This post was going to be a screed (“What, another screed,” say the Plain People of Ireland, just a teensy bit wearily) about critics who don’t give Juliet the respect she deserves. And then a funny thing happened. I couldn’t really find any. I’d had the vague impression they are out there in droves but they failed to turn up. Even the Great Gasbag of New Haven, whom I was sure had made some disparaging remarks about her, calls her “superb” in his chapter on Romeo and Juliet (and says a number of things I agree with about Romeo, which scares me). Perhaps he was comparing her to his favorites, Hamlet and Falstaff, but his book has no index and is not something you dip into outside of a literary vision of Hell, so please forgive me if I don’t look it up.
Now I have compared Juliet to Brünnhilde, Sieglinde, Lady Macbeth, and Molly Bloom—and she’s unquestionably at least as iconic as any of these women, but I can hear you whispering among yourselves that she’s an icon for something different: “These others are powerful, independent adult women. Juliet is a 13-year-old girl in the throes of puppy love.”
Why does Juliet strike some as a more lightweight character than Hamlet, Lear, or Desdemona? Perhaps first, that she is a child conveys to some that she is not to be taken seriously. That impression is reinforced by the cultural status of Romeo and Juliet as a play about puppy love, which is in turn reinforced by the play’s popularity as a high school text. Finally, there is Zefferelli’s loathsome film, which helped shape the popular image of Juliet as a naïve child for at least two generations.
Well, yes. As I was at some pains to say, yes she is a child. And that is what makes Shakespeare’s achievement greater even than Wagner’s, or Joyce’s, or that of his own later self. Romeo and Juliet shows us the transfiguring power of love, a force that can turn a naïve girl into a woman who would vault onto her husband’s funeral pyre and take the world with her (as every suicide does, in a way). It starts out as puppy love, but it ends in a supernova.
Is it realistic to suppose that a girl could become a terrifyingly formidable woman in the space of a few days? Perhaps not. But Shakespeare is not Jonathan Franzen.
I’ve demonstrated—I really think I’ve shown it beyond any question—that Romeo and Juliet as Shakespeare wrote it is Juliet’s play. It’s not as if that’s such a hard call. Who else’s play could it be? Mercutio, who’d have stolen it if he’d had a chance, is killed off halfway through. Romeo is just not interesting enough; even Juliet’s love doesn’t enable him to transcend his essential sappiness. Yes, it inspires him to flights of language that compete with hers, but he doesn’t really develop or mature. (Consider his quarrel with Friar Laurence about banishment. The friar maintains that Romeo is literally getting away with murder and should simply bide his time until he can be with Juliet again. To this, the only time in the whole play Friar Laurence is unequivocally right, Romeo’s reaction is pure childish rejection.) Only Juliet has what the screenwriters call a story arc—her development from child into woman—and that arc is the spine of the play.
And yet, and yet . . . . In preparing for this blog entry, I uncovered a really surprising disparagement of Juliet, and that is what this post has ended up being about. Now that we’ve come to the end, watch Romeo + Juliet again as I recently did. I think you will be as surprised as I was to note just how much Luhrmann cuts out of Juliet’s role. All of the passages to which I’ve devoted entire posts are eliminated (the soliloquy in the tomb after Romeo’s death) or have the life cut out of them (the “Gallop apace” soliloquy, Juliet’s remonstrance with Friar Laurence, even the Aubade). In Romeo + Juliet Juliet is just a thirteen-year-old girl from beginning to end. And I do mean “end”: if you look at the tomb scene again you won’t be confronted by a character who commits suicide out of what I’ve called an oceanic passion. This Juliet isn’t capable of oceanic passion; she really is a thirteen-year-old and what she is going through really does look like puppy love. (Perhaps this is more realistic today. Thirteen-year-olds do, tragically, commit suicide, often if not always out of motives that strike us adult outsiders as no weightier than puppy love. But that isn’t Romeo and Juliet.)
I believe we don’t notice this infantilization, if I may call it that, of Juliet for several reasons. In the tomb scene we’re startled (at least I am) by the fact that Romeo wakes up, allowing the lovers a final dying gaze into each other’s eyes. In that scene and generally, we are distracted by the charming performance of Clare Danes, who is so good as the child-Juliet we can generally let ourselves forget she’s also supposed to be a real woman. (Look at what’s left of the Aubade, though; don’t the writing and directorial choices I’m talking about make this scene just a little creepy? Specifically, there’s no way in which Juliet changes after losing her virginity. Maybe the assumption that she should is a sexist cliché, but it’s what happens in Romeo and Juliet, and if you leave it out as Lurhmann does, and Juliet remains a child, then what has happened is child abuse.)
But the most important reason we don’t notice what happened to Juliet is the real one. Romeo + Juliet is a star vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio. My memory of DiCaprio in the mid-1990s is pretty hazy, but I do recall that R + J was sold in part on his status as a heartthrob. In truth, if one keeps this fact in mind, everything about the movie falls into place. To the extent I’ve discussed it previously, I have talked about its fidelities to and departures from Shakespeare as if it were a staging just like Peter Hall would put on at the RSC. Of course it is not. That it was made at all is probably a minor marvel. That it reinterprets Shakespeare in a way that still plainly speaks to people, especially young people, almost twenty years on is a major marvel. That it preserves as much Shakespeare as it does is a minor miracle. To the extent it gets anybody interested in Shakespeare, it’s doing my work and I love Baz for it.
And yet R + J is an artifact of its time and place, meaning that it probably couldn’t have been made except as a vehicle for Leo. And that comes very close to vitiating all its virtues. Because to make Romeo and Juliet that way is to make it Romeo’s play. I would have thought that impossible, but Luhrmann brings it off. It’s an amazing achievement, but I don’t mean that as a compliment. Romeo and Juliet is Juliet’s play. For that reason, Romeo + Juliet isn’t Shakespeare’s play.
At least the soundtrack includes the song this post shares a title with. I adore Shirley Manson. And yet, having seen the movie more than once, I don’t know where this song actually occurs on the soundtrack. If anyone does know, please sing out in the comments.