Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

SHAKESPEARE: Romeo and Juliet

Love is a theme which has a long history in the Great Books tradition. Few of these stories are as simple as boy meets girl and they get married and live happily ever after. Love, like life, is usually more complicated than that. In Homer’s Odyssey Penelope remains faithful for twenty years while Odysseus is off fighting in the Trojan War. When he returns she welcomes him back into their old bed, true to the end. Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War to a wife who has long ago taken another lover; one of the first things Clytemnestra does when Agamemnon returns is to kill him. Oedipus, without knowing it, has two children by his own mother. When Jason tries to divorce Medea it doesn’t go well; she not only kills Jason’s fiancé but also murders their two sons as revenge. Dido commits suicide when Aeneas leaves her to go establish the Roman Empire. Mark Antony prefers Cleopatra to being emperor of Rome. Dante’s love for Beatrice leads him on a journey through hell, purgatory and on up to paradise. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath tells us about her five husbands. Othello kills Desdemona because of his unfounded jealousy. The list is long and love takes many forms, yet it’s the key ingredient in each of these stories.

But of all the love stories in western literature there may be none as famous as Shakespeare’s tale of a pair of star-cross’d lovers: Romeo and Juliet. They’re young, attractive, and hopelessly in love. Unfortunately their families are mortal enemies. This story gives Shakespeare a great tragic plot to work with but also allows him to meditate on the nature of love; and he’s a master at probing the human heart.

Consider first someone who doesn’t care much for either love or peace. Tybalt tells Benvolio: Talk of peace! I hate the word as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee. Tybalt isn’t interested in love, he’s much more interested in killing Montagues like Benvolio and Romeo; and if there’s ever a man hopelessly in love, it’s got to be Romeo. He knows it too. He himself admits that Love is a smoke rais’d with the fume of sighs…what is it else? A madness most discreet. Even knowing this, he can’t help himself. He has no control over his own emotions and says as much when he proclaims I have lost myself; I am not here; This is not Romeo, he’s some other where. So it’s no real surprise when he stammers one of the most famous lines in the literature of love: But soft! What light through yonder window breaks, it is the east, and Juliet is the sun! Say what?

To Romeo’s friends this is pure nonsense. Benvolio counsels him not to get too hung up on one woman. Benvolio: Be rul’d by me, forget to think of her. Romeo: O, teach me how I should forget to think. Benvolio: By giving liberty unto thine eyes; examine other beauties. Benvolio’s advice is old: there’s more than one fish in the sea. Mercutio has a different take. Love isn’t a game for sissies. His advice to Romeo is If love be rough with you, be rough with love… Does Romeo listen? Of course not. He’s in love. Does anyone so deeply in love ever listen to sound advice? He does what many lovers do, even today; he plunges in head over heels and doesn’t worry about the consequences. It all ends in tragedy, but what a tragedy. Shakespeare knows a good story when he sees one and he knows the human heart as well as any modern psychologist. The result is magnificent For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.


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