Romeo and Juliet shows the danger of privatising love

Here is an interesting take on Romeo and Juliet that I found on the excellent New Advent website. I am by no means sure that I agree entirely with the writer’s understanding of the play, but there is certainly something to be said for looking at Romeo and Juliet with new eyes. And as I seem to be on something of a Shakespeare roll at present, allow me this indulgence.

I have seen the play but once in a rather forgettable student production at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. I have also seen the two justly famous film adaptations – that of Zeffirelli and that of Baz Luhrmann, both in their differing ways excellent – and I have read the play thoroughly. It is a wonderfully absorbing piece because it is about the madness of love. Neither Romeo nor Juliet chose to fall in love, and their falling in love is clearly not a good idea, but neither of them have any choice in the matter. The Nurse does not help, in that she starts out as very helpful and then loses her nerve, and the same can be said of the Friar. In fact, all the adults fail these two children in love. But it is probably the Friar who has what is for me the key speech in the entire play:

These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume. The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately; long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

(Act II, scene 6)

The Friar is, of course, correct in describing the love of the young couple as “violent”, and events bear him out. Moreover, in urging Romeo to love moderately he is only proffering old-fashioned Aristotelian advice. But as the play bears witness, to advise moderation to those violently in love is a hopeless task. Romeo and Juliet are beyond reason’s reach.

There is another Aristotelian aspect to the play. Aristotle is the philosopher of context, among other things. He sees the good life as lived in a good community, that is, in the city state – a political reality that was already obsolete by the time he was teaching at the Lyceum. But for Aristotle, human activity always needs the right background. Nowadays a good marriage would be thought of as being built almost exclusively on the affections of the couple themselves without much reference to what lies beyond them. But in Shakespeare’s day marriage was something that took place in the community, which meant with the consent of the two families involved – and that is why Romeo and Juliet are doomed. Theirs is a secret marriage, though, terrible irony, their marriage, if it had been public, might very well have healed the rift between Montague and Capulet. After all, the Friar consents to marry them with this very idea in mind:

For this alliance may so happy prove,
To turn your households’ rancour to pure love.

(Act II, scene 3)

What this play warns us about is the privatisation of love. Of course we admire Juliet and her Romeo, but the truth of the matter is, surely, that love is not a purely private matter. It has public resonance and the rite of marriage is always to be celebrated before proper witnesses, who represent the community in which the marriage takes place. Married love is a special relationship, but at the same time one of the many sorts of relationship that goes to make up the web of relationships that is society.

So, Romeo and Juliet and the Friar and the Nurse all ought to have given more thought to the needs, not just of the young couple, but of Verona itself. I have always found the Prince’s magnificent rebuke of great interest:

Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace,
Profaners of this neighbor-stained steel—
Will they not hear? What, ho! you men, you beasts
That quench the fire of your pernicious rage
With purple fountains issuing from your veins,
On pain of torture, from those bloody hands
Throw your mistemper’d weapons to the ground,
And hear the sentence of your moved prince.

(Act I, scene 1)

The lesson of the play is that Verona needs peace, and that peace comes with self-control. Without self-control we are “beasts”. The riots on the streets and the riots in the human heart seem in parallel to me. And the old Aristotelian adage – Moderation in all things – seems as apt as ever. We are in rebellion sometimes against external authority such as the Prince’s peace, but also against the internal authority of reason. Both can do harm to ourselves and to the society we live in. But of course, in the end, we are so defenceless against love, and that is why there

[For] never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

Act V, scene 3)