Be honest--how many of you have read this thing since high school? I hadn't until yesterday, and good grief, it is not the play I thought I remembered. It was today's subject in my Hardcore Book Group, in which we are reading all of Shakespeare in roughly chronological order, and though opinions on it were diverse, we all agreed on one thing: there is some sick shit going on in Verona. I'll take it a step further and venture the opinion that "Romeo and Juliet" is a cruel, manipulative work about violent perverts. So there!
The general cultural appraisal of "R&J" would seem to be that it is a tragic tale of doomed love. Fair enough. But I was shocked at how detached it actually is from conventional sympathies. Romeo is painfully flighty, Juliet in open rebellion against her choleric father and embittered mother. "By my count," the Lady Capulet tells her marriage-shy daughter, "I was your mother much upon these years / That you are now a maid." In other words, I didn't get to be happy when I was thirteen, and neither should you. The supporting players say almost nothing that is not a double entendre, and their jokes often come at the most inappropriate moments; homoerotic tension abounds, even in the opening passages, wherein a couple of Capulet servingmen verbally duel with "tools," "naked weapons," and "standing" "pieces of flesh." Juliet's Nurse, commonly played as a source of comic relief, proves to be cruel and vindictive in the end, and bawdiness turns to bloodiness in an eyeblink whenever characters clash.
The play reads like a comedy for long pages until Mercutio is killed in act three; his "plague o' both your houses" tips the slapstick into doom, and from then on every move is a mistake, and every mistake results in death. There is, ultimately, nobody to truly engage our empathy--everyone is too small, too flawed, too shortsighted. It is easy to forget, if you haven't read the play in a while, that in act one Romeo is mooning over somebody named Rosaline, and when he starts in with Juliet everyone assumes he still talking about yesterday's girl. He is, in other words, an impetuous child. Threatening suicide is his answer to every problem, much as (accurately, it turns out) doomsaying is Juliet's response to every drama. Meanwhile, Capulet comes off as an affable oaf until he reams out Tybalt for street fighting; even then we give him the benefit of the doubt. Tybalt's a jerk, after all. But when he unleashes his fury on Juliet--"Hang thee, young baggage!"--we are shocked and appalled.
A reader can never get comfortable here; the play twists and turns and screams along at a furious pace, never giving anything time to sink in. But this, ultimately, is the source of its greatness. It's ugly and mean and mesmerizing, and surprisingly radical in purpose and method.
One group member compared it to the Divine Comedy--in that case of that famously blasphemous poem, its instant popularity became, in his words, "a cyst" that the Church had to grow around. What better way to defuse "Romeo and Juliet"'s power, another group member responded, than to force every high school student to read it? In my high school, we even watched the quite racy 1968 Franco Zeffirelli movie of it, ensuring our innoculation against the bonds between violence and sex.
On second thought, maybe that didn't work so well, after all.