. It focuses on the scenes between the two lovers and throws in a few fight scenes for good measure. What else is there? Not much, It’s just an overly simple narrative and very little character development.

Speaking of which, I read an article that suggested we hate this play because society hates young women. But how can we hate Juliet when we know nothing about her? All we really know is that she’s 13 because Shakespeare is super keen that we never forget that fact. I’m not suggesting that Romeo is a very developed character, but we do get to know more about him. He’s a feminine youth who is mocked for believing in love so much. That’s not so much of a problem but it could have been taken further. It’s difficult to believe in this love when we, the audience, don’t know anything about these two kids. Is it any wonder that so many people think their love is superficial?

And their love really is superficial. I’m not saying that all teenage love affairs are superficial but this one is. I’ve read an argument that suggests the play isn’t a warning about teenage love but is a warning not to underestimate teenagers. That the play is showing us that teenagers are mature adults capable of making their own decisions. It also had the gall to suggest that Juliet’s death is empowering. That her only alternative is being married off to someone she doesn’t love. That death is her only way to find freedom. Now, I’m sorry but if you think that is a positive message then I’m worried about you. Taken in this light, the play is just another teen drama that is advocating death as the ultimate resolution. Not only does Juliet not have to marry Paris but their families magically stop fighting. Forgive me if I don’t praise a play for encouraging young girls in arranged marriages to just end their lives. That’s not feminism.

This is a play that is so popular because people obsess about their teenage years. That’s why shows like The OC, Dawson’s Creek and Riverdale keep getting made. They’re written by people in the 30s and 40s who think that these were the best years of their lives. That the love between two teenagers is passionate and magical. Teenagers tend to be avid believers in love at first sight but, for the most part, this is an idea that we grow out of. Cause let’s be honest, teenagers are idiots. Romeo and Juliet are definitely idiots. The fact that they don’t take a second to think before acting is proof that they’re idiots. Whether you believe that their love is real or not, you have to admit that they’re both drama queens. They’ve known each other for a matter of days, secretly got married and then killed themselves. A 13-year-old and a 17 (ish) year old boy end up dead and, because we idolise teenagers, it has become one of the most celebrated love stories of all time. How is it possible?

To really believe that this is a love story, you have to believe that the pair would have stayed together forever. I mean, had they not got caught up in the drama and killed themselves. There is absolutely no evidence that the pair would have had a long and happy marriage. Their relationship is based on looks and a desire to escape their fates. There is no deep, emotional connection. Juliet is young and Romeo is a hopeless romantic. Given a few years and a couple of babies, I reckon the star-crossed lovers would be in terrible shape. Juliet looking after two young Montague’s while her husband is off writing poetry to whichever young thing he’s obsessed with at that time. Maybe there is something weirdly romantic about young love dying together. It’s like the thing with Disney movies. We’re told they lived happily ever after but we never see it. In Romeo and Juliet, we never see the reality of their decision. But, put them in the real world and I doubt these two would have lasted long.

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