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Romeo and Juliet, pt. 3

Two final things about Romeo & Juliet.

First, a pet peeve.

When Juliet first speaks on the balcony, she says "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art though Romeo?" In looking up the earlier stories about the balcony, I found this abomination among the headlines: "Oh Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore Art Thy Marriage License?".

But Kelly, you may ask, why do you find that to be an abomination? See, it's like this: "wherefore" means "WHY". It has nothing to do with location. So that headline reads as "Oh Romeo, Romeo, Why are your marriage license?" To which I respond, "What the hell does that even mean?"

So, to restate it: when Juliet says "wherefore art thou Romeo", she's asking "why do you have to be a Montague", not "where are you".

Second, a conversation to relate.

A few days back, when I was first typing yesterday's post, I called my parents in Arizona to ask them if they could recall what year it was when they saw the Zefirrelli Romeo and Juliet at the drive-in. They never called me back.

Tonight, I called to follow up on it. Dad answered the phone.

"We never saw that movie," he said. "I'm sorry, but I didn't call you back since we didn't see it."

After a bit of back and forth on that and other subjects, he put my mother on the phone.

"What's all this about Romeo and Juliet?" she asked.

"I blogged about it, and I wasn't sure whether we saw it at the drive-in when in 1968, when I was four, or whether it was a year or two later, since it was at the drive-in."

"We didn't see it at the drive-in," said she. "Daddy and I saw it at the Bryn Mawr theater."

"But I distinctly recall seeing it (or parts of it anyway) from the back of a car at the drive-in."

After a few more minutes of back and forth about this (as my memories were exceedingly visual and featuring Olivia Hussey, etc., I reject my mother's assertion that my memories were concocted from reading the play; particularly since I never read the full play until May of 2009, in preparation for these posts), we moved on to more conversation about the play.

"I am of the opinion," I said, "that Romeo and Juliet isn't really a love story; it's a tragedy."

You should know that my mother and I are mirror images when it comes to percentages of logic v. emotional thought.

"Of course it's a love story! It's the greatest love story ever told!" she said. Loudly. And with feeling. (See Jama, someone else in your camp!)

I didn't argue with her. I just asked her why that was so. And here is (roughly) what she said:

It's a great love story because "they fought everything. They went against it all. They loved so much that they followed each other to death."

"Doesn't that make it a tragedy?" I asked.

"No," said she.

"You don't think it's a tragedy that they die at the end?"

"No. It's okay that they die. They love each other enough to die for it. That makes it a love story."

I've probably given you quite a bit of insight into my relationship with my mother here. But I felt duty-bound to report her side of the conversation. It is exceedingly foreign to me, but I am well aware that she is not alone in her position.

Wherefore else would folks be paying to get married on Juliet's balcony?

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( 49 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 5th, 2009 01:55 am (UTC)
I loved this entire post because I laughed often.
Thank you.
Jun. 5th, 2009 02:13 am (UTC)
I am so glad I was able to amuse you!
Jun. 5th, 2009 02:00 am (UTC)
Just now started reading these posts - fascinating! But yeah... the older I get, the less likely I am to view the Romeo and Juliet story as some huge romance. When I think about how young they are, I'm more apt to see these characters as rash and almost foolish and definitely not people to emulate when it comes to a loving relationship. It's the bigger story of how the fighting between their families feeds and sparks the tragedies throughout the play (including the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt) that resonate with me now.

Cool topic! Off to read your other posts now...
Jun. 5th, 2009 02:16 am (UTC)
When I was younger, I think I found it romantic. Now the tragedy of it completely overwhelms any romance for me, really. That said, my goodness are the movies steamy.
Jun. 5th, 2009 02:27 am (UTC)
If you want steamy, check this out:

Jun. 5th, 2009 02:50 am (UTC)
Ooh . . . that's lovely.
Jun. 5th, 2009 02:08 am (UTC)
So, does a love story only have a happy ending?

If so then all those Nicholas Sparks books (Yes, I know I just referenced N.S. in a post about W.S. but I couldn't resist. You can kill me now)are actually tragedies? Because he always killing off the lovers, isn't he?

I am so sorry I missed you today. I was driving out to a school in Harrington, Maine and there was NO cell phone coverage the entire way. It was crazy. Miles and miles of me looking at the phone, begging for bars. I love you for checking in though. You are the best.

I also love you for your mother conversation.
Jun. 5th, 2009 02:23 am (UTC)
Were you driving your spiffy new car? I shall hope so.

No, I don't think that love stories only have happy endings. The Notebook (the book, not necessarily the movie) is a wonderful (if sappy and manipulative) love story. But for me, the tragedy carries the day (hence my opinion in this post that the play isn't truly a love story, but is overwhelmingly a tragedy), whereas for my mother, it's all about the romance, and she will not acknowledge that it's a tragedy. At all.
Jun. 5th, 2009 02:56 am (UTC)
Oh, this post cracks me up.

I'm still going with the sort of biblical/parable interpretation -- it's a cautionary tale of sorts.

Don't fall head over heels in love when you're only 13.
Don't trust your friends to pass notes.
Don't stand out on your balcony in your nightie.

That sort of thing...
Jun. 5th, 2009 03:08 am (UTC)
I'm glad other people find humor in my life. I actually started taking notes while I was on the phone with my mom, because my Spock-like self was so busy saying "how curious" that I knew it was worth capturing.

Another cautionary tale:

Don't fight in the street. With swords.
Jun. 5th, 2009 01:29 pm (UTC)
My Spock-like self. Hee, hee. Has Slatts made an icon for that? Oh, pretty please!
Jun. 5th, 2009 03:28 pm (UTC)
I do have Spock-like tendencies now and again.
Jun. 5th, 2009 10:55 pm (UTC)
And before you kill yourself over your dead lover, make sure s/he really is dead and not just faking it.
Jun. 5th, 2009 03:44 am (UTC)
Great post! I laughed and learned my way through it. :)

I found it especially interesting that you and your parents couldn't come to an agreement about seeing Romeo and Juliet together. It illustrates an especially tricky part of memoir-writing: It's almost impossible to get two or more people to agree on how/where/when--or even if--specific events occurred.
Jun. 5th, 2009 03:55 am (UTC)
I found it hilarious that my father was ready to swear he'd never seen it, my mother knew they'd seen it, but insisted it was inside a theatre and sans kids, and I have a very specific, visually-oriented memory of having seen this through a car windshield from the back of my parents' car.

Given the fact that the scenes are rather burned in my memory, I think that my version is most likely. Also, it would have been from a period of time when money was extremely slim, so the drive-in makes more economic sense than the actual theatre. It's possible that S is correct, and I was in the back of someone else's car, and my parents saw it at the theatre, but I tend to think not. I'll have to run it by my brother to see if he has any recollection of it.
Jun. 5th, 2009 04:58 am (UTC)
My folks, upon hearing of my cousin's research into family roots, say-- we're going to write it all down, just the way it was. And the last line of the book will be-- whatever else you add-- you made it up!
Sooo funny.
My cousin did use reputable sources for her research-- life is so complex and multifaceted, though. I can see how it might seem like the stories couldn't coexist.
Jun. 5th, 2009 10:57 am (UTC)
"...whatever else you add--you made it up!"

LOL! My point, exactly.

Reputable sources are only as good as the people who input the information. For lots of reasons, events can be (and are) inaccurately reported...I've even found errors in prison records, provided by the courts! So yeah, we do our best at getting to the truth behind our stories, knowing full well that the facts themselves can always be disputed.
Jun. 5th, 2009 01:30 pm (UTC)
Bringing this back around to Shakespeare for a tick - there aren't that many records, reliable or otherwise, to talk about his life. With respect to his marriage to Anne Hathaway, the records show a marriage license issued for Wm Shaxpere and "Annam Whatley", and then record his marriage to "Anne Hathwey". Some folks think that those documents indicate that he was interested in married to two different women; others think it means there was a clerical error.
Jun. 5th, 2009 04:11 am (UTC)
Wherefore else would folks be paying to get married on Juliet's balcony?

*snorts* :)
Jun. 5th, 2009 01:30 pm (UTC)
Jun. 5th, 2009 04:27 am (UTC)
I love this post. Love the exchange with your mom! Her language reminded me of a short story I once wrote. I thought it was going to be larger, but I didn't finish it so I'll call it a short story. But when I was still thinking it was part of something larger, I decided it just might be "the greatest love story ever told." And it was so nothing like Romeo and Juliet, so very unlike that story, that I'd venture to guess that you would like it very much and your mother would not care for it at all.
Jun. 5th, 2009 01:38 pm (UTC)
Jun. 5th, 2009 04:43 am (UTC)
I'm gonna have to side with your mom on this one... lol... I love how Shakespeare's plays are so open to interpretation regarding their genre. My view often varies from the norm. ;) I just wrote a term paper on how The Merchant of Venice is a tragedy, not a comedy... hey, I got an A!!
Jun. 5th, 2009 01:39 pm (UTC)
I'd love to see that paper!
Jun. 6th, 2009 01:24 am (UTC)
I will cheerfully email it to you! :) Just message me with the email address you'd like it sent to.
Jun. 5th, 2009 04:55 am (UTC)
I love your mom's reaction! But yeah-- greatest love story, I think not. Teenage whinging with a stupidly awful outcome= tragedy, in my book.
And what kind of freak wants to get married on Juliet's balcony?
(one who figures till death do us part might take too long, maybe?)
Jun. 5th, 2009 01:42 pm (UTC)
one who figures till death do us part might take too long, maybe?

Jun. 5th, 2009 05:28 am (UTC)
At the drive-ins where I grew up, there were usually several movies playing at once on different screens. I remember my parents taking me to a movie, and while they would watch their movie out the front window, I was expected to be entertained by the cartoon movie playing on the screen behind us...too bad I didn't get sound with mine! So maybe your parents went to see a different movie at the drive-in, and you watched Romeo & Juliet out the back window.

But I've also heard of studies where they'd ask people about their experiences on the day of some big national tragedy (like "where were you when you heard the news?", etc.), and write it down, and a year or two later they'd ask the same question of the same person and get a completely different answer! The people insisted the new version was the correct one and was how they remembered it, yet when the incident was still fresh they recalled it differently. Memory is a tricky thing....

I would call Romeo & Juliet a tragic love story. ;-) Clearly it is a tragedy, and I also like Liz's idea of calling it a cautionary tale, because I think it's meant to be horrible irony, but I don't see that there wasn't love involved just because Juliet was young. I always hated it when adults assumed kids' crushes weren't the real thing and pooh-poohed them, and honestly I'm not sure I know much more about what love is in my 40s than I did in my teens. I'm more jaded, for sure, but I wouldn't say that's a good thing. I would never think it makes sense to commit suicide over someone (Ophelia's not much of a role model, either), but being willing to sacrifice for them still seems like a mark of love to me.

Also, people did pair up younger then, without necessarily knowing each other much better than that. Even less than a century ago, my grandmother married my grandfather on the spur of the moment, not knowing him that well, at 19 or 20. A friend of mine now married her husband at age 19 after only knowing him for 3 weeks and never even kissing him before they were married! They celebrated 23 years of marriage last week and are still gushier with each other than my husband and I have ever been.... I read A Curse Dark as Gold this week and marvelled at how the protagonist got married at 17 to someone she'd only spoken to a few times, but I think that was just the way of it, often more practical than romantic, so to find a spark of romance in those times instead of just getting stuck with someone was probably worth a lot.
Jun. 5th, 2009 01:50 pm (UTC)
I ended up doing some research yesterday on marriage ages in Elizabethan England to answer Colleen Cook's comment on the first R&J post. Here's what I said to her:

Perhaps if one is contracted to marry as a teen, then confusing hormones for love might be a mercy. Although I'm not positive what the typical contract age was then. Shakespeare was 18 when he married, but his wife was 26. Sir Walter Raleigh's wife was 26 when he married her in secret. The actual age of consent at the time was 21, although children under that age could marry with parental permission at the ages of 12 (girls) and 14 (boys). Marriages that young were extremely rare.

The average age of marriage in Elizabethan times was 27 for men, 24 for women, with those averages being slightly lower for the nobility: 24 and 19 for the aristocracy, 27 and 22 for the gentry. So says Daily Life in Elizabethan England by Jeffrey Singman.
Jun. 5th, 2009 11:01 pm (UTC)
Just chiming in with a real-life marriage story of my own: my parents were age 19 and 20 when they met. They married only 3 months after meeting. My mother didn't even know my dad wore glass until after the wedding. My father was so young under the marriage laws of that state that my grandfather had to go with my mother to get the license.
This year they'll celebrate their 44th anniversary. Still happy.
Jun. 5th, 2009 11:23 pm (UTC)
What a lovely story. What does "wore glass" mean?
Jun. 6th, 2009 01:22 am (UTC)
Gah, I meant "wore glasses." Typing malfunction.
Jun. 5th, 2009 07:16 am (UTC)
Of course it's a tragedy.
"NEVER was there a tale of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo." In this strange story their youth is their tragic flaw. An older couple would have survived.

But it is also a love story, a story of two people who were willing to sacrifice everything for each other, except their honor. (Sacrificing that would have lost the sympathy of the audience.) Secret marriages were very common in Elizabeth's court, and so the playwright may actually have changed Juliet's original age in order to make her more closely resemble some court celebrity.
Jun. 5th, 2009 01:59 pm (UTC)
Re: Of course it's a tragedy.
Secret marriages at Elizabeth's court landed Sir Walter Raleigh in jail. And his wife (Bess, the lady-in-waiting) was 26 when he married her secretly. (I just posted information about average marriage ages in Elizabethan England in response to the comment just above yours - too funny!)
Jun. 5th, 2009 07:26 am (UTC)
Another important thing to remember about marriage back then....
We are startled that R&J take their love so seriously, when they've only known one another a week.

But most marriages were arranged, and Juliet would have been expected to marry Paris, a nice friend of Papa's she'd never even laid eyes on. Marriage to one's sweetheart was the exception, not the rule, in those days, among persons of rank.

I don't think it's at all fair to dismiss this play as "teenage whinging." Juliet is acknowledged by the other characters as a bit of a child prodigy, and in many ways is the author's voice in the play, even more so than Romeo. She is the personification of virtue and honor, refusing to bed without wedding first, refusing to annul her first marriage, and refusing to compromise her morals and beliefs even a hair, from start to finish of the play. Her reaction to the Nurse's line "shame come to Romeo" is perhaps the most telling line of the play.

In her, Shakespeare created a pure, pious, yet witty and brilliant girl, a sort of romantic ideal. I can see why people would want to marry on that balcony in hopes of emulating the passion, purity, and idealism the couple share, in the first balcony scene. After all, they kill themselves in the crypt, not on the balcony.
Jun. 5th, 2009 02:16 pm (UTC)
Re: Another important thing to remember about marriage back then....
I like your moral compass argument there; it dovetails with my "heart of the play" comment in the pt. 2 post, I think.

*wonders if Liz will see your whinging comment*
Jun. 5th, 2009 10:56 am (UTC)
...you never resolved the drive-in mystery!

Are your folks just "forgetting?" Or are the memories of a four-year old better than that?

I dunno, Kelly.

Fantasy becomes Fact if we convince ourselves and no one has proof otherwise.

I once thought I whistled the theme song to "River Kwaii" after seeing it--when I should be sleeping, as a four-year old--at the drive in.

Mom said I recognized it on the radio the next day.

But maybe. Maybe you're right. Maybe...

Edited at 2009-06-05 10:56 am (UTC)
Jun. 5th, 2009 02:08 pm (UTC)
The mystery of the drive-in will remain a mystery.
Jun. 5th, 2009 11:57 am (UTC)
I LOVE your mom! Agree with everything she said about why it's a great love story.

But I don't want to get bogged down in terminology. R&J is categorized as a tragedy, as opposed to comedy or history in the Shakespeare canon. That doesn't mean it cannot also be called a love story -- like Alison said, it's a tragic love story, or a tragedy about love.

I'm just wary of calling it one thing or the other. It's BOTH.

VERY unfair to call it "teenage whinging." Agree with Michellcat. In Juliet, Shakespeare did create a romantic ideal, to show us how humans idealize abstract emotions. When you first encounter a big passion as a teenager, the rest of the world and any common sense you could possibly have accrued by the tender age of 14, is out the window.

As Liz S. says, yes, a cautionary tale. Shakespeare the moralizer: See what happens when you disobey your parents? See what happens when you sword fight in the street? See what happens when you hold onto stupid grudges? *extreme finger waving*

But all of this points to one undeniable fact, whether you see the play as "teenage whinging" or not: every human being, whether willing to admit it or not, deep in his heart, has at one time, wished, that he/she could have or can experience that perfect, unsullied, hot, all-consuming love for someone, and have the love returned in equal measure. To the nth degree. It doesn't make practical sense, yet what a romantic notion -- to have someone willing to die for you?! Sacrifice all? Turn his back on his countrymen and family?

That's why I call it a love story. Shakespeare wanted us to see the possibilities of love -- and examine its first budding, the risks one must take to validate it, and the ultimate price one must sometimes pay if pursued in an imperfect society.

Edited at 2009-06-05 11:58 am (UTC)
Jun. 5th, 2009 02:33 pm (UTC)
*applauds and cheers*

What a marvelous comment/essay! I have to say that, like you and Michellcat, I don't really agree with Liz's comment about teenage whinging. In fact, there was not all that much whinging once R&J met - any actual moping and grousing took place on Romeo's part when he was mooning after the unattainable Rosaline, and that's in part to establish him as a Petrarchan lover (then an archetype in the literature and theatre of the day).
Jun. 5th, 2009 10:53 pm (UTC)
And "whence" means "from where," not "when." This wacky English language!
Can't it be a love story *and* a tragedy?
Though I go back and forth on whether I would call what happened between R&J love. If they were real people, no, but in the context of the story I think it was intended to be love, or represent love, though I'm still more comfortable calling it "attraction" or "devotion."
Jun. 5th, 2009 11:24 pm (UTC)
I love whence, hence, thence, hither, and thither - and manage to use them now and again. The first three are easier to work into conversation and writing than the last two, really, but I love all of those sorts of words.
Jun. 6th, 2009 01:42 am (UTC)
Elaboration ;)
Since this seems to have turned into such a spirited discussion with so many fascinating points of view, I can't resist but to elaborate a bit on my previous comment... The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare (my lifeline text this past semester) says "Tragedy refers to a literary structure that moves toward an unhappy ending and thus implies an unfavorable assessment of human experience. Death is the tragic counterpart to the marriage that concludes comedy." In one sense then, Romeo and Juliet is, strictly speaking a tragedy, as it ends in death. I personally don't see it so much as a tragedy because I do not find death necessarily unhappy (at least for the ones who die, who in this case are our heroes). Had only one of the two died, then I would consider it an absolute tragedy. In Hamlet, death is tragic, because it seems so unnecessary, so pointless, and leaves the reader with a sense of despair. In Romeo and Juliet, the death of the lovers serves a higher purpose. It leaves me with the sense that love is more powerful than death... and we know without a shadow of a doubt that Romeo and Juliet loved each other with equal passion, since they both kill themselves while believing, rightly or not, that the other is already dead. I think this is an eternal struggle for humans in love... think of insecure teenagers constantly having the "I love you more" conversation. Or Bella convincing herself that Edward doesn't love her as much as she loves him. So I actually don't consider that aspect of the story to be tragic, and since it is the main plot, I don't categorize it primarily as a tragedy in my own head. I will concede though, that the family feud that leads to the deaths being inevitable IS tragic, and the story does end tragically for the surviving family members.
Jun. 6th, 2009 04:46 am (UTC)
Re: Elaboration ;)
Dude - brava! I think you may have just given me a cogent explanation of what my mother was trying to get at, but couldn't articulate as to why she doesn't think the play's a tragedy. Talking Shakespeare? Terrific. Helping me to understand my mother? PRICELESS.
Jun. 7th, 2009 05:11 am (UTC)
Re: Elaboration ;)
LOL... I would put 10 bucks on your mom being a Myers-Briggs "NF" personality type (as am I ;)
Jun. 6th, 2009 02:35 am (UTC)
I agree that it's a cautionary tale. I think Friar Laurence gets most of the defining lines, as when he says, "Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast" and
"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."
(I remembered the first quote; I had to look up the second to make sure I got all of it right :)). While I think the play is beautiful, I don't find it particularly romantic, just as I don't find Wuthering Heights romantic. Love and passion have a great deal of overlap, but they are not the same thing.

Edited at 2009-06-06 02:35 am (UTC)
Jun. 6th, 2009 04:47 am (UTC)
*applauds wildly for icon and Friar Laurence quotes*

And yeah, um, Wuthering Heights? Not a love story. It's about obsession, which is a form of passion, but further I will not go.
Jun. 8th, 2009 07:08 am (UTC)
So... we went to a 1940s Spanish-English version of Romeo and Juliet in the park on Friday night.

The stars were definately the nurse and Mercurtio, not Romeo and Juliet. Go figure...

But it was really interesting watching with our kids, after reading your take on it last week...

Willa was obsessed with the fighting and the trauma:

"Did he just SLAP that guy?? OH -- now he KICKED him!"
"Mama, that isn't really poison, do you think? That has GOT to be water. He is faking dead for sure..."

Actually, that seemed more compelling to both of them than the purported "love story". Which made me think that, yes indeed, it's all about the tragedy, not the love...

Jun. 8th, 2009 05:22 pm (UTC)
The poison and the dagger and the dead bodies were what really seared themselves into my brain as a kid, not the flowery love talk.

And the Nurse and Mercutio are notorious scene stealers and fan favorites, so I'm not at all surprised that they were the most popular characters there. Thanks for telling me about this!!
( 49 comments — Leave a comment )

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