Classic Remarks 3: Is “Romeo and Juliet” a tragic love story or ironic comedy?

Is Romeo and Juliet a tragic love story or an ironic comedy? Should we take the play seriously when its protagonists are so young?

Having not the time to read the play again and do the sort of long, hard analysis I used to struggle over in college, I beg you to accept my quick thoughts on this matter, jotted down in the subjective and haphazard way that memory brings them to me.

I have always taken Romeo and Juliet as a tragic love story, sharpened and livened with both comedy and abundant irony. I do not view it primarily as an ironic comedy. That is, I do believe we are meant to take the story seriously.

The tragedy is certainly very serious, ending as it does in several unnecessary deaths and provoking enough sober reflection as to end a long and bitter feud between two callous and political families. And the love story is deadly serious to the lovers, whatever we may think of their immaturity and age. Indeed, their immaturity and age are what allows them to act so single-mindedly on their passions, for better and for worse. The better leads them to forsake the hateful feud between their families; the worse leads them to have too little thought for the consequences of their actions, leading to the deaths of some of their friends, and eventually of themselves.

Of course they make many foolish decisions! I don’t even like Romeo; I think he’s a wishy-washy fool who’s in love with love itself moreso than Juliet—why, he barely knows anything about her! About who she really is as a person, that is. At the play’s beginning he’s moaning over—who was it?—Rosalind…Rosaline. Again, some girl he hasn’t even met properly, yet has become so infatuated with as to declare:

One fairer than my love! the all-seeing sun
Ne’er saw her match since first the world begun.

As he says this, he agrees to go to a party where, his cousin Benvolio assures him, he will finally meet Rosaline. Instead he meets Juliet, promptly forgets the Rosaline who had so recently been the goddess of “the devout religion of [his] eye,” and acts even more over-the-moon about her. Oh yes, it’s all very ironic, and a bit comedic too. But intemperate and unwise as he is, I believe his emotions are real, powerful, and unfeigned.

For while Shakespeare is aware of the irony and comedy, and at times allows characters to comment on them, he doesn’t really play the story for either of these. He plays the love story straight, I think. The lovers’ gorgeous odes to each other are not interrupted by jokes, or gags, or anything that might rob the sentiments of their power. Their words themselves reach the highest planes of beauty and elegance, so richly filled and precisely crafted that instead of falling into the bog of ridiculous exaggerations they enter the English language as paradigmatic expressions of romantic adoration. I think Shakespeare takes words too seriously that he would waste his best expressions of genuine emotions on characters who aren’t really feeling said emotions.

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were!

The next question on the list asks: Which of Toni Morrison’s books is your favorite or affected you the most, and why? But since I have not read any of Morrison’s books, I cannot answer it. Nor can I think of a way to fudge it as I did with Jane Eyre. So forgive me as I skip it and go to the next one, which…oh my. This is a serious one. One that definitely provokes passionate arguments online. Next time on Classic Remarks, I will address:

Susan Pevensie’s fate in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle has been criticized for being sexist. Do you think it’s sexist or is Lewis trying to do or say something else?

Quotations obtained from http://shakespeare.mit.edu/romeo_juliet/full.html

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Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

3 thoughts on “Classic Remarks 3: Is “Romeo and Juliet” a tragic love story or ironic comedy?”

  1. I didn’t like Romeo and Juliet for years, due to an awful experience with it in high school. (The teacher was very condescending towards students and would not accept any interpretations of texts except hers as valid–even if her interpretations were not textually based!) At that time, I might have agreed that the story will silly. They’re young and kill themselves over each other in three days! So even though I love Shakespeare, I didn’t go back to Romeo and Juliet for years.

    However, I think the play has some of Shakespeare’s best writing. And I take it seriously as a tragedy, just as he seems to have taken it seriously as a tragedy. There’s a lot of work done on how it seems to be a ruined comedy, so his choices to make it tragic seem very deliberate. And even though adaptations like West Side Story seem to present the deaths as the lovers’ or the young people’s fault, Shakespeare’s play is all about how the adults around Romeo and Juliet consistently fail them, from Capulet ignoring his daughter’s wishes to Friar Laurence abandoning Juliet in the tomb. Seems serious to me!

    1. I didn’t care for it much in high school either, though I loved the language. No fault of my teacher, though — she was one of the best I ever had, a smart, wonderful woman generally adored by everyone, who respected and encouraged all her students and was delighted by any creative thinking of ours. I didn’t like Romeo and Juliet at the time because I felt all love stories should end happily, and because I thought Romeo didn’t deserve Juliet. My perspective on love stories has matured, but I still think he doesn’t deserve her, and part of me wishes the beautiful language he uses had been given instead to a more worthy hero.

      The issue of guilt is complex, I think. The adults all roundly fail them, it’s true. But the lovers take their own lives, voluntarily and quite foolishly, and they bear the guilt for that. Had they made wiser choices, they might have avoided some bloodshed and still worked for the good of both families. But it would have taken longer than three days. It would have been a slower, harder process towards peace. I would have liked to see some of that, but then perhaps it wouldn’t have been so popular or so easily and often adapted.

      1. I think it’s part of Shakespeare’s general style to present couples where it seems like the man does not really deserve the woman. We have Hermione and Leontes, Portia and Bassanio, Viola and Orsino, Isabella and the Duke…. So I guess even though Romeo is led by his emotions and not particularly prudent, he doesn’t stand out to me as necessarily the worst of Shakespeare’s heroes. He could have been Petruchio.

        I think the issue of guilt is complex, as you say, but recent adaptations of the play tend to highlight issues like gang violence, making it seem as if we should be worried mostly about the youth, even though they’re often reacting to the social structures the adult authorities have set up.

        Yeah, I wonder if having them live and trying to mediate with their families would have been a financially successful sequel. To be honest, I’m not sure Romeo is mature enough to engage in successful negotiations between the families. I imagine Juliet doing most of the work while Friar Laurence consistently tries to make Romeo slow down and think before he ruins everything again: “Just stay inside for awhile, Romeo. Tend to your studies. Please don’t accidentally run someone through with your sword again.”

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