As someone who devours 15 to 20 books a month, grew up reading instead of making friends and spends more on books than clothes, it’s hard to believe I’ve managed to not read any Shakespeare in all my 30 years.

It is one of my greatest literary achievements. 

But alas, all good things must come to an end. Spurred by an inexplicable feeling of obligation to the ineludible spectre of the Bard and the encouragement of X, the literature buff, I have decided to undertake the gargantuan task of going through the Complete Works Of William Shakespeare. 

And where better to start than Romeo And Juliet? Perhaps the most well-known “love” story in the English language, it is so famous that the titular characters have ascended to the status of metaphor. The play is seen as the archetypal romantic tragedy, the quintessential tragic love story. However, I posit that Romeo And Juliet isn’t a love story, it’s simply tragic. The key reason being that, presented with ample doses of irony and bad taste, the couple’s “love” is a caricature.

Romeo and Juliet is not a love story, not romantic, infatuation, shakespeare
Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968).

I denounce the idea of Romeo And Juliet as a love story because the play makes a mockery of love. Shakespeare, in writing the play, borrowed heavily (a common practice back then) from Arthur Brooke’s poem The Tragical History Of Romeus And Juliet, in turn a translation of an Italian novella. One of the changes Shakespeare made was to cut down the three months Brooke gave the couple to deepen their bond to a paltry four days. The “love” of Romeo and Juliet played out over the course of just four days.

Perhaps, by having no major timeskip, it adds a sense of urgency to the play, or as the scholar G. Blakemore Evans put it, “a sense of events moving steadily and inexorably in a tight temporal framework,” but urgency should not be confused for emotional depth or intensity. Romeo and Juliet supposedly fall in love at first sight, with Romeo instantly transferring his affection for Rosaline onto Juliet at mach speed.

First, he describes Rosaline as “The all-seeing sun / ne’er saw her match since first the world begun.” (I.2) Then, upon seeing Juliet, he declares: “For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.” (I.5) Today, men who behave like Romeo are called f***boys.

Romeo and Juliet is not a love story, not romantic, infatuation, shakespeare
Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996).

The play is a mockery of how people develop feelings for each other. Romeo And Juliet’s classification as a love story becomes even more questionable when compared to The Butterfly Lovers, dubbed the Chinese Romeo And Juliet. In this folktale – more than a millennium older than Romeo And Juliet – the couple spend three years together, and their love builds up gradually. 

Romeo and Juliet is not a love story, not romantic, infatuation, shakespeare
The Butterfly Lovers in Verona, Italy.

Strong romantic attachment takes time, and even stories that have couples falling for each other at first sight need to prove that they can survive the test of time. For instance, Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook spends the entirety of the novel justifying a love at first sight through decades of devotion. Ditto Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. Yes, Twilight is the better love story here. The “love” in Romeo And Juliet is, at best, a parody of romance, and part of the tragedy lies in how the naïve couple is denied a chance to prove themselves true.

Is Twilight a better love story?

The biggest irony, however, comes from the way the play ends. Romeo And Juliet starts by portraying the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues, though no one knows how the feud started, and the comedic tone makes the families’ intense dislike of each other come off as petty. By the end of the play, the feud is resolved following the tragic deaths of the couple, and the families make peace. If Romeo And Juliet were allowed to be together, that too would have ended the feud, assuming that they don’t end up unhappily married once the infatuation inevitably wears off, because they are both the only child. Approval and acceptance of their marriage would, I wager, have resolved the conflict. Even though the story ends in peace, it went down the much bloodier path paved with corpses.

After Romeo and Juliet die, the families reconcile, and the Montagues decide to build a statue of Juliet out of pure gold. It could be my modern sensibilities at work here, but to commission a gaudy statue as a peacemaking gesture seems ill-advised and rather tone deaf. Romeo and Juliet’s professions of love for each other also ring delusional, being hyperbolic to the point of absurdity:

My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite. (II.2)

O, speak again, bright angel! for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o’er my head
As is a winged messenger of heaven (II.2)

Finally, there is Friar Lawrence. His bizarre plan to help the couple ends up causing their deaths. That his plan is seen as the most effective way for the couple to achieve their happy ending strains one’s ability to suspend disbelief. Agreeing to marry the two teenagers (okay, we don’t know if Romeo is a teenager or not, but Juliet is 13) is also exercise in poor judgement, especially considering that the couple only met the previous night.

There’s truly something universal about humanity’s capacity for idiocy. Romeo and Juliet isn’t a tragic love story: it’s a story of abject folly.

Romeo and Juliet is not a love story, not romantic, infatuation, shakespeare
The families reconcile over the dead bodies.

This was my first time reading a Shakespeare play. I can understand why, in John Williams’ novel Stoner, the protagonist has a transcendental experience when he hears Shakespeare being recited, which sparks his lifelong love for literature. The musicality, craftsmanship and wit are plain to see. Reading the lines aloud, they feel almost like a dance. And oh, the memorable lines!

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet. (II.2)

Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs. (I.1)

Romeo:    I dreamt a dream tonight.
Mercutio:  And so did I.
Romeo:    Well, what was yours?
Mercutio:  That dreamers often lie.
Romeo:    In bed asleep while they do dream
things true. (I.4)

There’s something Ed Sheeran-esque about it. The catchy corniness; how everyone has definitely heard a few lines here and there, whether they like it or not. Romeo And Juliet has the same just-a-bit-trashy quality as Ed Sheeran’s pop songs. One acknowledges the popularity of both while turning up their nose at the tastes of the masses.

X points out that the original story of the star-crossed lovers was not intended to be romantic – which means my reading of the play might be more accurate than Taylor Swift’s. In fact, some scholars think Brooke’s poem was meant as a cautionary tale, one that warned young lovers not to go against their parents’ wishes.

Romeo And Juliet is fundamentally anti-romance. Now that’s irony for you. — O

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