Afterword for LLW
When I was first forced to read through the script to Romeo and Juliet at school – I was the Friar – it annoyed the hell out of me. Romeo and Juliet were such idiots! They meet each other, fall in love and get married within the space of a very short space of time (depending on the producer.) And they don’t tell their families, with the net result that Juliet is nearly married to someone else, Romeo loses his best friend and then kills one of his new kinsmen … and the young lovers (assisted by the Friar) stage an elaborate plot to fake their deaths, which turns tragic when they actually die. The only good thing about the whole affair is that it finally brings the feuding families to their senses.
I thought they were being stupid, as I said, for several reasons. First, they only just met; they certainly didn’t have time to know if they had anything more than lust. Romeo seems to have a habit of lusting after girls, as demonstrated by his moaning over Rosaline (which stops abruptly once he sets eyes on Juliet), while Juliet is evidently a sheltered and virginal daughter. Second, they don’t bother to tell their parents they’d married, which leads to disaster – Juliet’s parents tried to push her into marrying Paris, unaware she was already married. And third, they killed themselves.
The problem with interpreting Romeo and Juliet is that we look at the play through the lens of our society. We see Romeo and Juliet as adults, free to make their own decisions and able to decide to marry without parental permission. Nor do we see them having problems telling the truth to their parents. Maybe their families are upset at their marriage, we think, but does it really matter to their affairs? Romeo and Juliet had every right to arrange their own marriage, sleep with each other and build a life together. Or not. Whatever happened would be their choice.
But Romeo and Juliet is a product of its time and place.
Romeo and Juliet were young. In Elizabethan England, girls could get married as young as twelve. Romeo was almost certainly underage too, by our standards; I rather doubt he was any older than fourteen. The whole play centres around the decisions made by two very young teenagers, below what we consider to be the Age of Consent, allowing their hormones to lead them into a deadly trap. To us, this is thoroughly unpleasant at best and so modern-day producers tend to imply that Romeo and Juliet are definitely over eighteen. But how can one reasonably expect thirteen/fourteen year olds to think logically?
There were other problems. It was expected that Elizabethan parents would organise the weddings of their children, choosing husbands who would benefit the family as a whole (as Juliet’s father chose Paris). Boys got some latitude; girls were expected to remain virginal right up until the wedding night. By marrying without her father’s consent, Juliet effectively disgraced herself (as well as rendering herself unmarriageable) and sleeping with Romeo afterwards only made matters worse. Juliet could not go to her parents and tell them that she was already married without ensuring her eviction from the family. And, to some extent, Romeo would have the same problem.
Their marriage could easily have made the feud a great deal worse. What if Juliet’s father assumed that Romeo had deliberately set out to make his daughter unmarriageable? Or what if Paris had demanded satisfaction? He’d been promised a bride – and one would not be forthcoming. The two lovers might have been exiled or murdered (Juliet’s mother plotted to kill Romeo after he fled the city) and then the fighting might resume, with the eventual destruction of both families. The Prince had threatened to execute both of the family heads, after all, right in the first act.
The Friar is, in many ways, the villain of the piece. His decision to marry Romeo and Juliet (I have no idea if this was actually legal, but the young couple clearly believed it was) was a bad mistake, setting off the chain of events that eventually led to disaster. There were, I think other options than faking Juliet’s death. He may well have believed that their marriage would end the feud – either that, or he was an evil old bastard – but I honestly don’t see how he could have reasoned that to be true. It was far more likely, as I note above, that all hell would break loose. I do not consider him a holy man.
Most productions, I think, miss this point. To us, Romeo and Juliet is a story about a love affair and focuses on the romance. But the play is, in many ways, a warning about the dangers of unfettered feelings.