THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Romeo and Juliet Are Dead- Long Live Love…

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I know Romeo and Juliet.

You see, sitting at the older end of the Gen Y spectrum, I’d just turned teenager when Baz Luhrman directed the much loved and abhorred MTV inspired adaptation Romeo + Juliet. I was roughly the same age as the film’s protagonists and within the target demographic at the moment of its cinematic debut in 1996.

However, as was the fashion in those days, the film truly left its cultural imprint upon its VHS release the following year. Romeo + Juliet was rented, pirated then traveled from school bags to movie nights and parties. My generation may still have been too young to truly appreciate the verse and sonnets, it was still written by William Shakespeare after all, but there was a sense of importance to the film. Many young people seemed to intuit something sacred amongst the film’s layers that paired material as ancient as Ovid with the bluntly-coloured décor and sour ‘Seattle’ mood of the 1990s.

Magically, the themes, faces and ambiance of Romeo + Juliet became real in the summer of 1997. Friends were turning fifteen and falling love-sick, the film often part of a steady weekend routine. One alpha-male type I knew watched the film and had an epiphany, swearing only to court girls chivalrously from that point on. A girl in my Math class named her band after some arcane turn of dialogue. The play Romeo and Juliet soon became a text in that year’s English curriculum, while the film’s singles could be found charting on Saturday morning TV or blaring out of radios as cars drove past. Romeo + Juliet was omnipresent.

So The Bard’s tragedy of young, ‘star-cross’d lovers’ came alive among my sparse gang of friends as we play-acted adulthood, strutting sun-bleached beaches and crashing parties. Elements of the story seemed familiar: the beautiful rich girl, the brooding romantic, the over-bearing parental expectations. I also recognised those brazen Capulet and Montague boys, willing to brawl at a moment’s notice and making late night trips to the local drug dealer like so many guys I knew. Similarly, suicide had a part in defining the 90s since Cobain’s iconic departure and was already a pop motif before Claire Danes spoke iambic with a gun at her temples.

Art can influence perception and I saw that summer awry as I watched teens mix and mingle in the streets or flirt and swing their fists on hot nights. I watched the film, read the play and saw the story acted out in moments and microcosms amongst my friends, enemies and crushes. This is young love, so strong that it hurts, kills and dies…

Forgive me for a little nostalgia. As you can see, it’s inevitable with this play, not simply because this particular film adaption is of my time, but the story itself deals in the passion and angst of youth. We have all been young, some of us even get to grow up, and we all remember the intense experiences of those younger years.

The term ‘nostalgia’, in its common usage, describes a fond celebration of past cultural forms, usually due to disillusionment with the current routine. A prime example may be the adult who turns on their radio only to hear barely pubescent boys sing saccharine platitudes penned by old men in LA, and so in disgust walks to their computer and buys Led Zeppelin 4, The Joshua Tree, Nevermind, Is This It or some other decade defining album from iTunes. This brand of nostalgia is the stuff of fashion revivals, reruns and Hollywood remakes and is inseparable from consumerism. Hell, even The Smurfs are getting their own movie this year.

More specifically nostalgia is a genuine psychological experience, even diagnosed and treated by physicians in times past. So every lifetime sees a few sullen moments, gingerly tracing the edges of old photos with your fingers or silently watching dust shift in the air, bright as stars, as the autumn sun rises through the window. Every morning as we drag our tired frames out of bed, we dimly recall a much earlier time when we awoke and bounced, warm and invincible, ready to eat cereal and slay dragons. In that sense, nostalgia is universal, as it doesn’t deal in times now past but in things now lost.

Indeed, the etymology of ‘nostalgia’ reveals that we describe that particular feeling as a ‘yearning for home’, a place left behind in maturity. In juxtaposition, young people are often more closely associated with angst, that deep anxiety regarding the fragile nature of our mortality, so much so that an entire industry has grown around the concept. Together, nostalgia and angst represent not only the pain of something lost but the pain of something to come.

Teens know both forms of pain, with an interior and profound suffering to the process of adolescence. After all, the term ‘growing pain’ refers to much more than a residual ache in the stretching bones. See for yourself, walk through a mall or order fast food and check them out. All teenagers have that look on their face, like they’re constantly being jabbed in the side with a sharp serving implement.

Teenagers are suffering, and rightly so, grieving for the evanescent magic of childhood, lying awake with nascent desire, discovering small tragedies as the ‘shades of the prison-house begin to close’. Adolescence can be a desperate awakening, as these powerless in-betweens realise for the first time that innocence passes and we’re all just ‘fellow-travellers to the grave’. They mourn what is lost, dread what is to come and manage the confusion between it all. No wonder they complain so much.

Consequently, the mystique of adolescent dissociation makes for good storytelling, whether it’s Kerouac’s Doctor Sax, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. or Meyer’s Twilight series. Mandatory mockery aside, the sparkly vampire books don’t sell like cups of coffee for no reason. This previously unpublished Mormon housewife dreamed of the intense angst of adolescence and packaged it with enough genre-trappings to change the pop landscape. Say what you will about the books themselves, Stephanie Meyers knows how to connect with a young audience, nostalgia and angst in hand.

To think that audiences might yearn for an emotive suffering is an odd thought, to find the unlikely mix of ‘such sweet sorrow’ worth the price of admission. However, if such storytelling deals in the throes of first love, we begin to understand the excitement and grief it elicits. After all, the first love is inevitably a lost love and as humans always want things they can’t have, so we long not for a person in particular, but the tremulous, virgin passion that first arose. Romeo and Juliet immortalises such young love, in all its adolescent sexuality, rebellion, angst and suicide.

Young love is exactly that, and no man or woman finding their first precarious footfalls in this adult world could possibly hold onto it. It is not the kind of love that is shared over years of breakfasts, tiffs, tax returns or warm evenings on the couch. This young love couldn’t possible picture relationship breakdown or ever expect the monotony of the mundane. Building a life together begins with romance but takes patience, playfulness and selective amnesia to seal the deal. Young love knows only a few things: emotional turmoil, sexual ecstasy and death. As I said before, love so strong that it hurts, kills and dies…

In hindsight, it would be wrong of me to treat Baz Lurhman’s film Romeo + Juliet and William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet as the same beast. They are different productions in different mediums with different approaches for different audiences. In revisiting the text, however, I have only revisited my own initial imprint upon it. Given enough cold scholarship, I may be able to separate Shakespeare’s play from its pop culture legacy, but after some thought, I just don’t want to. Romeo and Juliet works for me as it is. I’d rather be audience than critic on this one. Take it as a testament to the play’s longevity and relevance that it is still hot property, shifting its shape after all these years and finding itself breathing and palpable on blogs in the 21st century.

I know Romeo and Juliet. In fact, we all do. Shakespeare’s play has become a valentine to the ardour and fear of our younger years, recalling the unforgettable passion, blood, loss and first kiss we all knew. It is the love letter to end all love letters, marking the young love we either outgrow or die holding onto.




June 22, 2011 at 5:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] to say the least. Not a patch on Anthony’s history with Romeo and Juliet, beautifully recounted here, but interesting […]

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