Ugh. How disappointing. Vaughn and I watched Romeo & Juliet together a few months ago (the awesome 1968 version...not the crappy Leonardo one) and we decided that the entire story is stupid. Lol. Romeo & Juliet are like the most celebrated co...uple of all time...but think about it...they were like 13 and 16...aka both insanely hormonal...and their romance lasted for like less than a month. How many of us managed to be madly in love for a month when we were in our teens? Probably most of us. The only reason their romance seems like it was deep and "forever" is because they DIED before they had a chance to break-up!!! (Sorry to all of my romantically inclined friends...)
My student's comments and our ensuing conversation (on Facebook) reminded me why Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare's most, in my mind, underrated and underappreciated play of all.
It's come to be seen as a play about romantic love, and, worse, yet, has come to be understood, in the minds of many, as exemplifying what true love is.
As I see it, the play isn't really about love, except as the intoxication of romance deludes Romeo and Juliet. It's a play about the nature of fate and inevitability, about the illusion of freedom and human power to reverse the fatalistic nature of history as it weighs upon the present.
In Romeo and Juliet, of course, the fatalistic nature of history takes shape in the Montague/Capulet feud. This feud, its strength, its power, its essential irreversibility, and its long history defines the world of Romeo and Juliet. From the top of the world, as embodied by the parents, to the bottom of the world, as enacted by the Capulet and Montague commoners, Sampson and Gregory, of the house of Capulet, and Abraham and Balthasar, two Montagues, as they start a street fight, from top to bottom, the feud and its history defines characters' attitudes, perspective, and actions.
Tragedy is about limitations, ultimately the limitations placed on human life by the inevitability of death.
In Romeo and Juliet, the feud between the two families embodies an inexorable power almost as strong as death itself.
The feud shapes the play's fate.
But, Romeo, Juliet, the Nurse, Friar Lawrence, and others exercise all their ingenuity and will to reverse the power of the feud, to create a reality where Romeo and Juliet can be with each other, and they are deluded in thinking they can succeed. Most famously, Juliet declares that Montague is only a name. She and Romeo act as if the purity and power of their feelings can transcend their family names, can render the feud meaningless. Friar Lawrence and the Nurse join in to help this delusion along.
Instead of aiding Romeo and Juliet's love, they accelerate Romeo and Juliet's demise by having the arrogance to think the feud can be ignored or circumvented. Again, it's a play about limits, especially to human choice and freedom. Romeo and Juliet and their allies want to believe they can create their own reality. Not in this story. In it, Shakespeare made his most significant step forward in the development of his vision of tragedy, the way tragedy is born of ignoring limits, of characters taking the wheel of fortune in their own hands, and how doing so speeds up time, blurs judgment, and intoxicates characters so that their vision becomes tunneled, their perspective mortally skewed.
In fact, Shakespeare mocks young love in this play, especially via Mercutio. The play's not a picture of "true love". The comedies explore this idea much better, especially because in Shakespeare's view, true love never exists between two people. It's a community experience. Romeo and Juliet are alienated from their families and community, thanks to the feud, and never have a prayer of succeeding in love. The successful lovers in Shakespeare, say Rosalind and Orlando or Leontes and Hermone, have the help and support of family and friends to come together and the promise is that they will live together with the support of those outside themselves. I like this line from Shakespeare's sonnet 94 when thinking about love relationships carried out in isolation:
Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.
In the end, this love destroys itself, because, in Shakespeare's view, it was lived out in violation of the limitations that defined these two families' world and no amount of strong feeling, dreaminess, great poetic language, or minor league schemes could change that.
Thinking about Shakespeare has got me thinking about President Obama.
I'm incapable of drawing any conclusions, but only of raising questions, especially if I look at his presidency, thus far, in terms of the limitations he inherited as a new president.
President Obama wants to change the history of the United States.
In particular, he is pushing hard against the history of our country's resistance to universal health insurance.
All one has to do to see the strength and power of this history is observe a Town Hall meeting or listen to opponents of universal health insurance. They have history on their side and are riding the tidal wave of opposition many in this country have always had to policies and programs that smack of socialism or of one person paying for another's relief.
It's deeply embedded. The feud between those who favor and those who oppose universal health insurance seems as deep as the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets.
The feud defines the debate, rhetoric, comments, blogs, attitudes, and behavior of many Americans.
My view is that, as a whole, Americans underestimate the forces of history and tend to act as if things that happened are behind us and that we have the freedom and power to change the course of our lives, or the country's life, quickly. It's just a matter of will.
I don't see things this way. Quick change is rare. The forces of history make change hard to achieve.
I can't tell if President Obama has underestimated the power of history.
I think many who support universal health insurance do, though. Many speak and act as if President Obama, if only he were stronger, had a stronger spine, could take control of this matter and, by the strength of his will, and the power of a majority in Congress, bring this change about.
My many years of studying Shakespeare's portrayal of history argue otherwise.
In this one, I see things through the eyes of the Bard.
I see President Obama has having a very steep mountain to climb as he continues, I think rightly, to make universal health insurance an established reality in the American life.