Why Should We Read Romeo and Juliet Again? (And while we're at it, why is King's starting an English major?)
by Ethan Campbell
On the second day of my Research Writing class this January, I had a familiar conversation. The class meeting had just ended, and a student took me aside with a determined look. “I just have to ask,” she said. “What do you think about Romeo and Juliet?”
I have fielded some variation on this question every semester at King’s for about ten years. Romeo and Juliet (R&J for short) was not on the syllabus. In fact, I rarely teach it. But it remains by far the work of literature King’s students most want to discuss—and argue about.
So I gave my standard response. I love R&J, I said; it’s my favorite play; it contains everything that makes Shakespeare great, from comedy to tragedy to compelling characters to soaring poetry; it was ahead of its time in bringing fully realized human characters, especially female characters, to life on stage; it has something to teach us even today about love and romance ...
Somewhere around this point, students usually stop me. “So you think Romeo and Juliet are actually in love?” she asked. “But they only know each other for one day and then kill themselves, right?”
Well, yes, that does happen. But even if we agree this is a grievous fault, the play’s strengths remain. “They don’t call it the greatest love story of all time for nothing,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s what one of my friends says, but I don’t buy it. They’re in lust, not love.”
Though I disagree with this opinion, I don’t usually try to talk anyone out of it. Because behind this question so many students ask—“are R&J really in love?”—sits a bigger one: Is this a work we should take seriously? Why should we read it again?
At the same time that I’ve had my usual conversations about R&J, I’ve also been talking this semester about something new: the new English major King’s is launching in the fall.
As you might expect, I’ve spoken with several prospective students and parents. But I have also talked with a surprising number of current students who, even if not interested in declaring the major, are curious to know why King’s has decided to offer it.
Behind this question sits a bigger one as well. If we are preparing students for Christian leadership, how does an English major advance that goal?
It seems appropriate that we are launching this program on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (on April 23rd), because I think the two questions are linked: Why read R&J again, and why study imaginative literature? Both get to the heart of what we are doing as a Christian liberal arts college and what we most value, not just in academics but in life.
With the rest of this article, I am going to try something ambitious. I will offer a close reading of the first act of Romeo and Juliet, which I hope will persuade you of its value as a work to be re-read and savored—even if you’ve read it before and hated it, or didn’t believe it, or thought its main characters were foolish. And along the way, I will make a case for English as a discipline at King’s.
Like most of you, I read R&J for the first time in high school—in Mrs. Rau’s freshman English class in Ainsworth, Nebraska. We labored through the first page of servants lobbing dirty-minded insults (“I will be civil with the maids; I will cut off their heads.” “The heads of the maids?” “Aye ... or their maidenheads,” etc.), explicating every double entendre. As a teenage boy, I could appreciate a good dirty joke, but this seemed like too much work.
Then I met Mercutio.
As you may recall, Mercutio is Romeo’s irreverent friend, who wishes Romeo would drop his ridiculous obsession with a chaste girl named Rosaline. In the first act, he delivers a monologue that imagines Romeo has been possessed by a fairy demon:
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 atomi
Over men’s noses as they lie asleep. (1.4.58-63)
Mercutio describes, in fifty lines of breathtaking poetry, all the men Mab seduces while asleep—lovers and courtiers and lawyers and parsons. When she gets to soldiers, and finally young ladies, the speech turns violent, and Romeo has to calm his friend down: “Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace. Thou talk’st of nothing.” Mercutio’s immortal reply:
True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind, who woos
Even now the frozen bosom of the North
And, being angered, puffs away from thence,
Turning his side to the dew-dropping South. (103-110)
I had never read anything remotely like this before. My favorite reading material at the time was Spider-man comics and Stephen King novels, purely plot-driven. For the first time, I stood before the raw power of the English language. Mercutio’s voice reached across the ocean, across 400 years of history, across the divide between fiction and reality, into a ninth-grade classroom in rural Nebraska, and seized my heart.
Before anything else, my vision for the TKC English program is to give students this kind of experience—to push them in front of a great work of literature and let it run them over like a freight train. The best literature teachers, in my opinion, are those who clear away obstacles to understanding, to make that impact as bone-crushing as possible.
Twenty years later, I watched the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of R&J, featuring an Irish actor named Jonjo O’Neill as Mercutio. While he spun the tale of Queen Mab, I was in high school again, hearing Mercutio voice, this time with an Irish brogue. After the performance, I approached Mr. O’Neill and said, “No offense to the actors playing Romeo and Juliet, but you stole the show out from under them.”
His reply: “Well, good—that’s Mercutio’s job, isn’t it? That’s why Shakespeare had to kill him off!”
He’s right. For all of Mercutio’s exuberance, attractiveness, life on the page and stage, he represents an attitude that the spirit of the play as a whole fights against.
When Romeo meets Juliet, Mercutio urges him through a series of filthy puns to just have sex already and get the love bug out of his system—“Prick love for pricking and you beat love down” (1.4.28). Some of his wordplay is so explicit (if you’re interested, look into his fruit imagery, the “medlar” and “pop’rin pear’), I’m embarrassed to discuss it in class.
From Mercutio’s perspective, Romeo is “in lust, not love.” He criticizes Romeo for being fickle and obsessive, calls him weak and insane, implies that Juliet is a whore, and predicts the romance will not last. It’s as if Shakespeare time-traveled 400 years into the future, heard the debates King’s students have every semester, and wrote them into the play! Several steps ahead of us always, Shakespeare places our suspicions about Romeo directly into Mercutio’s mouth. (For Juliet, this role is played by the Nurse, another brash and funny character.)
But even before Mercutio dies, Shakespeare encourages us to reject his cynicism. For one thing, we discover that he has never been in love himself—“He jests at scars that never felt a wound,” Romeo says (2.2.1). His puns are funny, but he’s no expert on sex, never mind love—he’s a locker room braggart, whose claims to worldly wisdom melt upon closer inspection.
Romeo’s other friend, Benvolio, fares little better, though he at least survives. When Benvolio meets Romeo in the opening scene, he’s taken aback by his friend’s extreme dejection over Rosaline. And Romeo really is in bad shape, delivering himself of overheated poetic conceits that border on nonsense:
Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs;
Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes;
Being vexed, a sea nourished with loving tears.
What is it else? A madness most discreet,
A choking gall, and a preserving sweet. (1.1.197-201)
This is pretty poor stuff—Shakespeare is deliberately cobbling together clichés that don’t quite fit. Romeo searches in vain for metaphors (“What is it else?”) and rhymes (“tears” dangles alone between two rhyming couplets). The Petrarchan sonnet tradition, of which Romeo is a keen disciple, often draws its force from illicit or unrequited love—Petrarch himself wrote poems to a woman named Laura, whom he only saw from afar. But Laura and Rosaline, objects placed on poetic pedestals, are only pretexts for men’s contemplations of love in the abstract.
To help his suffering friend, Benvolio suggests a practical course of action:
Forget to think of her ...
By giving liberty unto thine eyes.
Examine other beauties. (233, 235-36)
Romeo doesn’t reject Benvolio’s suggestion, but claims it won’t work:
Show me a mistress that is passing fair;
What doth her beauty serve but as a note
Where I may read who passed that passing fair? (243-45)
Shakespeare, like Petrarch, borrows ideas about romantic love here from Plato. In the Phaedrus, for example, Socrates teaches that lovers’ souls have a faint memory of the perfect heavenly form of beauty, which they see in glimpses through their beloved. The women Benvolio has in mind might be “passing fair,” but Rosaline will surely “pass” them, as a more perfect representation of the divine ideal. But Shakespeare is critiquing this approach—it leads not only to emotional misery but to bad poetry.
So what does any of this have to do with TKC’s mission to develop Christians who will have an influence on our culture? To answer that question, look for parallels between the romantic attitudes Shakespeare rejects here and our own attitudes in 21st-century, hyper-connected America. When I think of Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio’s outlook in R&J’s first act, two relatively recent technological “advances” come to mind.
The first is online pornography, the ultimate extreme of “giving liberty unto thine eyes.” I don’t need to rehearse the reasons consuming pornography is a bad idea, or why its effects on our culture have exploded thanks to the speed and anonymity of the Internet. Suffice it to say, Student Life staff members at King’s have been sounding the alarm on this issue for more than a decade.
Just this month, Time magazine devoted a cover story to online porn and the pernicious effects it has on real-world relationships. Reading it in light of R&J, I was struck by quotes from men who said they felt incapable of experiencing pleasure and women who felt like objects without an identity. When she’s with her boyfriend, one said, “All of a sudden my mind shifts and I’m not a real person; it’s like, This is me performing. This is me acting. ... And I don’t even know who it is I’m playing, who that ‘she’ actually is. It’s some fantasy girl, I guess ...”
C.S. Lewis warned of a similar danger in a 1956 letter to a young male reader. The “real evil” of sexual fantasy, he wrote, is that it stunts the ability to look outside of oneself:
... it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. ... And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination. The true exercise of imagination, in my view, is (a) To help us to understand other people (b) To respond to, and, some of us, to produce, art.
Notice that Lewis’s main objection is not that pornography is immoral—though he would no doubt have equally eloquent things to say about the moral dimensions of lust. No, the bigger problem, the “real evil,” is that it damages the imagination. And when the imagination suffers harm, so does art, and along with it our ability to empathize with other people.
Romeo and his friends, in differing ways, are all caught in the same trap. Mercutio is a genius when he indulges in fantasies, like the fairy queen, but his deficiency is exposed (in an entertaining way, to be sure!) when he turns his attention to the realities of sex and love. Romeo, too, has an imagination that has curled in on itself, and he is left to construct a fanciful image of the perfect woman out of air, from leftover fragments of romantic poetry that were already clichéd by the Middle Ages.
Romeo’s predicament and Benvolio’s advice remind me even more strongly of another modern technology—the cutthroat comparative approach to beauty and romance promoted by online dating sites like OkCupid, in particular “swipe apps” like Tinder and PlentyOfFish, which allow users to quickly browse through a visual menu of potential partners.
Recently I’ve been reading Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romance, about the state of dating and romance in America, and Ansari’s own travails in the world of texting, sexting, and online matchmaking. Ansari is a comedian, so the book has many laugh-out-loud funny moments, but beneath the humor is serious social science (his co-author is a NYU professor of sociology), which provides a sobering look into contemporary relationships.
The central gist of the studies and surveys he quotes is that paradoxically, the technological aids that make it easier to find a date can actually hinder the search for a life partner. A seeming infinity of choices leads to indecision, he claims, not just because making the best choice is difficult, but because the overload of options leads to “creating a fantasy person full of all our desired qualities,” who can’t possibly exist. The solution, according to Ansari, is to “treat potential partners like actual people, not bubbles on a screen”—a great idea, though at the book’s conclusion, he struggles to figure out how to accomplish it:
As we see more and more people online, it can get difficult to remember that behind every text message, OkCupid profile, and Tinder picture there’s an actual, living, breathing, complex person, just like you. ... No matter how many options we seem to have on our screens, we should be careful not to lose track of the human beings behind them. We’re better off spending quality time getting to know actual people than spending hours with our devices, seeing who else is out there.
It’s hard to argue against this prescription—obviously, spending time with real people is healthier than spending time on virtual or mediated relationships online. But I would add another suggestion. In a culture that encourages us as never before to objectify, devalue, and dehumanize others, cultivating the imagination is supremely important, the only real chance we have to see other people as people, exactly as complicated and valuable and possessed of inner lives as ourselves.
When Romeo first sees Juliet, he is overwhelmed by her physical beauty:
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear—
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand
And, touching hers, make blessèd my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight,
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night. (1.5.51-60)
Romeo is once again writing poetry, heroic couplets to be precise. And it’s metaphysical, marked by over-the-top metaphors that draw exponential comparisons between the lightness of Juliet’s face and the darkness around her. She is brighter than torches, a jewel against an Ethiopian’s dark skin, a white dove among crows. Using fair skin as the primary marker of beauty sounds racially insensitive to us today, but it was standard practice among Elizabethan poets—and we know Shakespeare didn’t care for the convention, as he brillliantly mocks it in his sonnets to a mysterious Dark Lady.
But while he is making these conventional comparisons, Romeo drops a couple hints that he might be changing his Platonic outlook. First, Juliet is “too dear” for the earth, an indication that she is not just closer to the heavenly ideal than other women, but actually the ideal itself, “true beauty,” against which others must be measured.
So Romeo formulates a plan when “the measure” is done. He is referring to the dance music, but the word contains a pun, one that Benvolio used earlier when he said of women at the party, “We’ll measure them a measure and be gone” (1.4.10). For Romeo, the time for “measuring” is over. He will now attempt something more than looking and judging—he will touch.
Romeo begins his exchange with Juliet as we might expect, with a complex poetic metaphor calculated to impress. He takes her hand and says:
If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss. (1.5.104-107)
There is hardly a stronger example of pedestal-placing in all of literature. Juliet’s hand becomes a house of worship, a pure and holy place that Romeo imagines his very touch will defile. He pushes the metaphor further and compares his lips to pilgrims, on a journey to kiss the object they venerate.
What response does Romeo imagine Juliet might have to these clever lines? Will she blush and turn away? Compliment his wit? Reject him and become the next Rosaline, a pretext for more unrequited love poetry? Either way, I can’t imagine he expects what Juliet does say. Pause and savor the moment here, as one of literature’s greatest heroines springs to life:
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss. (108-111)
Juliet starts by appropriating his metaphor, though she shifts it—Romeo himself is now the “pilgrim,” not his lips; his hand is just part of his body, not a visitor to a shrine. But just because she borrows his metaphor doesn’t mean she accepts it. In fact, she rejects it utterly, and wrenches him back to reality. He has exaggerated his fault; Juliet is neither shrine nor saint. It was not a profanation for him to take her hand—it was an ordinary gesture of “mannerly devotion.” Even if she were a saint and he a pilgrim, hand-touching would not be a sin.
In the next moment, she picks his metaphor back up and extends it, to playfully fend off the kiss he wants to bestow. If he truly is a palmer (a pilgrim to Jerusalem who carries palm branches), he should know that the act of touching hands, “palm to palm,” is already a form of kissing—no need to get the lips involved! She will play his word games, but physical touch will be granted on her own terms.
In four masterful lines, which follow the same rhyme pattern as Romeo’s initial salvo, the poetic dreamer has met his match in a real-life woman. Romeo, flustered, tries to bring his preferred body part back into the conversation:
Romeo. Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet. Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
Romeo. O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do.
They pray: grant thou, lest faith turn to despair. (112-15)
Look carefully at what Juliet does here. Romeo stumbles in line 112, in an awkward attempt to reclaim the metaphor Juliet has deftly snatched away. But Juliet doesn’t strike back with a cutting one-liner and claim her victory. Instead, she responds earnestly and introduces a word, “prayer,” which both fits Romeo’s initial image and holds a variety of meanings, perfect for poetry-making. Religous pilgrims pray to God with lips and hands; Romeo the romantic pilgrim will “pray,” fervently ask, his beloved to grant a kiss.
It’s no accident that after two exchanges of independent quatrains, Romeo and Juliet are now speaking together, echoing each other’s rhyming lines. Juliet is not only encouraging him in his pursuit, holding him at bay while simultaneously drawing him forward—she is also turning him into a better poet. She is no muse like Rosaline, sitting silent while Romeo labors with tortured comparisons—she is actively sharpening his metaphor-shaping wit with her own.
After another complex exchange involving the word “move,” the banter reaches its climax when Juliet grants him a kiss. Romeo has achieved his goal, but there is no chance he will walk away now—the poetry is too good! He retreats to his original metaphor, imagining Juliet as a holy relic which can take away his sin. Once more, Juliet takes it, twists it, and serves it back to him:
Romeo. Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purged.
Juliet. Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Romeo. Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.
Juliet. You kiss by th’ book. (118-21)
The pilgrim’s “sin” is playfully passed back and forth via their lips as Juliet “sweetly urges” Romeo forward into territory he has never visited before—a real love affair with a real person, working with him to create beautiful language.
As Juliet’s final put-down suggests, Romeo’s education is not yet complete—he is still a conventional lover, a conventional poet who knows more about books than real life. Juliet, however, has ensured that he will eagerly run to his next lesson in Act II.
There is an irony here, of course, as Shakespeare uses fictional characters to contend that real people are preferable to fiction. But he understands that this is the only hope we’ve got. Only the imagination—developed through poetry, narrative, drama—gives us a fighting chance of feeling empathy for others outside ourselves.
Consider this a manifesto for the English major at King’s. As Christians, we know that human beings are eternal creatures, images of God, more valuable than anything else on earth. For students and teachers of English, our goal is to appreciate works of imaginative literature which help readers to experience this truth, not just intellectually but deep in their souls. As our culture pushes us increasingly toward isolation and self-love, training Christian students to read and write in ways that bring the fullness of humanity to the vastly different others around us, is more essential than ever.
And yes, we will read Romeo and Juliet again.