Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Love or Lust: Romeo & Juliet and Missing the Point?

by Dan Bruno (@HSMatters)

I may be in the minority on this one, but I have to come clean. I have never been able to justify the modern argument about love or lust in regards to Romeo & Juliet. There are many reasons for this confusion, but I want to make sure I am clear: I need someone to explain this conflict over love or lust because I cannot see it.

I have many colleagues who fret over the sensitivity of the main characters committing suicide in a play we teach to fourteen-year-old students. I am beginning to believe they fret over this portion of the play because they have allowed cynical, modern lenses to interfere with their artistic vision. If we dive into the play, a number of reasons against the reading of the play as lust surface from the depths of Shakespeare's text.

First, the contrast between the other male characters and Romeo. A softie by any other name would be as saccharine as Romeo tends to be. He speaks in the conventions of courtly love, by acts with the abandon of a teenager. The other male characters do not speak in courtly phrases and tidy metaphors; instead, they revel in violence and conflict. Heck, Tybalt has such an act to grind he actually hates the word peace. Forget the concept they represent, Tybalt's out for logocide. The most bawdy and lusty characters end up dead by open brawling violence, not quietly committing suicide in a tomb. Romeo is different from the other males precisely because he is not as lusty.

Second, the holy palmers' kiss sonnet. Shakespeare and his sonnets; Petrarch and his sonnets; Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her sonnets; let me count the ways. If there is one thing "universal" in literary study, it is that sonnet structure is associated with love. If sonnets are poems about love (yes, even ironically about love), and this first dialogue between Romeo and Juliet is a sonnet, this dialogue must be about love. Before I get harangued for simplistic syllogistic logic, also consider the metaphor Shakespeare uses in the sonnet. The two lovers are not just speaking about love, they are speaking about pilgrims on a holy quest. Love and holiness: I just cannot reconcile myself with lust and holiness being a pair. Was Romeo just pining away for Rosaline? Yes; but my dude does not miss a beat. Why harp on what's past when what's present is so lovely.

Third, the balcony scene. The stories of Petrarch and Laura and Dante and Beatrice are sweet until you realize that they are essentially pulling off the literary equivalent of Frankenstein's monster. Each man, at the loss of so lovely an object of admiration, reanimates the dead woman and speaks for her. In this way, the two female voices become formulaic, expected, in line with the men's perspectives. Juliet is not given the chance to speak in such saccharine language as Romeo because the meddlesome male is spying on her. Juliet is relieved that Romeo sneaks up on her at night because the night's darkness can hide the "maiden blush
 that would "bepaint [her] cheek / For that which [Romeo] hast heard [her] speak." Realizing that the conventions of courtly love are useless at this point, she says one of my favorite lines in Renaissance literature: "But farewell compliment. / Dost thous love me?" I can almost she her crossing her arms, narrowing her eyes, and preparing to shove this fool off of her bedroom balcony. Juliet is not one given to frailty and helplessness. Unlike the ideal women of Petrarch and Dante, Juliet has a life and mind of her own, and she is smart. Some say that Romeo is lusty and pushes her past her own comfort; I say that Juliet knows exactly what she is doing and falls in love with this deep and sensitive soul. Like Ovid before him, Shakespeare seems to be letting the poets prove to be the best lovers.

Fourth, and final, the union of the two families. This feud is old. This feud is bloody. This feud could not be stopped under pain of death. Watching the Folger's Master Class on Romeo & Juliet last night, I was struck by the actress Erin Weaver's explanation of the suicide scene. She says that there is ample justification in the text, besides the love for each other, that drives Romeo and Juliet to suicide. I have to admit that was a new perspective. She explained specifically that Juliet has little in the way of relationships with others outside her family, and these relationships break. The one with her mother is not particularly strong from the start, but when her father says "get thee to church o' Thursday, / or never after look me in the face" Juliet's heart breaks. In the eerily similar passage from Much Ado About Nothing, the good friar convinces Leonato that Hero's disobedience is false. In that play, Leonato relents, is shown the truth, and everybody lives...(you know the rest). In this play, Capulet leaves angry, the betrayal is real, and Friar Lawrence is not big on communicating effectively with others. Abandoned, Juliet only has Romeo left. With him gone, what more can there be? To ascribe to lust the power to end life, the power to stop violence and convert it to peace, and the power to mend physical and emotional wounds is to miss the point. What else but holy love, corrupted by the violence of these two families' rage, could be of significant enough loss to justify the immediate and certain change of heart in these two old, battling fools?

I am interested in what you think. Am I just being ridiculous? Have I missed something big glaring at me? I have always found the idea of having the debate over love and lust intriguing, but I've never seen how the lust side can get enough textual support to be convincing. I'm looking forward to reading some feedback and discussing this seminal text.


Mrs. Brady said...

I believe you are correct in your summation. I think some people confuse Romeo's capriciousness with lust. However, he is a teenager and they are notorious for a lack of judgment and impulsiveness.

ICSENGLISH10 said...

I see things much as you do, and appreciate your explication of these moments in the play. For the first time this year I couched my class study of the play in identifying paradox. It incorporates and allows for this tension between love and lust, not as either-or, but as both; yet it also allowed students to reflect on any language or actions of characters they found paradoxical or contradictory, then explored the effect of the language (as they did with thenlove sonnet). This was the first time I relinquished control of "topic choosing" for thenplay and listened to what they wanted to talk about in it, yet also strongly encouraged close study of the language.