from Harvard Review, Number 33, 2007
"They aren't in love, you know."
Usually the class's alpha female says this, though I've seen even the most introverted student hit an internal breaking point and blurt, "Can I just say something?!" Once it's said, a collective sigh usually follows.
That's not how I should respond. As their teacher, I should say, "That's interesting, especially since the play is often called 'the greatest love story ever told.' Can you take us to a place in the text that supports your view?" I don't, though. I'm always unnerved.
"No," says Alpha, "they aren't." And my other students, with all the sagacity of their eighteen years, shake their heads at their teacher's folly.
"What about being star-crossed lovers?" I ask. "What about My only love sprung from my only hate or It is my lady, O, it is my love? What about the marriage? The murders? The tragic deaths? Here's to my love! What about that?!"
Nope, not love. That, as we discuss it, turns out to be something else. Not love but lust, the sort that stuns you when you take a musky whiff of pheromones and feel the urge to eat, literally eat, another person. Not love but will, like when you get testy listening to the prattle of your paired-off friends and decide, "It's my turn." Not love but a lark, since flirting makes life fun. It's any of these, my students explain, but it's not love, because love requires commitment, maturity, sacrifice, and self-knowledge, because love involves struggle, compromise, and disappointment, because love—no matter what the stories say or how the heroines swoon—means work.
"Work" is the word they keep using. When you're in love, you work. You work at your relationship, your marriage, your personal fulfillment, your ability to be together and alone. You work at growing, at sharing, at supporting one another through the good times and the bad. You work to love more and be more lovable. Love is work.
Maybe they're right. Maybe there's much to celebrate about a room full of young people who are aware of the demands love makes, who don't buy the lacy lies we tell on Valentine's Day or after a hit of ecstasy. Believing love is work is certainly better than believing it's effortless, ceaseless bliss. So maybe I should feel relieved that my students aren't willing to see two teenagers who meet at a banquet, dance once, flirt, get engaged, deceive their parents, marry, have sex, commit multiple murders, fake death, then die in an exquisite double suicide aren't really in love.
Still, I worry my students are missing out on something, something more than just an accurate understanding of the play. (You can "prove" Romeo and Juliet are in love easily enough if you unearth the play's literary and cultural context, but that's a scholar's argument, and what good does that do? My students don't change their minds about the nature of love because I show them passages from Plato's Phaedrus.) I think Romeo and Juliet show us—in a way no Hallmark card or expert can—what it feels like to be in love.
He knew it from a story, "Rhomeo and Julietta," that was written in 1561 by William Painter and included in a book called The Palace of Pleasure, a collection of one hundred and one tales from classical and Italian writers like Livy, Tacitus, and Boccaccio. He'd also read it in a poem printed a year later entitled The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by a Protestant moralist, Arthur Brooke. And these aren't all the versions of the story that predate Shakespeare's. Romeo and Juliet have precursors going back to 1467.
"Isn't that plagiarism?!" My students get miffed when they learn Shakespeare wasn't original, at least not in the way we think of it. Why, they rightly ask, are we so gaga over a writer who didn't invent his own characters? Didn't Shakespeare just steal his story?
"Ransacked" is how one of Shakespeare's fellow playwrights described what he and his likes did to the writing around them. They ransacked other writers' words, characters, scenes, entire plays, and poems. They pulled them apart, took what they wanted, tossed what they didn't, added what they needed, and put them back together. We know, thanks to the work of Douglas Bruster, Brian Vickers, and other Shakespeareans, that these writers slandered one another for doing so—the ransacker was damned as a "plagiary," a "word-pirate," and a "poor poet-ape"—but they did it anyway. They "tossed and turned" the books around them, as another put it, to make their own. Shakespeare the playwright made plays the way a shipwright made ships, with materials that were ready-to-hand, but instead of timber and canvas, he used books.
And Brooke's Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet was the book he handled most. The poem is so bad and so long that once my students slog through it even those most offended by Shakespeare's plagiarism see his genius, which in this case doesn't lie so much in invention but reinvention, in making poetry that's so bad so good.
Take, for example, Shakespeare's famous balcony scene: "O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" In Brooke's poem, the lovers fall in love, find out they're from warring families, leave the banquet, and spend the night fretting. Perturbed, Romeus finally rises and stalks Juliet. I'll quote enough of what happens next for you to get a sense of how it feels to read Brooke.
And while with lingering step by Juliet's house he passed,
And upwards to her windows high his greedy eyes did cast,
His love that looked for him there gan he straight espy.
With pleasant cheer each greeted is; she followeth with her eye
His parting steps, and he oft looketh back again
But not so oft as he desires; warily he doth refrain...
In happy hour he doth a garden plot espy,
From which, except he warily walk, men may his love descry;
For lo, it fronted full upon her leaning place,
Where she is wont to show her heart by cheerful friendly face.
And lest the arbours might their secret love bewray,
He doth keep back his forward foot from passing there by day;
But when on earth the Night her mantle black hath spread;
Well armed he walketh forth alone, ne dreadful foes doth dread...
By night he passeth here, a week or two in vain;
And for the missing of his mark his grief hath him nigh slain.
And Juliet that now doth lack her heart's relief
Her Romeus' pleasant eyne, I mean, is almost dead for grief.
Each day she changeth hours (for lovers keep an hour
When they are sure to see their love in passing by their bower).
Impatient of her woe, she happed to lean one night
Within her window, and anon the moon did shine so bright
That she espied her love: her heart revived sprang;
And now for joy she claps her hands, which erst for woe she wrang.
Eke Romeus, when he saw his long desired sight,
His mourning cloak of moan cast off, hath clad him with delight.
That's twenty-six lines. Imagine reading three thousand, rattling along in relentless iambs and ending on a couplet's clang.
From such stuff Shakespeare made his play. For the balcony scene, you can see where he starts—the night, the garden, the moonshine, Juliet's "leaning place" that Shakespeare makes into Romeo's sigh:
See how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!
The image of the hand in glove, with its perfect fit, its soft caress, may come from the clapping and wranging hands of Brooke's Juliet, but Shakespeare's use of them doesn't mar his genius. Here, as with almost any moment when you put the two versions of the story side by side, you can see the beauty of Shakespeare's art. How, for example, he captures from the first Romeo's elation in those stressed e's that well up (see, she, lean, cheek) and pull the corners of your mouth into a love-dazzled grin whenever you say the line aloud. Or how, as the line ends, it shifts to the quieter sound it's been hitting all along (how, she, her, her) and gives us Romeo's breathy, heady exhalation, "her hand!" Yet the line is clean and effortless. We don't notice its alliteration, we look, like Romeo, at Juliet's hand, and we hear how he feels: "that I... that hand... that I ... that cheek!" Romeo's desire emerges as music. As he repeats that same word, he creates an imaginary space (that __) where he and Juliet merge, like two dancers gliding through one figure. At the same time, his subjunctive music captures his longing, the fact that he's barred from touching her except in his imagination: "that I were... that I might... " That, I'd say, is what it's like to sigh with love.
And that's what Shakespeare's use of Brooke's poem does. It not only makes clear his play's beauties, it also reveals the nature of the love between Romeo and Juliet.
We don't believe in love at first sight. If someone tells us she was in the produce aisle or he was at the airport bar, and she saw him or he saw her or he him or she her and—kaboom!—right then, right there, he or she just knew, we'd raise an eyebrow. Love? How do you know? What can you know? You hardly know your fellow melon-squeezer or margarita quaffer. We'd probably dismiss the feeling as the result of some other cause, the cheap tequila or nice melons, rather than attribute it to love. Love, real love, doesn't happen like that.
Romeus doesn't give us any reason to change our minds. When he arrives at the banquet, Brooke tells us how he first spies Juliet:
With upright beam he weighed the beauty of each dame,
And judged who best and who next her was wrought in nature's frame.
At length he saw a maid, right fair of perfect shape,
Which Theseus or Paris would have chosen to their rape,
Whom erst he never saw, of all she pleased him most.
Romeus runs a beauty contest. With a judgmental eye, he searches for the woman in the room with the most "perfect shape," a perfection Brooke impresses on us by noting that Juliet's shape wouldn't prompt any ordinary man to rape but the mythic figure Theseus or Paris. After this troubling compliment, which also happens to be really bad poetry, Romeus himself praises Juliet in a tone that couldn't be more bloodless:
Within himself he said to her, "Thou justly may thee boast
Of perfect shape's renown, and Beauty's sounding praise,
Whose like nay has, nay shall be seen, nay liveth in our days."
Romeus fixates on Juliet's perfect shape, and though he affirms it with his and Beauty's "sounding praise," he sounds more like a "nay"-sayer than a lover. Besides, he never mentions love.
Yet however much Romeus may strike us as strange, repulsive, certainly not as a man in love, he thinks in a way that resembles us. He has an ideal. He searches for someone who fulfills that ideal. Juliet does, and he loves her. Of course we don't like Romeus's ideal, which is beauty, or at least we say we don't even as we claw apart celebrities on the cover of People, but we do have our own ideals about who's lovable. We want someone who's compassionate or funny or a good father or hates the Yankees. Our ideals fill the second halves of all those personal ads, all those specifics that come after "seeks."
... seeks SF, 18-39, N/S, who possesses self-love, self-respect, enjoys travel, movies, skating, swimming, and more.
... seeks kind, positive, upscaleprofessional for hugs, communication, and joy.
... seeks hot chub / fat guys / ex-jocks 20-50 for romance or pleasure who are secure, out and open, no head games.
Our perfect shape might not be the one Romeus seeks, it might be hot chub, but we often muse on that perfect person for us in light of some ideal, and Romeus exemplifies this sort of thinking. He's such an idealist, in fact, he's an Idealist. His concern with perfection conjures up Plato's Ideals, those eternal, flawless, otherworldly forms of which worldly things are mere shadows. Juliet embodies the Platonic Form of Beauty, and Romeus imagines Beauty herself praising Juliet's perfection. In her, he's found his ideal, as many of us hope to find ours.
Shakespeare's Romeo, like Brooke's Romeus, falls for Juliet at first sight. He also follows Romeus's lead by comparing Juliet to other women at the banquet and by using beauty as the measure for that comparison. And like Romeus's Juliet, Romeo's Juliet has no equal. But where Romeus coolly judges, Romeo intensely feels, and where Romeus finds the fulfillment of his ideal, Romeo finds his ideal inadequate to his experience. He sees Juliet and says:
O she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear—
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o'er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I'll watch her place of stand,
And, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.
Romeo may make a Romeus-like "measure" of Juliet's beauty, but the imagery he uses stresses how she exceeds all measure. Her brightness outshines the torch fires that fill the banquet hall, and she instructs them in burning. Her brightness outshines the night's stars, so much so that Romeo has to switch metaphors mid-sentence and liken her brightness to a rich jewel hanging from an Ethiopian's ear. Yet these comparisons aren't enough. Romeo needs an excess of them to convey Juliet's excessive beauty. He likens her to a dove flying among the corvine women who surround her. His images are steeped in the senses. Not only does the fire, starlight, jewel, and dove's whiteness dazzle the eye, not only do his couplets ring in the ear, but the torches burn, the snow chills, and the rich jewel dances against the cheek. No wonder Romeo wants to touch her.
Before he does, however, he does something Romeus doesn't. He realizes he's in love:
Did my heart love till now? Foreswear it, sight!
For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.
Kaboom! He sees her at the banquet, in the produce aisle, at the airport bar, and he just knows, "Did my heart love till now?" No, it didn't, but now it does. Notice that Romeo's realization involves a retraction, a foreswearing of what he thought he knew, but didn't really know until he saw Juliet. Romeo thought he had seen beauty, thought he was in love (the first time Romeo appears on stage, he goes on about his unshakeable love for a beauty named Rosaline), but only now does he see "true beauty," only now does he feel real "love." What he thought before was wrong. He had an ideal but when he spies Juliet, right then, right there, he realizes its inadequacy. He must understand love anew, not through an ideal but in a person, in Juliet.
And what strikes you as more true, more real: you fall in love, like Romeus does, after you find someone who fulfills your preconceived ideal, or you fall in love, like Romeo does, after you encounter someone who exceeds your ideal even explodes it, and makes you realize you were wrong about who you thought you wanted, what you thought you felt, and who you thought you were?
I know how that question fares among my students: "No way." Whatever Juliet inspires at that instant in Romeo, it isn't love. My students also quickly point out that this love-at-first-sighter is a man and that his story is written by a man. That's certainly right and important, but does it mean Romeo conveys no truth except as an example of a misogynist psychology that hides a drive to objectify and possess women beneath prettified sentiments?
I asked this of a colleague of mine from the psych department who researches the emotions and pays careful attention to the well-being of her female students. The Romeos of the world, she warned, do a lot of damage to their Juliets, especially when these Juliets are starting to awaken sexually. "O happy dagger! This is thy sheath." Yet she also thought we undervalue our initial reaction to another person, that visceral "Oh my" or "Oh no" we feel when we first see a potential dagger or sheath.
I also know we overvalue talking. If we're quick to doubt love at first sight, we're willing to believe love after long talk. Imagine if Romeo and Juliet met through an instant message. Perhaps they happen upon each other's user profiles at MySpace or Facebook or Blogger. They like what they read. They chat, in public at first, guardedly, but soon in private, opening up, sharing emoticons, discovering likes and dislikes that result in many an "OMG!" They go from private chats to lengthy emails. They disclose their real names. They exchange cell numbers. One night, the phone twitters. At first, there's hesitation, then their voices build to a harmony that eventually becomes a continuous, shared chronicle of every waking moment: "On the balcony. Where are you?" Romeo's and Juliet's emotions escalate with their increasing techno-intimacy, until they finally profess their mutual love, all without ever once seeing one another. If my students heard this story, they might say, "Way!" because we believe talking, face-to-face or Facebook-to-Facebook, is a real way to real love.
This talking, I should specify, is a particular kind of talking, the kind to which we refer when we say, "We need to talk" or have "the talk" or "talk it out." It amounts to a common script we've memorized. We know which of its lines to weigh, when to add an improvised outburst—"This is not about my mother!" —or an Oscar-winning catch in the throat—"Maybe it is about Mother..." When it comes to the talk, we're method actors. We've naturalized our parts.
What's wonderful about Brooke's awful poetry is that he makes the natural feel unnatural. When Romeus and Juliet first talk, they follow a script, one much different from ours, but one that shows the scripted artificiality of such talk.
Initially, however, Romeus can't talk at all (that's also in the script). The "sudden sweet delight" that fills him when Juliet "with tender hand his tender palm hath pressed" makes him lose his tongue. Fortunately, Juliet finds hers. As the two dance, and you should know Mercutio and others are part of this dance, she manages to bless Romeus's arrival at the banquet. Romeus rallies. He asks her why, "O lady mine," she would bless him, and Juliet answers:
Marvel no whit, my heart's delight, my only knight and fere,
Mercutio's icy hand had all to frozen mine
And of thy goodness thou again hast warmed it with thine.
The knight has saved his lady. The knight also knows how to make a lot of a little. He praises the gods for the good fortune he's had in performing this service for Juliet, he assures her that the warmth of his hands is cold when compared to the burning fire Juliet has inspired in "each feeling part" of him, and he says those magic words every frosty fingered maid longs to hear:
I would wish if I might have my wished heart's desire. . .
To serve, obey, and honor you as long as life shall last.
Juliet ("all her parts did shake") responds in kind, "I am yours... while life endures." Neither life nor love endures long, but we know Romeus and Juliet are in love because they talk—and can't talk—the talk. They call each other by love's proper names, lady and knight, and they pledge themselves to each other until death parts their shaking, feeling parts.
Silly, sure, but their words aren't so different from those we listen for in a lover. "You complete me," we might say, or "I wish I knew how to quit you." We know these expressions of love when we hear them because we've heard them before; they echo ones we already have in our heads. "As long as life shall last." That's one we haven't given up on. We write our versions of it with the help of A World of Ways to Say "I Do" or The Everything Wedding Vows Book: Anything and Everything You Could Possibly Say at the Altar—And Then Some. We also use love's names. Let me call you sweetheart, darling, baby, daddy, partner, Pooh bear. If talk leads to love, then Romeus and Juliet sound a lot like us.
So do Romeo and Juliet. When Romeo first approaches Juliet, he turns himself and his lips into pilgrims and Juliet into a saintly shrine:
If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
I'm unworthy, you're so holy, my hand's lowly, one kiss only—Romeo knows the script. It's a sonneteer's, and he performs it well. He manages to touch Juliet's hand as he wanted and he offers, cleverly, to make up for his presumption with a kiss. Juliet recognizes the script and responds in turn:
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this.
A good saint to her good pilgrim, Juliet understands Romeo shows his devotion when he clasps her hand, though as she takes up her part, she does so with a wink. She also understands that Romeo devotes himself to her less as a pilgrim than as a "mannerly" man.
So she toys with the script. No less clever than Romeo, she takes up his conceit of saint and pilgrim but spins it in a direction Romeo doesn't intend. As the good saint, she explains:
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
That handhold, holy palmer, is as far as you're going to get. Rather than adhere to the script and become the idealized, sanctified Beloved, Juliet reinvents her role to her own impish end and shows Romeo she knows his game, though she never breaks its rules. She keeps up the flirtatious fun Romeo started. But the script, the talk, the what one says when one's in love, she's tanked that. Romeo can't very well spout a line he's memorized from some sonnet, because that script doesn't tell you what to say when your idealized, sanctified Beloved gives you a dose of unscripted sass.
When Juliet derails Romeo, their conversation becomes lively, exciting, spontaneously inventive. And their back and forth builds to a moment most lovers prefer to talking:
Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
Romeo: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do.
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
Romeo: Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.
Romeo takes his kiss, but only because Juliet lets him. Once we hear her spin Romeo's words whatever way she wants, we never doubt she could shoot him down. My students spot this strength in Juliet's character, so different from the wispy, weepy idea of Juliet that floats through nineteenth century watercolors and high school productions. What I wish they'd also see is the mutual joy Romeo and Juliet take in their pilgrim-saint game. Certainly, Juliet shows Romeo she's no sucker, but she's not smacking him with the rhetorical equivalent of The Beauty Myth. She instigates and shares in the pleasure they both take from reinventing—much like Shakespeare does Brooke's poem—the received script. It's this impromptu co-creation, this plucky verbal adventure that goes in a direction of their own making, which leads Romeo and Juliet to love or at least to love's first kiss, not the fulfillment of some prescripted talk.
And the fact that Romeo's and Juliet's words are from a script (and form a sonnet) isn't really a problem either, since the lovers are, after all, imaginary. Their words aren't a transcription from life, but from a story that was old when Shakespeare sat down to write it. We aren't interested in whether the story is real, but whether the way Shakespeare wrote it has anything useful to tell us about love.
I've been arguing it does. Despite the play's reception as the supreme expression of love, it tells us love arises when you abandon love's received expressions. Surely this is what Juliet shows us in the balcony scene when she refuses to let Romeo speak his sonneteer's spiel:
Romeo: Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow,
That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops
Juliet: O, swear not by the moon, th' inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.
Romeo: What shall I swear by?
Juliet: Do not swear at all;
Or, if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,
Which is the god of my idolatry,
And I'll believe thee.
Romeo: If my heart's dear love—
Juliet: Well, do not swear.
In the end, Juliet doesn't want to hear it, and her refusal leaves Romeo nonplussed. "What shall I swear by?" he wonders, but the question is wrong, because swearing itself is part of the script, and even if Juliet waivers for a moment when she asks Romeo to swear by himself, she knows well enough to leave the swearing and the script behind. "Farewell compliment!" Shakespeare's lovers show us we need to reinvent or rid ourselves of the love talk that prevents us from feeling, in Juliet' s words, "true-love passion." They also show us something more important. Through their pilgrim-saint game, through their delighted turns on one another's thoughts and words, through their first kiss, quickly followed by a second, Romeo and Juliet show us that love—as I've been hinting all along and as you've probably guessed since it's what you'd expect from Shakespeare, but it's still the reason that I wrote this essay because it's so far from our insistence on love as talk, as work, as talking it out and working it out—is play.
I hear the disapproving tongue-clucks of a thousand therapists, parents, and relationship experts. Love isn't play, they say, it's labor, sacrifice, challenge, self-overcoming and all that other stuff we all know love is. Yes, yes, I'm not claiming love is only play, but that play matters for lovers, especially young ones, because when you play, you experience some of love's greatest joys, and those joys might very well be what sustains you through love's labors, even its tragedies. Romeo and Juliet let us see this, that love can also be play.
And it's not that my students don't play. The gleeful shrieks that ring from the dorms show they do. It's that they don't believe play could be love. When they think of play and romance, they think of "being played with" or "playing around," and they certainly wouldn't want to end up with a "player." Play doesn't mean love and love means don't play. Love means pull a serious face and make a long-term commitment. They make it sound like enduring the dentist.
Shouldn't they know that love, as much as it's work, is play? Shouldn't they have the chance to feel like Romeo and Juliet?
They don't. They don't even see the possibility. Shakespeare's lovers may have suffered under crossed stars, but at least they could get their bearings. The Capulets and Montagues never hid their mutual grudge or their expectation that their family members should hate loyally. But we—as parents, therapists, relationship experts, and educators—we're more insidious. We tell our young lovers that the dancing star you see, the one that burns so brightly and just for you, don't follow that; that's not love. You'll find love when you follow the constellation of Work, or Talk, or Volvo minivan. We give them a definition of love better suited for forty-somethings because we don't want them hurt. We know the world is cruel and when you play, you usually fall, and not always in love.
My students have learned this lesson. "I like what you are saying about love is play," wrote a freshman after reading an early draft of this essay (I was curious to hear what they'd say, so I gave them the option). "Just make sure to make it clear that you don't completely dismiss the idea that love is work." Work, they've learned, isn't dismissible. Even my students who agree that love could be play saw work as the given. "I think there is a tendency in the world to drain the play out of everything," emailed a junior, "Not just love." This isn't the world I want for my students, one in which they're young, world-weary, and love is another onerous task on the to-do list of their lives.
Yet that's the world we show them, the world in which Romeo and Juliet don't look like lovers of any sort. Maybe my students are better off in this world, but it takes its toll:
I'd like to believe I don't have feelings, that I'm a cold, well-oiled machine, but I know that's not true because I spend the greater part of my efforts trying to suppress such feelings. These feelings, which are my capacity to love, not only romantically but ubiquitously—to love, something I've repressed so strongly that my face flushes even typing the word: love. Love, that variable that destroys every meticulous equation, that wild card, that time bomb.
Love is a time bomb. That isn't the kind of kaboom I'd like my students to have the chance to experience, and as I watch them in class, dutifully working on Shakespeare's love-filled, play-filled play like the cold, well-oiled machines they aren't, I find myself wishing they could feel more like Romeo:
Love goes toward love, as schoolboys from their books,
But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.
About the Author
Eric LeMay's work has appeared in the Paris Review, the Nation, and other magazines. Visit his website.
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