The Romance of Tragedy

So, one of my favorite sites posted a magazine article that endeavored to list the most romantic novels of all time and then went on to contest many of the selections; while encouraging suggestions for what should be on the list. I paid my 2 cents, of course – but I am sad to see how many people disagree with the choice of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.

Many comments were made to the effect that R&J was nothing more than two whiny teenagers who fell in love too fast for it to be real. R&J is all about true love, love at first sight, love that is worth dying for; isn’t this the stuff of romance?

The romance of that first moment Romeo sets his eyes on Juliet, and, breathless, watches her move through the room. Sure, he was your average teenage boy, who, seconds before was panting after some other chick – he even admits it to himself – and he understands the difference between the lust he felt for Rosaline, and the all-consuming passion he feels for Juliet. The film Shakespeare in Love capitalizes on this moment – mimicking it in the way Will sees Viola for the first time. I love that movie too, and am fully aware a great deal of the attraction lies in its playing out as the frame-story for the making of R&J (that, and damn Joseph Fiennes is fine!)

Yes, R&J are two head-strong teenagers who run full force into a reckless marriage – but, c’mon – we’ve all been teenagers, and that incredible rush of emotion, that insane need to be with the object of your desire every waking (and sleeping) moment is something we all have felt – if you didn’t, I’m so sorry. Running away and getting married may be just a childish fantasy in the minds of the modern teenage girl – but it was an attainable fantasy for R&J (hence, some of the appeal). Reckless hotheaded behavior is a trademark of new (and especially adolescent) love. Perhaps the families of R&J could have discovered the relationship and decided, it wasn’t such a bad thing – and then the teenagers could eventually mature and get bored with each other – but then, it wouldn’t be as romantic – would it?

I know this is one of the major arguments people have against R&J – that, if left alive long enough – the young couple would lose their passion for each other and move on – but hey, maybe we’re selling their love short…I’m married to a man I fell in love with when I was 16, and while our passion may not be as all-consuming as “I-will-die-to-be-with-you-forever”, it is a flame that has burned for 14+ years. Perhaps that is the tragedy here: that, dying in the early blossom of their love, the couple never had a chance to settle into their feelings and grow old together – leaving the world to dismiss their love as trivial.
I remember when I was first introduced to R&J – I was in 5th grade, and couldn’t sleep one night, so I ended up flipping channels. I happened upon Zefirelli’s 1968 film version – and was enraptured. I became obsessed with the story of R&J: I found copies of the play, I scoured the t.v. guide waiting for the movie to come on t.v. again and stayed up all night to record it (this was 1987, ok – no DVD’s, no tivo, no e-bay), then I set up my tape player and recorded the movie on audio cassette so I could listen to it on headphones at night. I harassed my parents with questions about the characters and their actions, I tried (unsuccessfully) to share my passion for this story with my friends, and above all – I read, watched, or listened to the story on a daily basis. I passed through this phase, eventually, but the impact this play had on me has endured. Even attempting to teach R&J to obnoxious apathetic high school freshman hasn’t dulled my love for this story.

The heartache of all the “what if’s” or “if only’s” in this tale are what do it for me – there are so many little moments, small steps, that – if one thing had been done differently – if one minute more had passed – then everything could have turned out alright. Life is like that – the worst heartache comes from the regret born of that burning question: “what if.” It is that question that kept me up so many nights as a star-eyed 10 year old; young enough to never have experienced such wrenching despair herself – but old enough to recognize it when I saw it – and for me – I don’t just read, see, or hear R&J I feel it.

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