Man, did I hate Romeo and Juliet. We had to read it in high school, along with the perennial Julius Caesar. At least JC had brutal gang stabbings, political intrigue and ghosts. And true, R&J had swordfights. But they were swordfights by boys our age in tights. Believe me, in small town West Tennessee in the Seventies, no one openly admitted identifying with boys in tights. Plus Romeo, the twit, kills himself over a girlfriend. With our limited dating pool, neither we nor the girls in town could imagine getting that upset over someone. After all, we’d all known each other since before toilet training.
Flash forward about two decades. As a movie, I really dug Baz Luhrman’s 1996 take on R&J. Not only was the setting brilliant, but the actors’ intensity gave rise to the most surprising epiphany of all: about twenty minutes before the end, I found myself in suspense. That’s right: I doubted the outcome of the single most famous love story in all creation. Happily, Baz didn’t let me down, and even came up with a moment of eye contact between the two lovers that rammed the tragedy home in a vivid new way.
But the play itself…still hated it. Until, that is, I read Harold Bloom’s treatise on it, and especially Juliet. In his take, greatly paraphrased here, Juliet is a simple young girl until she falls–totally, completely, and at first sight–for Romeo. When that happens, this shallow creature is transformed into a master of language and self-knowledge. Romeo, sincere schlub that he is, can barely keep up. It’s a classical version of a Judd Apatow relationship, really, with the good-natured doofus landing the out-of-his-league hottie. Only in this case, doofusness and hotitude are determined verbally, not visually.
That’s a broad generalization, I’ll grant you, and scholars could probably rip it apart in moments. But I prefer to see it that way, and I wish someone would mount that production so I could see it that way. And I have Harold “My Way or the Highway” Bloom, master of all things Shakespearean, to thank for it.