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.

December 1, 2002

Is Romeo a Player?

William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet are often regarded as the exemplars to whom all lovers should strive to be, and their love is often regarded as the standard by which all romantic relationships should be judged. Despite the many accolades these lovers have received, however, some over the years have questioned the genuineness of their love. Many, for instance, have charged that Romeo is merely an impetuous, immature youth whose love for Juliet is never deep and sincere. In what follows, I argue that Romeo’s love for Juliet is deep and sincere from the moment they meet and that it grows deeper and more sincere as the play progresses.

There are, it should be noted, a few possible reasons to doubt the depth and sincerity of Romeo’s initial love for Juliet. First, the fact that he so suddenly and passionately changes his love interests possibly reveals that his initial feelings for Juliet are shallow. In the beginning of the play, Romeo claims to be madly in love with Rosaline. For instance, he describes himself as “Shut up in prison, kept without my food,/ Whipt and tormented” because Rosaline has rejected him (I.ii.54-55). He also refers to Rosaline as the “devout religion” of his eyes (I.ii.88), whose match the sun has not seen “since first the world began” (I.ii.93). Just a few hours later, however, Romeo spots Juliet at the ball and immediately declares, “Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!/ For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night” (I.v.51-52). The fact that he goes from being madly in love with one woman to another could suggest that he does not deeply love either.

Another possible reason to question Romeo’s initial love for Juliet is that he uses the same images when speaking about her as he did when speaking about Rosaline. First, as we saw, Romeo describes both Rosaline and Juliet as incomparably beautiful. Second, he likens both women to fine jewelry. He declares that Rosaline is “The precious treasure of his eyesight lost” (I.i.224). Similarly, he declares, before even talking to her, that Juliet “hangs upon the cheek of night/ As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear” (I.v.44-45). Third, Romeo uses religious imagery when talking about both women. He calls Rosaline the “devout religion” of his eyes (I.ii.88), and refers to Juliet as a “holy shrine” (I.v.93) who purges his sin with a kiss (I.v.106).

A final possible reason to doubt Romeo’s initial love for Juliet is that he appears to be consumed by thoughts of sex, which possibly reveal that he cares more about sex than love. Romeo, for instance, laments early in the play that Rosaline has taken a vow of chastity (I.i.199-215). Likewise, in his soliloquy in the balcony scene, he expresses his desire that Juliet lose her virginity to him: “Her [the moon’s] vestal livery is but sick and green,/ And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off” (II.ii.8-9).

Although there appear to be reasons to doubt Romeo’s initial love for Juliet, a further examination reveals that his love for her was deep and sincere, at least much deeper and more sincere than it was for Rosaline. First, the mere fact that Romeo falls in love with Juliet so soon after pining over Rosaline in no way shows that his initial love for Juliet is shallow. It is possible that Romeo’s love for Rosaline was only surface deep and that, upon meeting Juliet, he learns what true love is. Second, although Romeo uses many of the same images when speaking of both women, the form he speaks in changes upon meeting Juliet. As Joseph Kestner writes, in the play’s first two acts, Romeo “speaks with the stereotypical metaphors sanctioned by the tradition of l’amour courtois (courtly love).” An example of this is Romeo’s speech that begins “Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,/ O anything, of nothing first create…” (I.i.176-77). In his first conversation with Juliet, however, Romeo speaks to her in the form of a sonnet, thus modifying the “language of his initial appearance.”[i] “If I profane with my unworthiest hand/ This holy shrine,” he begins, “the gentle sin is this…” (I.v.92-93). Third, it is unfair to say that Romeo initially cares more about sex than love. Yes, he clearly desires to make love to Juliet, but he waits until their weeding night to consummate their love. Moreover, in the balcony scene, the only “satisfaction” he asks for is that of exchanging “thy love’s faithful vow for mine” (II.ii.127).[ii]

Not only is Romeo’s initial love for Juliet greater than were his feelings for Rosaline, but the depth of his love for Juliet grows throughout the play. By the end of the play, there is no doubt that Romeo’s love is deep and mature. One reason to believe that Romeo’s love matures is that his language becomes individualized. As we saw, he moves from speaking with metaphors common to the tradition of courtly love in the play’s first scene to speaking in the form of a sonnet when he first meets Juliet. In the balcony scene, Romeo moves one step further and completely individualizes his language. As Kestner notes, the nature imagery Romeo uses in this scene is “uniquely his own” and “applies solely to his beloved.” “Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,” he declares, “Having some business do entreat her eyes/ To twinkle in their spheres till they return…” (II.ii.15-17). Additionally, the contrast he makes of light and darkness throughout the scene “expresses the radical individualism of the lovers.”[iii] The fact that Romeo’s speech towards Juliet becomes individualized reveals that he is not merely reciting what he has heard others say, but rather that he is expressing the love that flows from his own heart.

More proof that Romeo’s love matures can be found when contrasting his actions in Friar Laurence’s cell in Act III to his reaction to learning about Juliet’s supposed death in Act V. In the former scene, Romeo is so grief-stricken over his banishment that he threatens to kill himself: “O tell me, Friar, tell me,/ In what vile part of this anatomy/ Doth my name lodge? Tell me, that I may sack/ The hateful mansion” (III.iii.105-108). This action, G. Blakemore Evans writes, is a “selfish and thoughtless emotional reaction, without any real consideration for Juliet’s feelings or the difficulty of her position.”[iv] In contrast to this, when Romeo learns of Juliet’s supposed death, he responds with “control, quiet resolution and unhesitating commitment.” As he declares, “Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight./ Let’s see for means” (V.i.34-35). As Evans notes, after coming to believe that Juliet is dead, Romeo believes that “there is nothing left worth living for, and we can now accept his determination to die for love as the supreme expression of a commitment that, like Juliet’s, ‘is as boundless as the sea.’”[v]

Romeo, it turns out, is a genuine exemplar of romantic love. His love for Juliet is deep and sincere from the moment they meet, and it only grows as the play progresses. Lovers would do well to learn from Romeo. He teaches the importance that poetry and passion have in love. Love without these elements is bland and second-rate. He also shows that love, true love, is greater than and is to be coveted more than power, prestige, and even life itself.

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Works Cited

Evans, G. Blakemore Evans, ed. Romeo and Juliet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Nardo, Don, ed. Readings on Romeo and Juliet. San Diego, Greenhaven Press, 1998.

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[i] Joseph Kestner, “The Play’s Spirit Retained in Musical and Artistic Versions”; quoted in Don Nardo, ed., Readings on Romeo and Juliet (San Diego, Greenhaven Press, 1998), 169-70.

[ii] Ann J. Cook, “Social Restrictions Against Illicit Union in Romeo and Juliet”; quoted in Don Nardo, ed., Readings on Romeo and Juliet (San Diego, Greenhaven Press, 1998), 103.

[iii] Joseph Kestner, “The Play’s Spirit Retained in Musical and Artistic Versions”; quoted in Don Nardo, ed., Readings on Romeo and Juliet (San Diego, Greenhaven Press, 1998), 170.

[iv] G. Blakemore Evans, ed., Romeo and Juliet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 27.

[v] Ibid., 28.