Guest post by Dr. Matteo Pangallo
Possibly Shakespeare’s most popular play today, Romeo and Juliet is perhaps better known than even Hamlet or Julius Caesar. Two young people meet. They fall in love. That love, however, must remain secret because it defies arbitrary restraints imposed by their society. Ultimately, the pressure of those restraints compels a tragic ending. Love, alas, cannot transcend authority. Given this traditional reading of the play, when Romeo and Juliet is taught or performed, it is often described as showcasing the foolishness of young people. Kids these days…
But rather than a warning against the impetuousness or foolishness of youth, we might more accurately see in Romeo and Juliet a dramatization of what happens when society—particularly its older generation—fails its youth. The union of Montague and Capulet could end the needless conflict between the two families, but in Verona most adults—and even many of the youth who have bought into the older generation’s ideology of hate—seem either blind to that possibility or either purposefully or unintentionally working against it. Romeo and Juliet’s parents forbid their love. Their peers and servants fight and die in the streets to perpetuate the feud that separates them. Juliet’s nurse infantilizes them. The friar tries to exploit them. Everyone around the two lovers remains mired in the past, shackled by society’s short-sighted acquiescence to the restraints of tradition. And Romeo and Juliet pay for that short-sightedness with their lives.
Why do we continue to read and perform Romeo and Juliet? Surely Shakespeare’s classic tragedy of requited love has enjoyed its unbroken four-hundred-year history of performance because it speaks to what every generation, over and over, newly and painfully discovers for itself: the constraints of the past—its politics, culture, standards of “acceptability”—are always inadequate to the experiences of the rising generation. And not merely inadequate: often those constraints are reckless and dangerous, both ethically and even mortally.
In Richmond, Virginia, from April 6-22, 2018, Quill Theatre is dedicated producing theatre worth talking about by staging stories that don’t end when the curtain comes down. Appropriately enough, then, Quill’s Romeo and Juliet will take the stage just two weeks after hundreds of thousands of children and teenagers took to the streets around the U.S., calling out the adults of our society for failing in that most fundamental of responsibilities: to keep them alive. It takes the stage three years after the Supreme Court determined what 70% of American youth at the time (but only 55% of the whole country) already believed: that two people who love each other should be allowed to marry, regardless of their sex. It takes the stage fifty-one years after the Supreme Court determined what nearly 75% of American youth at the time (but only 27% of the whole the country) already believed: that two people who love each other should be allowed to marry, regardless of their race. So why do we continue to read and perform Romeo and Juliet? Among Shakespeare’s plays, it occupies a central place in our cultural consciousness, our educational system, our theaters, because generation after generation we relive its tragic conclusion, and generation after generation we fail to live up to its celebration of the promise of youth and youth’s (often radical) understanding that society has no ethical or just claim to rule over love.
At the end of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare presents the devastating scene of parents grieving the preventable deaths of their children—deaths for which the parents, not the children, are at fault. It is through that loss that the older generation in Verona finally begins to conceive of freedom from the needless conflict that has kept the two families so bloodily at odds. If, indeed, love cannot transcend authority, perhaps our only hope is that authority may, in the end, be transformed by love. Shakespeare’s play suggests that young people are the ones who will, and should, take the lead in that transformation—if only we, and the arbitrary restraints to which we so clumsily cling, would just get out of their way.
Kids these days…
Dr. Matteo Pangallo is a former junior fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard University and is currently an assistant professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University and dramaturge for Quill Theatre in Richmond, VA.