August 10, 2015 by Devin
I used to be a hopeless romantic. In many ways, I still am, but it was even worse in high school. I wanted to be that guy who fell in love with that sweetheart and everything worked out for. I was anxious to find that person that made me feel like I was worth something, someone who would push me as a person to be a better version of myself and show me new shades of life that I would not have seen by myself. If you know me at all, you know that didn’t happen, which in some ways made those desires even worse in high school.
So when we got to read Romeo & Juliet in high school, I fell in love with the play. When we had to do a film project, I jumped at the chance to play Romeo because I felt so much like him. I not only wanted to be him, but felt like I was him. And when I heard the theater department decided to do Romeo & Juliet, I began memorizing a monologue almost immediately.
The Prince was not a bad concession prize.
I feel like this should be pretty understandable. Romeo & Juliet speaks to a lot of youthful passions. For so many young people, the feeling that, “Hey, this is the person for me and the only way life will ever make sense” is a powerful feeling, and Romeo & Juliet captures that so well. From the moment they see each other, Romeo and Juliet form a bond that is given verses that are, perhaps, a little sappy from an older perspective but also so sincere.
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would the airy region stream so bright
Birds would sing and think it were not night.
And what is more important to note is that their relationship, for all its airy metaphors, feels real. Their first conversation includes a playful back and forth as Romeo insinuates kissing through imagery but Juliet turns back the imagery on him, and this sparring leads to their first romantic gestures. When they do decide that this is a relationship worth pursuing, they take it seriously. They form plans, fret on the details, and ultimately make a lifelong commitment to each other that they intend to follow through with (which, technically, they do).
Plus, as English teachers all around the world like to note, the play is more than just a romance. It is filled with action, comedy, betrayal, and exciting moment after exciting moment. For what it is worth, I think this is one of Shakespeare’s most entertaining plays. While Hamlet lingers in its pace, Romeo & Juliet has moment after moment of buildup and payoff, mixing action and character in a dramatic way that feels compelling throughout. While Othello has to take focus of its most interesting character* just so you will not like him too much at the end, Romeo & Juliet has an ensemble of characters who each have a compelling perspective and quirks that come alive through dialogue and action. While Much Ado About Nothing is fine with just ending happily without much fanfare, Romeo & Juliet makes each choice and each moment count in the end so that no action ever feels wasted.
So if you were looking at my previous adoration of this play as some sort of youthful wish fulfillment… yeah, but hey, give me some slack.
Everyone grows up though, and eventually I came to have some disdain for those hopeless romantic feelings. When that stuff did not happen to me, I could either stay stuck in that wanting of something or I could learn that it was not all it was cracked up to be. Even if you find that perfect person, life is still going to be difficult and will not always work out. The mythical Romeo and Juliet romance is not all that it is cracked up to be.
It is at this point for most of the things I loved as a child that I see them for all their faults and relegate them to a bin I like to call, “Things that I liked as a child because they are childish and so was I.” In this bin are things like, “Eating all your candy on Halloween even though you know you will feel awful for the next week,” and, “Calling your friends to play Yu-Gi-Oh over the phone because you are not allowed to bring you cards to school and they live too far away.”
But the odd thing is that, unlike Yu-Gi-Oh,** Romeo & Juliet grew up with me. Looking upon the story later, I realized that all those criticisms I had about the relationship were present in the story.
“Romeo and Juliet seemed to fall in love with each other awfully fast.” Yeah, and Romeo was just pining over a completely different girl five minutes before seeing her. He does this a lot.
“Romeo and Juliet really seem to be driven essentially completely by their emotion.” Yeah, they’re teenagers. Friar Laurence even admonishes Romeo for being so pathetic.
“Romeo and Juliet’s relationship really does not have anything really substantial or lasting to it. This is clearly a high school romance doomed to fail once reality sets in.” THEY FRICKIN’ DIE AT THE END!
What I found upon revisiting Romeo & Juliet is that while it describes a youthful silly relationship, the actual play knows exactly that this is a youthful silly relationship and treats it as such. One of the main conceits of it is that these two people falling in love have absolutely no idea what they are doing and are essentially children.
In other words, the way this play looked at Romeo is the same way I look at my past hopelessly romantic self–acknowledging that those feelings were incredibly naive.
When I realized this about the play, I was impressed that it could include such a strong critique of young romance while at the same time showing the beauty of it. Most authors could maybe get away with one of these, with any moves toward one interpretation hurting the other. The fact that Shakespeare managed to include both of these elements in a single play reflects his mastery of tone and plotting and worthy of another article.
At this point in my life, my understanding of Romeo & Juliet was that it is a play about the follies of young romance and how it is, though beautiful, at its core, really just plain silly and dangerous.
I now think this viewpoint is flawed, and to tell why, I need to go somewhere completely different.
Millennials: What do they know? Do they know things? Let’s find out!
To be honest, I am not sure if I am a millennial.*** Sure, I have spent most of my life in the new millennium, but I also spent a good chunk of it in the 90’s and I recognize those Facebook memes that say, “Only 90’s kids remember this opening from X-Men!”
(to be fair, that was awesome)
At the same time, I feel like a lot of the tensions arising in the millennial generation are pretty universal. Every generation thinks the next one will be the one that ruins everything. This viewpoint usually comes from the changes a generation faces, and considering the amount of changes the millennial generation has gone through in comparison to the previous one, it is no surprise why there is such disdain for them.
Millennials have the reputation for being narcissistic people who have to take selfies to remember what they look like and do not contribute much to society in general. Essentially, young people are young and vain. Again, these are not exactly new notions, but the amount of change has made the blowback that much more vocal and prominent.
But the thing is, these criticisms are not all that valid. Yeah, selfies are prevalent, but so is body positivity, and that is a great thing. This generation of people is growing up to be the most socially conscious one. While that may mean that people claim that they are too “politically correct,” in truth that really means that they are more aware of diverse perspectives and voices, and that is a fantastic thing.
(I understand that I am speaking in generalities here, but bear with me)
What is interesting is that millennials are fighting back.
I realized that while old people criticizing young people is nothing new, young people are more aware of the failings of the previous generations. In other words, we are aware that while we may not be perfect, our previous generation was not either, and we are inheriting a lot of those problems.
As Ms. Marvel said:
In other words, they are not so different from us.
Do you see where I am going with this?
I realized recently that my reading of Romeo & Juliet was based around the notion that young people are inherently more emotional and prone to mistakes. I saw my high school self in Romeo, and being constantly self-critical, I saw him as kind of an idiot. Lovable and well-intentioned idiot, sure, but still an idiot.
But you know who else is idiots in that play? Literally everyone else except the Prince.****
(which again, is the character I played in high school)
Viewing the play without that assumption gave me a whole new perspective on its events. Going back to that meme I posted above, do you really think Romeo getting a crush on Juliet is the reason all those characters died? Are you sure it is not the fact that all these characters killed each other just because of their last names? And hey, how stupid was Romeo for getting a crush on Juliet for almost no reason… but at least he had something there to spark that emotion. The feud between the Capulets and Montagues is so silly that a reason is never mentioned or even alluded to. They just fight each other and that is it.
Romeo & Juliet is not, as a I previously concluded, a play about how silly and emotional teenagers are, but actually a play about how silly and emotional everyone is. In fact, Romeo and Juliet were stupid, but at least they were stupid toward something admirable or productive. They were not attacking people on the street or heckling people like their parents and friends.
Ultimately, this story is about two young people living with the fallout from their parents and trying to make it better while at the same time growing up with emotions and such.
And that is honestly a really relevant message right now for today’s generation.
I think the criticism of Romeo and Juliet’s failings is unfairly proportioned because they are young. They may not have been geniuses, but at least they had enough common sense to not hate people because you do not like their last name.
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*Hint: it’s not the title character.
**Hearthstone is where it’s at.
***I even have trouble spelling it.
****Okay, I guess Benvolio as well, but he had it easier. And Friar Laurence… but mainly the Prince.