Thursday, September 10, 2009

Underrated Romeo and Juliet -- and aThought About President Obama

One of my former Shakespeare (and writing students) took a Facebook quiz entitled "Which movie romance do you fit into" and she was very upset that the result was "Romeo + Juliet", the 1996 Baz Luhrmann version of the play. About the quiz result, my student wrote:

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.

Holy cow.

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.

Isolated love festers. Love with the support of community and family thrives. Romeo and Juliet does not portray an ideal love, but a desperate, frantic, dangerous, deluded, isolated, and impossible love.

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.


endangered coffee said...

President Obama wants to change history, and more than any president in recent memory, we will have to wait for history to judge Obama. It took FDR several terms and a world war to fully steer the country of the Great Depression. Thanks to today's 24/7, immediate technology gratification society, Obama is being criticized for not turning the economy around NOW. Through the lens of history, I both hope and expect that these criticisms will look supremely silly by the time my son's generation has grown up and been able to peer a critical eye at what has been accomplished. Likewise, It is highly doubtful that, no matter the outcome, it will be at least a generation before we can grasp what potential changes in the healthcare systems have brought about. While it's true that time and history put all presidents in perspective, we need to step back when it comes to how Obama will be judged. Whether you agree or disagree with Clinton or Bush, both their legacies seem easier to grasp, either you believe Clinton helped nudge the country back on the track of prosperity or you don't, either you believe W acted to protect the U.S. in the face of terrorism or you believe he shot first and asked questions later.
What this president is facing are questions with no easy answers, and I hold out hope that there are still millions of Americans out there who believe in subtlety, compromise, and the ability to see the big picture.

Oh, and I never liked Romeo and Juliet that much, but I'll leave that for another day.

raymond pert said...

My immediate concern is less with how Obama will look in the future, that it, how history will assess him, but with how he (and the country) are dealing with the present moment in relation to the inevitable forces of history we've inherited and that are at work each and every day. I don't presume to know how Obama views his aspirations for our country in relation to history. And I totally agree with you a great challenge faces us all: to see things in terms of, to quote you, "subtlety, compromise, and the ability to see the big picture."

I actually didn't write about what most fascinates me in Romeo and Juliet. It's Friar Lawrence's garden speech in which he lays out what will continue to be Shakespeare's most basic philosophical understanding of the world: not only that opposites co-exist in all things, in every moment...and that this defines reality...Friar Lawerence's homeopathic view of his garden's herbs becomes a moral vision that Shakespeare plays with for the rest of his favorite aspect of this vision is the necessity of virtuous deceit...which fails Friar Lawrence in this play...not because he was deceptive, but because of the power of the feud and geographical collapse of Romeo's world...where he can and cannot go becomes greatly reduced thanks to the Prince's dictate...

These ideas begin to mature in Shakespeare's writing with Romeo and Juliet and I find it so typical of Shakespeare's mischievous ways that what appears to be a silly play about overcharged adolescent "love", is the vehicle he uses to begin many of his most profound explorations of the nature of reality, ethics, and epistemology over the course of his career.

Nonetheless, I can see why it's not a favorite play of so many....but, to me, it's ranks as one of his most important....

btw...I really enjoyed the Baz Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet for its operatic approach to the play...I think any time a production of Shakespeare edges toward opera, it's edging really close to just how these plays were written to be performed...things magnified, full of passion...

endangered coffee said...

Well, maybe my rambling point would be better laid out that I'm also more concerned with what happens now, but that the definition of what "now" is has constantly shrunk over the decades to a minuscule sliver of time.

And honestly, I don't think I've touched R&J since HS, and I am man enough to admit that appreciation of literary works can grow over time.

First time I was assigned Moby Dick, I do believe I used it as kindling while on a camping trip with a certain Troxstar.

raymond pert said...

Yeah, part of the problem with R and J is that nobody has read it since high school!!!!

I sure agree about the sliver of time called now. It keeps shrinking, too..doesn't it?

I love the Moby-Dick kindling story. My preference for a great American book to get a fire going would be Walden.

endangered coffee said...

Agreed. Thoreau was an overrated snot nosed punk. Or something. Emerson writes circles around him.

Kelly said...

I love reading your writing. You are brilliant and your perspective on things enthralls me. If I were not about to pass out from exhaustion, I would expand. But instead just take the compliment? :) Whatever that's worth..

raymond pert said...

Compliment cherished..thank you.

inlandempiregirl said...

I think I should also read Romeo and Juliet again.