December 20, 2002

A Christian Defense of Romeo and Juliet

Many Evangelical Christians disapprove of Romeo and Juliet because they believe it encourages immorality. Their argument usually goes as follows: both Romeo and Juliet are impulsive and rebellious, and they end their lives by committing the atrocious sin of suicide; yes, the play contains some pretty language, but its overall message is so strongly immoral that believers should avoid it. Contrary to these Christians, I think Romeo and Juliet teaches many important moral lessons. Moreover, I think it teaches us much about romantic love.

Of course, this is not to say that Romeo and Juliet is a flawless work. Virtually all great books are imperfect. Even C.S. Lewis’ theological books contain some ideas that most Evangelicals would object to. One possible flaw of Romeo and Juliet is the way Shakespeare’s treats the lovers’ suicides. Although the suicides are a vehicle that he uses to reveal the depth of their love and although they express a beautiful truth—that love is to be desired more than life itself—I’m not sure that the play adequately addresses the sinfulness of suicide. If so, then this is clearly a weakness of the play.

This possible weakness aside, however, Romeo and Juliet teaches many important moral lessons. And I believe these lessons are so great and profound that they far outweigh any weaknesses. One moral lesson taught by the play is that hatred has tragic consequences. Throughout the play, we learn of the intense hatred between the Montague and Capulet families and see the disastrous consequences of this hatred. Had the two households not been at war with one another, then all of the play’s tragedy would have been avoided: Mercutio and Tybalt would not have died; moreover, Romeo and Juliet would not have had to conceal their love and, thus, their lives would not have ended as they did.

The play also teaches the sad fact that humans often fail to remove sin from their lives until they have greatly suffered its consequences. This truth is revealed by the fact that the Montagues and Capulets only make peace after the deaths of their children. By seeing these families make this error, we are given the opportunity to learn from them and, unlike them, remove sin in our own lives before we face its full consequences.

Another lesson of the play is that impulsiveness has harmful consequences. For instance, it is clear that the play’s tragedy could have been averted had Romeo not been so rash to avenge Mercutio’s death and to end his own life. The play’s tragedy could have also been avoided had Juliet’s parents not been so hasty to have her marry Paris.

Although Romeo and Juliet teaches these and many other moral lessons, more than anything else, I love Romeo and Juliet because it reminds us of the beauty and greatest of romantic love. Evangelicals have spent much time criticizing the world for putting too much emphasis on the feelings that accompany love. And rightfully so—the world does put too much emphasis on feelings, while ignoring the importance of self- sacrifice and commitment. Nevertheless, in criticizing the world’s conception of love, Evangelicals have often forgotten that the feelings experienced by lovers are indescribably wonderful and great gifts from God. Very few things in life compare to the feelings that come with being in love, and Romeo and Juliet depicts these feelings as well as any work I have ever read.

Reading Romeo and Juliet reminds me of those glorious feelings that my wife and I shared during our courtship. Like Romeo, I believed the object of my adoration was the most precious, wonderful creature in all the cosmos. Like him, who compared Juliet’s beauty to that of celestial bodies and angels, I could only liken my love’s beauty to the grandest objects of all of creation. Like Romeo, I knew very early after meeting my love that she was the one for me. Love at first sight doesn’t only exist in fair tales. Like Romeo, I know what it’s like to love someone so much that you consider your life to be inseparable from theirs; I know what its like to desire your partner more than power, prestige, and even life itself. And like Romeo, I know what it’s like to be so enamored with another that you can’t help but speak in poetry. Poetry is the language of love, and, although I’ll never be the poet that Romeo was, like him, verse has often flowed from my tongue when around my love.

Romeo and Juliet is a great story that teaches important moral lessons. Moreover, it’s a story that shows us the potential purity, wonder, and beauty of romantic love. It reminds us that such love is a gift from God and one of the highest experiences of human existence.

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