Alyssa Rosenberg argues on Slate that Romeo and Juliet “is full of terrible, deeply childish ideas about love.” She’s quite right . . . because that’s the point of the play. Reading the text, instead of assuming it represents the genre “perfect love that is tragically thwarted,” makes it clear that other characters and arguably Shakespeare himself see Romeo and Juliet’s love as gravely flawed.
Consider Juliet’s soliloquy at the beginning of Act 3, Scene 2, as she awaits Romeo’s arrival on their wedding night. Connecting this passage to the rest of the play are the motifs of light and darkness, day and night, and the public and the private—concepts that the lovers and the other characters see very differently (a difference that becomes important, as we will see). Light, darkness, day, night, and privacy emerge as key ideas in even the most basic summary of the soliloquy: Juliet urges dark night to come, so that she and Romeo may privately consummate their love.
The language of the soliloquy echoes the language of the pair earlier in the play. Just as Juliet calls Romeo “thou day in night,” Romeo associates Juliet with light from his first sight of her: “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!” Later, he adds that even if she exchanged her eyes for stars, she would still outshine them (2.2.19-22).
The repeated comparison of the beloved to light is striking because nearly all the couple’s meetings—including their wedding night—occur in the dark. Day and night divide the public and private realms, and the feud between their families keeps their relationship strictly in the private. When Juliet worries that her family will murder Romeo if they see him in the garden, he reassures her that he has “night’s cloak to hide [him] from their eyes.” As he succinctly describes their situation the morning after their wedding, “More light and light, more dark and dark our woes!” Their families’ violence belongs to the public day, their perfect love to the private night.
Such a positive view of these dominant motifs, however, comes only from Romeo and Juliet. Their desire for privacy, for instance, is not entirely healthy in the eyes of other characters. Early in the play, while Romeo is in love with Rosaline, his father Montague complains of his secretive habits:
Away from light steals home my heavy son,
And private in his chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks fair daylight out,
And makes himself an artificial night.
Black and portendous must this humor prove,
Unless good counsel may the cause remove.
Even during the day, then, Romeo wishes for darkness and privacy, which worries his family. He is “so secret and so close” that they do not know the cause of his depression and thus cannot “give cure” as they wish to.
Similarly, when Juliet grieves alone for Tybalt (and for the banishment of Romeo), Paris tells the friar that her father wishes them to marry soon in order “To stop the inundation of her tears, / Which, too much minded by herself alone, / May be put from her by society.” For the families of the lovers, a constant desire for privacy and the strong emotions that accompany it are unnatural and worrisome.
Instead, they believe, love ought to be part of the communal realm, at least in its initial stages. Paris courts Juliet through her father, and their wedding, even in the wake of Tybalt’s death, would bring family members together for a feast. The wedding of Romeo and Juliet, on the other hand, takes place offstage, presumably with only the friar who performs it in attendance. They first met wearing masks and not knowing each other’s identities; they die without their parents knowing they had been married.
Indeed, each almost disowns his family in order to love the other: “Deny thy father and refuse thy name; / Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, / And I’ll no longer be a Capulet,” Juliet tells Romeo. She is willing to forget her identity—faking her own death and leaving Verona for Mantua—to live with her husband. Had she told her angry parents why she refused to marry Paris, they doubtless would still have been angry, but she and Romeo may not have died. With these considerations in mind, the total separation of the pair’s courtship and marriage from public life is not a blessing but a fatal error or, at best, a seemingly necessary evil.
The play’s criticism of the lovers becomes explicit in the speeches of Friar Laurence, who considers their relationship shallow, hasty, and immoderate. Amazed at the news that Romeo has suddenly stopped loving Rosaline and fallen in love with Juliet, the friar concludes that “young men’s love then lies / Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.” (Just as Rosenberg says, “Romeo’s age isn’t specified in the play, but the quickness with which he throws over a former flame for Juliet doesn’t suggest a particularly mature man.”) A love that lies more in the eyes than in the heart, in the friar’s analogy, is deficient.
The rapid progress of the lovers’ relationship worries the friar, too: “Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast,” he cautions the eager Romeo. Although Juliet calls their love “too rash, too unadvised, too sudden” the night that she meets Romeo, she does not actually slow their courtship, as they marry the very next day. We are, in Rosenberg’s phrase, watching them “behave like early teenagers.”
Perhaps the most problematic aspect of Romeo and Juliet’s relationship is the extreme intensity of their love for each other. Friar Laurence warns Romeo about the danger of this just before the wedding: “These violent delights have violent ends, / And in their triumph die, like fire and powder, / Which as they kiss consume.” To avoid this danger, Romeo should “love moderately.”
The actions of both Romeo and Juliet prove his worries well-founded. Upon hearing of Romeo’s banishment, Juliet reacts with despair: “‘Romeo is banished’: to speak that word, / Is father, mother, Tybalt, Romeo, Juliet, / All slain, all dead.” When Romeo cries, “There is no world without Verona walls, / But purgatory, torture, hell itself” the Friar berates him at length for this “deadly sin” and “rude unthankfulness.”
Romeo and Juliet love each other so violently and exclusively that life without the other would be torture. When Romeo believes Juliet dead, he kills himself; when she discovers him dead, she kills herself. If Romeo had “love[d] moderately” as the Friar advised, he would not have killed himself, and then Juliet would have awoken. Their suicides make the Friar’s words that “violent delights” destroy themselves seem a prophesy. Their love may be good and real, yet its shallow beginning, rapid development, and high potency mar and ultimately destroy it.
Rosenberg is right, then, to condemn the lovers’ suicides as she does:
The vision of Romeo and Juliet’s deaths uniting their families is an adolescent fantasy of death solving all problems, a “won’t they miss me when I’m gone” pout. . . . Dying is easy. Living to survive the consequences of your actions and to do the actual work of reconciliation is the hard part.
Shakespeare would concur. Falling in love, casting your family and friends aside, marrying in secret—these things are easy, but unwise. They can lead to destruction. Romeo and Juliet would have been wiser to take the more difficult path: controlling their feelings, negotiating the complications of family life, and making their relationship part of their community, not exclusively an escape from it.
Anna Williams is a junior fellow at First Things.