Is It Time To Retire Romeo And Juliet?

by Brendan James

Commenting on a new adaptation, Alyssa Rosenberg complains that the play “hasn’t aged well”:

[T]he vision of Romeo and Juliet’s deaths uniting their families is an adolescent fantasy of death solving all problems, a “won’t they miss me when I’m gone” pout. There’s a reason that, in the best modern riff on Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Maria lives after Tony’s death to shame the Sharks and the Jets, her survival a seal on the truce between them. Dying is easy. Living to survive the consequences of your actions and to do the actual work of reconciliation is the hard part.

Anna Williams suggests the exploration of “deeply childish love” is the point of the play:

The play’s criticism of the lovers becomes explicit in the speeches of Friar Laurence, who considers their relationship shallow, hasty, and immoderate. Amazed at the news that Romeo has suddenly stopped loving Rosaline and fallen in love with Juliet, the friar concludes that “young men’s love then lies / Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.” (Just as Rosenberg says, “Romeo’s age isn’t specified in the play, but the quickness with which he throws over a former flame for Juliet doesn’t suggest a particularly mature man.”) A love that lies more in the eyes than in the heart, in the friar’s analogy, is deficient.

The rapid progress of the lovers’ relationship worries the friar, too: “Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast,” he cautions the eager Romeo. Although Juliet calls their love “too rash, too unadvised, too sudden” the night that she meets Romeo, she does not actually slow their courtship, as they marry the very next day. We are, in Rosenberg’s phrase, watching them “behave like early teenagers.”

I agree with Alyssa that most modern-dress productions don’t come off well—I haven’t been the same since sweating through a bleak, grey staging at Edinburgh Festival a few years back. But is the play itself really “outdated?” Probably not until self-destructive love is out of our system. In the meantime it seems odd to fault Shakespeare for the relatively recent butcherings of a drama that has been staged for roughly 400 years.