Friday 14 February 2014

The Heart of the Tragedy of Romeo & Juliet

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,

And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, naught could remove,

Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage.
– The Prologue

Aeroplanes are a great place to watch films that one wouldn’t ordinarily see, and it was in this way that I saw last year’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. It was a rather bold production, for the screenplay is a hybrid of Shakespeare’s script and the pen of the film’s screenwriter. The “new parts” are also in verse, complete with many rhyming couplets, and the writer attempts to emulate Shakespeare’s ingenious use of imagery, simile and metaphor. In the end, however, this endeavour falls quite flat: I was surprised at how easy it was to detect whose voice was whose, and the transitions from the contemporary poet to the immortal bard were jarring. I would have been happier with more of William and less of his imitator. Coupled with wooden acting from Hailee Steinfeld, who played Juliet, this made the film a failure in my estimation, despite its impressive production design, good score and an excellent performance from Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence.

Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the mystery screenwriter, not only for his daring attempt, but also because of a distinctive Catholic voice to the screenplay: musings on the mystery of Providence, retaining a reference to purgatory and the greatly amplified role of Friar Laurence were all clues to this. When I came to write this article, I found that my intuition was correct: the screenwriter was none other than the English Catholic Julian Fellowes, most famous for penning Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, and whom I have mentioned before on this blog.

The scene of Romeo and Juliet’s wedding in the chapel of the Franciscan convent stood out in particular for its religious tone. First, the wedding vows are exchanged in Latin (I thought to myself that the Latin volo expresses the will of the bride and groom more forcefully than the rather more passive English “I do”). But more striking was the visual framing of the wedding. As the lovers pronounce their vows, we see them kneeling, backs to the camera, before the friar who is standing beneath a large crucifix hanging above the altar. The film thus very deliberately introduces Christ’s passion into the marriage of Romeo and Juliet.

Indeed, this I believe Julian Fellowes gets quite right. The kernel of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is not simply that their love for each other is thwarted, but more profoundly that their marriage becomes a sacrifice of reconciliation for the warring Montagues and Capulets, who can only make peace when their children “doth with their death bury their parents' strife”. Franco Zeffirelli’s celebrated adaptation picked up on this insight as well. There is a brilliant moment in his film when Friar Laurence is considering Romeo’s request to marry him and Juliet. As he ponders the proposal, he looks up and sees a crucifix, and his face alters as he realises that this is the terrible way that Verona’s enemies will be reconciled. Zeffirelli’s film ends with the parents of the two families joining hands as they mourn their children, finally at peace with one another. Last year’s adaption has very similar scenes, and, where Zeffirelli was subtle, Fellowes is much more explicit. It is a film that is very much about the need for forgiveness, forbearance and peace.

What all of this brings home, I think, is the public aspect of marriage and love. Marriage is not a private but a public contract: its goods are to extend beyond the hearth to the world beyond. This is one of the reasons that elopement—as in the case of Romeo and Juliet—is generally frowned upon by most cultures: it excludes the families and friends of the couple from what ought to be a gift to be shared. Romeo and Juliet illustrates how things go dreadfully wrong when circumstances are not favourable to this ideal.

We live in an era when the meaning of marriage is being very publicly debated, and yet the discourse often centres solely on the rights of private citizens to be self-determining in their relationships. Perhaps, as we engage in this conversation, we would do well to meditate on the theme of marriage in this great play. For, as the prince of Verona says at its close, when seemingly private affairs become disordered, “All are punish'd.”


  1. So is the message that true, passionate love between two individuals can be sacrificed for the sake of the common good of society?

    It seems to me the heart of the tragedy is the willingness of older adults to use Romeo and Juliet for public/ political purposes. The Friar decides to marry the couple, despite the fact that he doesn't yet believe Romeo is truly in love (II.3. 87-92), in order to benefit the city and no doubt gain some recognition for himself. Lord Capulet and the Prince have come to some agreement to bring higher honour to the Capulets by having Juliet wed Paris (and thereby settling the Capulet/ Montague feud by decisively shifting the balance of power in the Capulet's direction). Capulet feigns having Juliet's interest at heart when Paris courts her, but when she refuses to accept her father's will he reveals his true colours and demonstrates he is trying to use her as a pawn for his own political ambitions.

    Romeo and Juliet's passion for one another is certainly willing to disregard all familial concerns. Their love for one another is even higher than their regard for God (II.2.110). In the end, the Friar proves himself to be something of a coward who is afraid of coming clean to the Prince and the Capulets about his role in the secret marriage without resorting to trickery and pseudo-miraculous means (the trick of staging Juliet's "resurrection") and who abandons Juliet in the tomb in her moment of need after suggesting he could quietly whisk her away and "dispose of her among a sisterhood of holy nuns" (V.3. c. 155).

    It seems to me that it is the self-interest of the "community" that needlessly brings the young lovers to death. Hardly, I think, a good argument for the defence of traditional marriage.

    1. Thanks for your comments, JD—clearly you know the play well!

      I don't think I claim that the play provides an argument for the defence of traditional marriage. I was just trying to make the simple point that marriage is not merely a contract between two individuals, but happens in a political context. So the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is not only about the passion of two lovers, but about the feud between two houses to which their passion is inexorably bound. The play makes that clear; the adaptations I referred to get the point; and you also hit on it, I think, in your analysis of the parents' role in the whole affair.

      Your interpretation of Friar Laurence's motives are interesting and I shall keep them in mind next time I read the play; neither Fellowes nor (if memory serves) Zeffirelli take that tack.

      (I couldn't quite see your reference to II.2.110; perhaps we are consulting different editions? The closest thing I could find was Juliet's reference to Romeo as ‘the god of my idolatry’ (II.2.120), but I think we should allow the lovers some poetic licence for hyperbole without imputing to them a literal violation of the first commandment.)

  2. A very good version is "Romeo+Juliet" starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It's produced the way Shakespearean plays are suppose to, in the current era. Two thumbs up, way up.