Romeo & Juliet: A tragedy?

When you love literature and history and political science one of the hardest things to calmly accept on a daily basis is the way that history and politics distorts the interpretation of literature. Nothing has been more vehemently persecuted by governments throughout history than literature. Neither has anything been more distorted and utilised for political propaganda. Shakespeare’s most well-known play, Romeo and Juliet, is the most mind-boggling example of this and really it’s not any one person’s fault and the writer himself does carry a bit of the blame, but it also lends to the misuse of the play as an example of the ills of passionate love and the misunderstanding of its supposedly tragic ending. Actually, someone who studies literary genres knows the play does not even fall into the category of a tragedy, being more similar in characteristics to a comedy because what it seeks to do is criticise sociopolitical institutions. The only tragic element it has is the ending. In literary studies we refer to it as a tragicomedy due to its combination of elements from both genres. However, the complexities of the play are something that specialists love to study, not what a high school teacher with only an interest in teaching the definition of a play and not exploring the subtleties of Elizabethan politics and history would even know about. Simply put, Romeo & Juliet was a play written by Shakespeare to make fun of the Roman Catholic Church and its laws, particularly its most recent law stating that marriage had to be a voluntary union between two individuals who loved each other.

By the way, did you know that Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is not an original play? Probably not and, again, not your fault. Shakespeare is famous, particularly in the United States, because he’s an English playwright. Romeo & Juliet is based on a novel, “Romeo e Giuletta”, written by Matteo Bandello and published in 1554, an Italian who, in turn, based his story on another Italian’s novella; Luigi da Porto’s “Giuletta e Romeo” from 1530. Just so you know, Shakespeare’s version appeared for the first time in 1597 (guess copyright laws weren’t a big deal back then). The Italian writers observed firsthand the problems caused by the Roman Catholic Church’s debate (beginning in the 12th century) and the Council of Trent’s final decision (sessions were held between 1545-1563) regarding marriage. Should marriage be a union of love or a socioeconomic contract? The church finally decided to only recognise marriages contracted voluntarily between two individuals (this is where “I do” was born, by the way) and only requiring a priest and two witnesses and NOT parental consent. In case you’re wondering the problem is this: up until about a century or two ago governmental laws ONLY recognised marriage contracts which had parental consent. The sole purpose of marriage was to advance the socioeconomic standing of two families and marriage contracts were actually really long legal documents that specified who inherited what. The only people who married were aristocrats, nobles, or very wealthy merchants (like the Montagues and Capulets). Poor people rarely married, at least in the legal sense of the word; they would have spiritual and love unions and may or may not have been married by the Church but it didn’t really matter to them because they did not have a lot to leave behind for their children, so verbal wills were sufficient in those few cases where multiple generations of the same family didn’t just all live together in the same land or house.

In other words, the church believed and decreed marriage had to be a union of love and the government and law stated that marriage was purely a contractual economic decision made for the benefit of two families. Actually, all marriages between nobles had to be approved by the monarchs to prevent the nobles amassing more land, power, and wealth than the crown. Now, what happens when there are two valid laws in existence that directly contradict each other? If you want to save your soul and not burn in hell for all eternity, then you could only marry someone if you loved them. If you did not want to be disowned by your parents and potentially end up in jail or dead, then you had to marry whoever they told you to marry. I guess the decision came down to how religiously devout each person was OR whether they met someone they loved enough to risk losing material well-being in exchange for happiness. A lot of people made the latter decision and the majority of them ended up destitute due to being disowned (mostly amongst the upper classes because, little tidbit here, the lower classes tended to marry for love all along since they had no inheritance to pass along anyway). It’s hard to communicate what being disowned feels like, but a writer is capable of coming up with symbolic ways of doing this and the best symbol is death. When you are disowned you suffer a social death; you lose the life you had before and everyone in it. You are, for all intents and purposes, dead to your friends and family. The one thing you have is the person you decided to marry against your parents wishes. I guess that’d be a true test of love, right? Anywho, as any literature major will tell you, the true purpose of literature is to provide a sociopolitical representation, interpretation, and resolution of conflicts existing in the real world.

Now back to the many existing versions of the Romeo and Juliet. The Italian ones had various tragic endings as well, with Romeo either being captured and executed for murdering a nobleman and Juliet wasting away from lovesickness or the well-known Shakespearean end. What’s interesting is that there are also quite a few versions that have a happy ending. Lope de Vega’s “Castelvines y Monteses” is an example. Actually, scholars have noted that Shakespeare’s version has a lot of contradictory elements and that the end is not really tragic if you analyse the play as a whole. The problem is it requires a good understanding of the subtleties of dramatic genres. The way the play is set out and all of the scenes are consistent with that of a comedy and comedies have happy endings, so the deaths of the young protagonists at the end are actually unexpected and inconsistent with the story as whole. Really, it’s stupid and makes no sense, as people are want to say and they are correct. If you didn’t know it was written by Shakespeare you’d think it was a dreadfully written play and this is why: the original version was a happy ending, but in the last minute Shakespeare changed it to a tragic one without changing the other scenes. So, why the different endings? The way the play ends responds to a single factor: the desire to discredit the Catholic Church or defend it. Lope de Vega, a devout Catholic, provides a happy ending as a defence of his religion and their decision to recognise unions of love only. So, love (and God) triumph in the end. Shakespeare, on the other hand, lived in England under Queen Elizabeth I, who (little history refresher here) is most well-known for establishing the Anglican Church. While it was her father, King Henry VIII, who broke away from the Catholic Church in order to divorce his first wife and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn, it was Queen Elizabeth I who actually went about the business of instituting a new form of worship. In all honesty, it doesn’t break too much from the Catholic faith, except that the English monarch is the head of the church and not the pope. Also, divorce is totally acceptable (still isn’t in Catholicism).

Anywho, if you were English in the sixteenth century it was your patriotic duty to hate the Catholic Church and all its silly decrees. What better way than to make fun of all the trouble that having two contradictory laws caused in Catholic countries? Like, having young men and women secretly marrying for love and not social and economic gain! Romeo and Juliet die in Shakespeare’s play to demonstrate the evils caused by the Catholic Church and their inane decree to allow people to marry for love. Why else have it set in Italy (seat of the Catholic Church at the time)? Sadly, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is not in any way the greatest romance in history, or at least he did not intend it to be. No, what he intended was to make fun of the very notion of love or at least of love having any say whatsoever in marriage. He defended the monarch’s sole right to dictate the laws of their country, including those regarding marriage, so that it could only be contracted through consent of the monarch and the individuals’ parents. His was a response to a huge political debate at the time, a power struggle, between the Catholic Church and monarchic government. For all true romantics, I suggest you read Lope de Vega’s “Castelvines & Monteses” or the Chinese version of the play, “Peony Pavilion” (though this one take a lot of liberties in its interpretation of love, which responds to China’s own marriage customs and laws). Both of these have happy endings, though they are also due to political motives. In all honesty, if you want to know whether to follow passion or reason when it comes to love don’t look to literature at all. There’s only one thing that should decide for you: do your emotional needs and desires matter more than your social standing and economic gain? Is love, like every religion and writer states, the only thing that truly matters? The only thing worth fighting for? It’s up to you.


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