Romeo, Juliet, and the Purpose of Literature

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Believe it or not, I have never read a single play by Shakespeare, nor seen one acted out.  Until last night, that is.  I have always shied away from Shakespeare, not particularly caring for the overly dramatic, and not being wildly keen about tragedy.  I also (I blush to admit) have found the speeches in his plays to be all but incomprehensible.  Last night, I was proven wrong on all accounts and my respect for Shakespeare has skyrocketed.  I have had my first official introduction to Shakespeare, in the 2013 film version of Romeo and Juliet.

(I will be including spoilers in this post, assuming that most of you are familiar with the basic storyline.)

I loved so many aspects of this film, and was delighted to find myself proven wrong on all of my previous grudges against Shakespeare.  I have always been extremely impatient (even disgusted) with over-the-top romance.  Give me the Emma & Mr. Knightly version of “friendship-blossoming-into-love” to passionate, stormy romances any day!  Yet somehow, whether from the genius of Shakespeare or the brilliant acting of Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth or the amazing filmmakers, I actually found the pinnacle of stormy, over-the-top romance stories to be beautifully moving.  (Not the type of romance that I’d chose for myself, of course, but I could truly appreciate its beauty in dramatic form.)

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Not having read the original play before, I had to rely on my sister’s knowledge of Romeo and Juliet.  She read it for the second time yesterday (in preparation for our movie night).  Throughout the film, she continually clapped her hands or exclaimed in delight, saying that almost every word was straight from the play.  She said that the film differed from the book on one single point only, and that the change they made was for the better.  The thing that blew my mind was the fact that the actors (every one of them were incredible) were able to take flowery, poetic speeches and make them seem absolutely spontaneous.  I had always assumed that the speeches of Shakespeare (while being beautiful to read) would sound forced and strange in the mouths of live actors.  I can’t speak for any other versions of Romeo and Juliet, but I applaud the actors in this rendition for bringing all of those gorgeous words to life.

The story was, of course, extremely tragic.  The thing that cut me to the heart was the fact that in every single point, the lovers’ dark end was so preventable.  If only they had listened to wisdom!  They were constantly being chastised, remonstrated and challenged by their wise friends, Friar Laurence and Benvolio, to be prudent.  And yet through what they considered to be their “duty” to love, their love ended in unspeakable grief.  Romeo and Juliet worshiped each other in the true meaning of the word.  Though they did everything they could possibly do to prove their faithfulness to one another, though they were properly married, though they each truly felt themselves to be acting in the purest and most selfless love, their actions were ultimately of the most selfish kind imaginable.

I was truly conflicted in my admiration for the hero and heroine of this tale.  How am I to love characters who can shut their eyes to the pleading tears of their friends, and end their lives so needlessly and foolishly?  And yet how could I not love two young people filled with such genuine devotion, and such truly tender hearts.  Because even if Romeo and Juliet’s last acts were done in selfishness, for the most part they were noble, courageous, and honorable.

As much as I pitied, sympathized and felt for the two main characters, though, my favorite character by far was Benvolio.  He was so young, but so wise.  He stood alone in his constant attempts at peacemaking between the feuding families of Montague and Capulet.  No matter the situation, he always strove to do what was right.  

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Father Laurence, as well, was a breath of fresh air in his blunt, honest answers and clear-headed thinking.  (Though it did take me a while to get used to “John Adams” in a monk’s robe.)

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At one point, when Romeo was declaring his wild love for Juliet and his desire to marry her immediately, the Friar gave an amazing speech, capturing the true message of Romeo and Juliet:

These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume. The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately. Long love doth so.
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.
I can’t say enough about all of the characters – whether evil or endearing, they were all masterfully written and masterfully acted.  (The villain Tybalt especially, though not having an abundance of screen time, had such powerful presence.)  The costumes were unbelievable, and the cathedrals, palaces and landscapes of Italy were breathtaking.  I can honestly say that I have never seen a more beautiful movie than Romeo and Juliet.  As far as negatives go, the filmmakers stuck to the original story like glue, so if you know the story you can know the sort of thing to expect from this film.  It definitely deserved its PG-13 rating, but it did not feel “dirty” in any way.  There were several duels and deaths yet nothing overly bloody.  There was  a ton of kissing, though most of the kissing was done after Juliet and Romeo were married.  There was one “scene,” also in the context of marriage, but (for that type of scene) it was rather delicately done – though looking down/skipping it would not take away from the story at all.  The real apprehension I had about watching this film or reading the story was the ultimate tragedy.  I had a hard time believing that any story that ended so tragically and (as I always thought) pointlessly would be worth spending my time on.
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What I discovered was that, though I still have an aversion to most highly passionate, dramatic romances and tragic ends, if that type of story is done extremely well, I can see the beauty and worthiness of such a story.  It is not simply a moral lesson.  It is, like all great literature, a way of tailoring our loves and hates into accordance with truth.  A moral lesson would simply tell us why passionate, reckless, worshiping love is dangerous to lovers.  And our intellect would agree.  But Shakespeare does something different.  He bypasses our intellect and goes straight for our hearts.  He involves us deeply in the feelings of Romeo and Juliet, and takes us on every stage of their journey, all the way to the bitter end.  By the end of the story, when our own hearts have been broken by tragedy, we not only understand the wisdom of prudence and the pointlessness of recklessness and violence.  We truly love prudence.  We hate violence.  We grieve rashness.  This art of “loving and hating aright” is the very purpose of literature.  And it is an art in which Shakespeare excels.

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It’s safe to say that my first experience with Shakespeare went off with a bang.  I never would have thought that anyone could make me love this “tale of woe, of Juliet and her Romeo.”  But when a masterpiece of literature is brought to life by truly outstanding actors, then what chance does my prejudice stand?  While I still dislike the majority of stormy, tragic romances, Romeo and Juliet was nothing less than magnificent.

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6 thoughts on “Romeo, Juliet, and the Purpose of Literature

  1. I think we may very well be kindred spirits! (If you don’t mind on your end). I was starting to suspect it and I now feel quite confirmed. 🙂

    “This art of “loving and hating aright” is the very purpose of literature.” I love, love, love how you brought all that out, and I so agree! And this looks like an absolutely beautiful and poignant rendition of the play. I’ll have to look into it. (As a side-note, I was mentioning Much Ado the other day and, just to let you know, I have some friends who have seen the Kenneth Branagh film version and, also from what I’ve read on it, it has some indecent/highly skippable parts. I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t recommending that, as I hadn’t seen it.) I’ve seen a couple Shakespeare plays acted out both in person and on film, though and you’re right…isn’t it amazing how the “dry” words all of a sudden come to life?

    • I don’t mind a bit! I’m thinking that our “kindred spiritness” is becoming indisputable. 😀 I’m just glad to hear that you feel the same way!

      Thank you so much for your compliments, but I’m afraid that I can’t take any credit for that wonderful statement of “loving and hating aright” being the purpose of literature. It came from that Politically Incorrect book, and I loved it! It so perfectly summed up the purpose of literature!! Oh, and thanks so much for the warning about Much Ado! I haven’t seen it yet, so no harm done. 🙂 I’m sure that (knowing the negatives ahead of time) you would love Romeo and Juliet! Yes, I was amazed at how the actors brought those speeches to life, and even made them seem so spontaneous! I must say that I have LOVED my first introduction to Shakespeare and am quite hungry for more. 🙂

  2. That’s interesting, since I thought this had rather a reputation of being very loose with Shakespeare. I love Hailee Steinfeld though, she was magnificent in True Grit. And Paul Giamatti as John Adams is another favorite. I’ll have to give it a chance.

    Branagh’s Much Ado is probably my favorite movie adaptation – there is a brief, rather intense kissing scene, but no nudity (you can feel that one coming and fast-forward) and near the beginning, there are quite a few women running around half-dressed, as the credits roll, so just fast-forwarding for ~3 min would take care of that. Otherwise, very funny movie. Second favorite would be Branagh’s Henry V (which I have yet to finish) and David Tennant’s Hamlet (my favorite play, but it does have a lot of objectionable content – the play is spectacular though.)

  3. NOW do you know why I enjoyed my Shakespeare class? I have a bunch of different movies on our Netflix queue to try out. Whether my family will watch them with me or not remains to be seen. 😉 Oh, and I second Heidi’s warning about Much Ado. It’s a very well-done movie and Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson were fantastic. But there are definitely some things that should be skipped. And really, that’s something you need to watch out for in Shakespeare in general. He can be kinda lewd. And though almost all of the movies recite the lines verbatim, there are many different ways they can take it. I went to see a play of The Merchant of Venice (which is a fairly clean play) and they modernized the setting and emphasized some of the lines…. and it was TERRIBLE. So, just be aware. Especially if it’s modernized. 😉

    Now, I wouldn’t have started you out with R&J, just because of the story line. My suggestion/recommendation is that you read Twelfth Night. It’s one of the cleanest and most hilarious plays IMO. And my personal fav. 😉 And then watch the 1996 version: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelfth_Night_(1996_film) And then call me. 😉

    Well, I didn’t mean for this to turn into an essay on the merits of Shakespeare. 😛 Oh well. I’m just excited that you actually enjoyed it! 😀

  4. Couple items! I don’t know if you’re getting email updates on my blog or not…but I just did the Sunflower Award, which was most enjoyable 🙂 and last night I officially started Death by Living! (My, that sounds funny, doesn’t it? 🙂 )

    • I just read your post and loved it!! I was especially encouraged by the way that the Lord has been teaching you lately. What a wonderful, peaceful, contented place to be in! And three cheers for Death By Living! I have been itching to re-read that one for weeks now. It’s only a matter of time before I’ll give in. 🙂 I’m sure that you’ll like it!

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