By: Hannah Shreve
On November third some of our students went on a very memorable field trip to see “Romeo and Juliet” at Jesuit High School in Portland. I was one of the many kids that went that evening and let me tell you, that is an experience I will not be forgetting soon. The school was beautiful, the students could not have done a better job, and the everything about the night lived up to the hype. But as I was sitting in the very expensive theater watching a group of students that might as well be professionals telling an age old story I had to wonder, is this romance, this tragedy, a good thing to be exposing impressionable young adults to? Between the fights to the death, the mature and confusing story line, and the unforgettable ending, what effect did this story have on us, not only as viewers, or as actors, but as students who are trying our very best to understand the world?
For as long as I can remember I have known about Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It was portrayed as the ultimate goal for any romantic relationship. It has been referenced countless times and has been quoted quite often. But recently it has gone under fire by lots of parents, but why the sudden complaints? One of the biggest issues was the "romanticisation" of youth suicide. And anyone who remembers reading the play in ninth grade probably remembers how shocked they were when Juliet’s age was announced. This is quite a young age to be falling in love, let alone being willing to die over it. Of course things were different back then. But considering it has been getting criticized for decades, it may be time to rethink the logic behind teaching such young students about it. Because I'm starting to wonder where the romance is in this “romantic tragedy”.
The issues with this play became more and more blaringly obvious the longer you read. There’s plot holes, the lack of character development for our antagonists, and the bad reasoning throughout the entire story. The characters were two-six years apart in age but saw nothing wrong with that. Which is a really bad thing to teach kids because that is really illegal today, and if the poster couple for a perfect romance is a couple that isn’t legal today, then is that a good thing to be using to influence kids? They faced very few obstacles along the way that are realistic, but then again, this is Shakespeare, is anything realistic? Not to mention how absolutely cringe-y the pair is! They act like completely love sick dopes from the moment that Romeo declares his “love” for Juliet, despite his complete infatuation with her cousin (!) just days before. Juliet didn't want to be with Paris (the suitor approved by her parents), or anyone for that matter, but as soon as she sees Romeo that plan goes out the window. And Romeo has to convince her to love and marry him, despite her previous objection. But none the less, he persists until she abandons all good judgement and decides to give in to her unreasonable emotions. Not to mention how totally creepy Romeo was being when he was on his little adventure. He showed up at her house, he was lurking in her backyard until he saw her on the balcony! He doesn’t even tell her that he’s there, her just listens to her talking to herself without her knowledge. When he finally does make himself known he is super creepy and guilts her into saying that she loves him, which she definitely didn’t want to! She is sensible at first, starting with “Although I joy in thee/ I have no joy of this contract tonight/ It is too rash, too unadvised, to sudden.” (2.2.116-118). Only for him to reply with: “O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?... Th’ exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine” until she finally caves (2.2.125-127). He knew her for less than a week in the entire story, and decided that after knowing her for only a few hours he wanted to marry her!
Or can we go back to how Romeo was previously in love with Juliet’s cousin, Rosaline, how messed up is that? Or maybe if that’s too weird, the amount of people that died because Romeo and Juliet fell “in love”. Not only did Romeo and Juliet both kill themselves, but Tybalt killed Mercutio, Romeo killed Tybalt, and Lady Montague passed due to grief for her son. A pretty impressive body count for a lovesick 17 year old if you ask me, Romeo killed Tybalt and himself in a very short period of time. That’s five people dead in a matter of days all because some kids wouldn’t listen to reason. I mean honestly! Everyone told them it was a bad idea, Juliet’s trusted nurse, the parents of the two, and countless others. While the marriage is an awful idea, you have to wonder why the parents were so opposed to the union. Was it because of the ancient hatred and rivalry between the families, or was it because they too recognized the utter lack of reasoning in the idea? But of course, this wouldn’t be Romeo and Juliet if they had just done what they were told. No, they had to defy the wishes of everyone for “true love”. They set totally unreasonable expectations for everyone who has ever even heard of the story. But maybe that's the point, To hear about a fairy tale romance as a kid, only to discover something much darker and worse as a teenager. Maybe it’s meant to reflect real life and the loss of innocence as we grow up and become aware of the realities of the world.
But we can’t forget the famous scene where the duo commits suicide can we? This is a 17 year old and a 14 year old deciding that after a week of knowing each other, if they couldn’t be together, they would rather die. That's some heavy stuff for 14/15 year olds to be reading about. Luckily, it seems that most students have more sense than the star crossed lovers did and have taken this as a tragedy, or a cautionary tale as it should be. But how long until a couple of kids come along, and decide that maybe Shakespeare had it right all along. Get married at a young age and make a tragedy out of it all when it doesn't work out. In a perfect world, this wouldn’t even be fathomable, but it’s not a perfect world, and Romeo and Juliet aren’t the only star crossed lovers who made this mistake. There have been countless occurrences of other couples attempting to follow in the fictional duo’s steps. Luckily most times rationality was reached before anything got too tragic. But can you imagine being the family of someone abandoning good reason for love? It would be a horrendous event for all involved and it is our duty to prevent more instances of this tale.
All in all, this sets awful and unreasonable expectations for all the young romantics who are fooled into believing that this is what a healthy romantic relationship looks like. Imagine the problems this can create, if a young girl or boy read this and thought, “someday i’ll be swept off my feet by an attractive stranger, and they will be so infatuated with me that they will follow me home and profess their love for me after listening to my personal musings. Then once they have made their feeling clear, they will persuade me to confess my feelings that I didn’t even know I had. Then we will get married, and anyone who opposes the union is “wrong” and “close minded”. We will run away, get married, and live a long and happy lives together. It will be paradise. But if for some reasons this plan doesn’t work out, we will kill anyone who tries to stop us, and we will kill ourselves if we must.” This is an awful way to teach young impressionable teens about romance! We can’t tell kids who are already desperate for acceptance that the first time you feel feelings for someone and they are reciprocated that that is the end all be all of their relationships. They need to know that what these characters were feeling, wasn’t love. It was lust, unplanned, rash thoughts based on life altering decisions made in a second. Healthy relationships don’t work like this, this story should be depicted as the worst case scenario, rather than the best. Luckily, most schools have taken this to heart and have made the switch, now the play is considered a tragedy rather than a romance. So remember, next time something tragic happens, don’t take a page out of Romeo’s book, instead, cry for a few hours before you make a big decision. If Romeo had been sensible and just done this, the pair would have lived. And funnily enough, this is actually what mental health professionals suggest clients do anyways, so it couldn’t hurt.
So let me tell you, after many weeks contemplating the morals and lesson of this story, I have finally come to the conclusion, that personally, the risk that this story poses to young adults is far bigger than any potential reward it may have. Because at the end of the day this story is hard to understand, stressful, and really alarming to anyone with common sense. While this may be a fine topic for some, it’s a little too much for the average high school student. And as teachers, friends, and fellow students, it’s our job to make sure everyone in the classroom is benefitting from the material.