Classic Remarks: Romeo and Juliet

Classic Remarks 1

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.  Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!  This week’s question is:

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

Romeo and Juliet

I have to admit, I have never been a fan of Romeo and Juliet. I’ve spoken to many others who have a whole narrative about their relationship with the play: They loved in high school, as teenagers, and learned to be more skeptical of it later after more life experience or experience in relationships. Personally, I never thought the story was romantic, though that may have been more my frustration with the characters’ lack of logic rather than actual criticism of the relationship.

In short, the entire tragedy of the play could have been avoided if both Romeo and Juliet had simply slowed down and been more patient. Their deaths come down to impulsive moves and hasty decisions, which I guess I was judgmental of even as a freshman in high school.  Why couldn’t these people simply be more rational in love? Humph. Today,  that thought still sums up my opinion of Romeo and Juliet as people–they’re overly dramatic and kind of ridiculous.  However, I guess that’s not altogether an unbelievable interpretation of young love, even most people wouldn’t take it to the extremes that Romeo and Juliet do. I also don’t think the fact that their deaths were completely unnecessarily and, frankly, partially their own fault makes the story less of a tragedy.  They’re very young, and their deaths, no matter how they come about, are sad.

I admittedly haven’t read much academic criticism of the play, so I’m not sure who’s been proposing the whole thing is an ironic comedy.  As much as Shakespeare inserts his characteristic humor and dirty jokes, and as much as I want to roll my eyes at many of the characters, so much of it is undeniably sad.  So many people, young people, die because of high tempers, a pointless feud, and poor communication.  If that’s humor or irony, it’s too dark for my taste.

Romeo and Juliet will never be my favorite Shakespeare play, but I do have increasing respect for it as the years go by. The language, of course, is beautiful, and that helps me buy into the characters even when their actions seems irrational to me.  Shakespeare is wonderful at representing human behavior, and I think it’s fair to say that he’s showing us how human irrationality can be actually be moving or sad. It’s not necessarily something we should just sit and laugh and shake our heads at.

If you are participating in the meme this week, please share your link with us in the comments! (No Mr. Linky link-up for this week.)


16 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Romeo and Juliet

  1. majoringinliterature says:

    I agree, there is such a lack of logic at the heart of Romeo and Juliet’s actions, and I’m not sure just how much of that is because they’re teenagers. Incidentally, the category of ‘teenager’ didn’t exist until the twentieth century, and I kind of feel like the story of Romeo and Juliet played a small part in helping to shape our understanding of it.

    I definitely agree that the saddest thing about this play is the waste of young life. Personally, I don’t think that Shakespeare was being ironic about the tragedy of innocent people suffering for the crimes of others.

    Here’s my post for this week:


    • Briana says:

      That’s a good point. I haven’t read up on it as much as I’d like, but I’m always interested in the ways past periods didn’t have the same conceptions of children or teenagers we do. I think the general explanation is “Well, they just thought of children as little adults.” But, well, DID they? So maybe someone dressed small children just like small adults and made them work on the farm. It just doesn’t seem reasonable to me that people didn’t think of children as different than adults, even if they didn’t have quite the categories we do. I think, as you point out, Shakespeare here is a great example of people noticing that, yeah, people who are 13 definitely don’t act like people who are 23. They might not have called them “teenagers,” but they knew something was up. :p

      Liked by 1 person

  2. rantandraveaboutbooks says:

    I completely agree. While I love the writing and the quotes from Romeo and Juliet, they are acting like children, and it’s romantic at times, but for the most part, they act like silly kids with a crush. They don’t even know what love is yet they’re willing to die for each other. It’s sort of beautiful in its own way but also crazy. The friar tells them with the famous “these violent delights have violent ends” line about their lust and how it will have a bitter end, and because they’re teenagers they don’t bother to listen. There’s so much turmoil between the families I don’t see how they could’ve been together any other way than in death. I wonder if that was the point in some respect.


    • Briana says:

      Right? I can’t even imagine in what world I would hear someone I had fallen in love with (basically yesterday) was dead and think “I must kill myself now, too.” Maybe it’s just that the emotional reactions feels so far-fetched to me that it’s hard to take it seriously as it stands. I have to just take the outcome of everything seriously, that a lot people ended up dead throughout the play and that it took all these deaths for the parents to care. I’ve read some stuff about how the play might really be a generational play–the rules and feuds of the parents have devastating effects on the lives of the children. I think that’s fair, and reading it from the parents’ point of view might almost make it sadder for me. They have to live with knowing their petty feud killed a lot of promising young people.

      Liked by 1 person

      • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

        Oh, I know. Not a chance! I wouldn’t think that about someone I know either. Yeah, it’s very over dramatic. I could see that because the feuds between the families is what I always thought made it that forbidden love that would appeal to two teens. Maybe they only want to be together because they’re not allowed? Who knows with kids. I guess you can interpret it many ways. Some people love Romeo and Juliet because they think of it as this undying devotion, but it’s hard to say that’s true about someone you hardly know and you’re not even grown. Interesting topic! 🤗


  3. Jillian says:

    I think that in Romeo and Juliet, he’s writing about all kinds of different forms of love, one of which is “I will kill myself if I am without you” love. I mean, when the play starts, Romeo is “I am literally so in love I cannot even” with someone (if I recall) named Rosamund, who doesn’t even know he’s alive. Then there’s Tybalt, who’s too tough to love anyone, and Mercutio, who is down on love because he’s not physically attractive and thinks he can’t have love so it’s easier to say love is stupid, and there are both Romeo and Juliet’s parents, who are definitely not in love (Juliet’s mother even accuses her husband of sleeping around) and there is the nurse’s maternal sort of love, and the friar thinks love only matters if it can end a feud and he DEFINITELY doesn’t think it should be passionate because passion kills (as evidenced by Romeo and Juliet), and (Paris, I think is his name — the guy betrothed to Juliet) — there is his all-loving worship love (he sincerely seems to respect Juliet and would & does defend her to the death.) There is all kinds of love in Romeo and Juliet. There’s even horrible objectifying “love” at the beginning, when the servants as the play opens make cruel jokes about raping a woman to prove their manhood.

    The world is cruel and petty and ridiculous and tearing itself apart and filled with people who don’t actually know what love is, and sincere love is so delicate it cannot live within it, yet so deep that when it is thrust in the faces of these friends and parents and feuding people, they will end even the feud of all feuds, out of respect for it. The story is a discussion of the power of love to destroy and to heal, simultaneously, because love is absolutely fragile and as strong as steel. It’s not about Romeo and Juliet — they’re in what? three or four scenes together? It’s about their affect on the feud.

    (Also, people died at like 45 in Shakespeare’s day. So 13 was naturally much older than it is today. Juliet is already about to be married off anyway, when she meets Romeo.)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Briana says:

    That’s a really nice point. People are so focused on Romeo and Juliet’s dramatic expression of romantic love (hard not to be, though…), that it becomes easy to overlook all the other relationships in the story. That may leave us with the question about how all these interactions together lead to the end of the story, which I think is much more interesting than “Romeo and Juliet are crazy *eyeroll*.” Juliet’s father, for instance, probably could have listed to her a little more carefully about why she didn’t want to marry Paris.

    Isn’t 45 just the life expectancy, which sounds really low because of the very high infant mortality rate? Even around 1900, the life expectancy was around 48, but only because we had a large number of children’s deaths. If you managed to make it alive out of childhood, even in the Middle Ages, it wouldn’t have been uncommon to make it into your 60s. I do agree, though, that the age at which you were considered competently an adult was much lower, though. People tend to freak out over Juliet’s age, and while it is on the low end of the marriageable spectrum, yeah, it wasn’t unheard of it.


  5. Emily | RoseRead says:

    I think it’s meant to be a tragedy, and Shakespeare understood that his characters were being very rash and young and ridiculous. He totally even makes fun of Romeo and Juliet in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Pyramus and Thisbe play. He’s like “I know guys, I wrote this play whose characters were quite ridiculous and dramatic and now I’m going to tease myself for it in another play.” God I love Shakespeare.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      I read A Midsummer Night’s Dream awhile ago, but I irrationally hate plays within plays and didn’t give that part the attention it deserves at all. (And academics LOVE plays within plays, so I feel like a terrible English student for wanting to skim.) I’ll have to give it another look sometime because I hadn’t thought much about that before!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. elyjayne says:

    I love this meme idea—I adore talking about classics! I like R&J, not for the romance but because it was the play that introduced me to Shakespeare. I studied it twice in high school, but it led me to picking up his other plays after I finished school. It’s not my favourite, but I do appreciate it.


    • Briana says:

      I read it freshman year of high school, but my teacher wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about it (or about anything really…), so I think that put a bit of a damper on my experience. I came to appreciate it a little more after rereading it later, though I agree it’s probably not Shakespeare’s best work.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Geraldine @ Corralling Books says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it as an ironic comedy! It’s too dark for comedy to me – and when I was learning about Shakespeare in school, we always got taught that tragedies contain death, etc., whilst comedies always included a wedding at the end (I think?? It’s been a while since I studied Shakespeare)


    • Briana says:

      Right?! Krysta wrote the question and she knows more about Renaissance drama than I do, so I guess there’s some discussion about Romeo and Juliet as ironic comedy that I’m just not really aware of. Silly scholars. :p I know there are some plays that sort of walk the line between comedy and tragedy (Is the wedding as really as happy as it seems?), but everyone dying in Romeo and Juliet seems pretty dark to me!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. David says:

    Heh, sounds like you and I would have agreed a fair bit in high school. I also wanted these two to slow down, act more rationally, and for heaven’s sake not kill anyone, least of all themselves! I also thought Romeo was kind of dumb and didn’t deserve Juliet. But while they do act melodramatically, I can at least empathize with some of those melodramatic emotions. There were definitely times in my teens when a particular moment felt like the most important moment of my life, when I wondered if my life was doomed because of something silly, or that perhaps if I died in some dramatic, heroic, or tragic fashion that it might somehow cure one of life’s ills for my loved ones (or at least make a cool story in which I had the best part). Of course I knew how ridiculous those thoughts were even at the time, but I still thought them and felt the accompanying emotions.


    • Briana says:

      Exactly! While it’s easy to judge other people for not taking the logical course of action–particularly when you’re reading a book/play and looking at characters instead of a real life situation–I don’t think Romeo and Juliet’s emotions and hastiness are necessarily unrealistic. And I don’t think the 1500s were so distinct from present times that their fates should have seemed particularly more comic or ironic to the contemporary audience than they do now.


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