Shakespeare’s early writings are peppered with the romantic tales of Hermia and Lysander, Rosalind and Orlando, Viola and Orsino. Stage productions abound; they are as popular and entertaining as ever in their depiction of love. But ask for thoughts on the world’s greatest love story, and I, like many others, will undoubtedly name none of these romantic comedies. That privileged position, arguably, belongs to Romeo and Juliet with its “star-cross’d lovers” hurtling towards inevitable death. But why is it that, of all Shakespeare’s plays on the subject of young love, it should be the tragedy which outdoes all others? What is it about this play which speaks to us so powerfully? Why should the world, as one reviewer once put it, “love these lovers”?
Audiences and critics alike speak of the play and its lovers’ universality; Romeo and Juliet’s ability to transcent time and speak to cultures and periods different from their own. That universality is emphasised in two of the most prominent dramatisations of the play in recent years: Baz Luhrmann’s film and Rupert Goold’s production. Luhrmann drives the play into a fiercely modern context. Leonardo Dicaprio and Claire Danes instil the pair with both youthful innocence and compelling sexual drive. Goold’s production places the lovers in their own personal world; passion and desire seem to be the forces behind Sam Troughton and Mariah Gale’s Romeo and Juliet. Both film and stage pairs possess a quality which modern young people can relatre to, and show an understanding of love which is underpinned by a society and culture driven by sexual passion and urgency.
If these two dramatisations of Romeo and Juliet illustrate its ability to speak to different generations and time periods on the subject of love, then we might question what the unique quality is that makes this play, its lovers and its theme of love so relevant to us all. In my view, and I am interested to hear others’ thoughts, it is the depth with which Shakespeare explores love in all its myriad forms – and does so more deeply and more seriously than in any of the romantic comedies.
Here we are privy to the holiness of love, the passionate nature of love, and finally the deathly nature of love. The play’s language forms a web of words and images associated with this. From the first meeting and the seeming purity of first love, where “Palm to palm is holy palmer’s kiss”, through to the warning of their fiercely desire-driven love, audiences are given two images which show the incredible complexity of this emotion. The all-too-powerful image of “love-devouring death” and the way in which love can be inextricably bound up with tragedt, provides that final layer within this play. Love’s story is most exquisitely gifted to us, through both pleasure and pain.
The deep exploration of the title characters’ relationship throughout the course of the play asks us to relate to our own experiences of this emotion, which permeates the lives of young people the world over. Romeo and Juliet become symbolic representations of the very profound nature of love in all its many forms. It is, perhaps, no wonder then that when watching film or stage performances of this play, the world falls deeply in love with these lovers.
Image by Michelle B