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Romeo and Juliet shows the danger of privatising love

The truth is that love is not a purely private matter. Every marriage has a public resonance

By on Friday, 10 August 2012

A scene from Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet

Here is an interesting take on Romeo and Juliet that I found on the excellent New Advent website. I am by no means sure that I agree entirely with the writer’s understanding of the play, but there is certainly something to be said for looking at Romeo and Juliet with new eyes. And as I seem to be on something of a Shakespeare roll at present, allow me this indulgence.

I have seen the play but once in a rather forgettable student production at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. I have also seen the two justly famous film adaptations – that of Zeffirelli and that of Baz Luhrmann, both in their differing ways excellent – and I have read the play thoroughly. It is a wonderfully absorbing piece because it is about the madness of love. Neither Romeo nor Juliet chose to fall in love, and their falling in love is clearly not a good idea, but neither of them have any choice in the matter. The Nurse does not help, in that she starts out as very helpful and then loses her nerve, and the same can be said of the Friar. In fact, all the adults fail these two children in love. But it is probably the Friar who has what is for me the key speech in the entire play:

These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume. The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately; long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

(Act II, scene 6)

The Friar is, of course, correct in describing the love of the young couple as “violent”, and events bear him out. Moreover, in urging Romeo to love moderately he is only proffering old-fashioned Aristotelian advice. But as the play bears witness, to advise moderation to those violently in love is a hopeless task. Romeo and Juliet are beyond reason’s reach.

There is another Aristotelian aspect to the play. Aristotle is the philosopher of context, among other things. He sees the good life as lived in a good community, that is, in the city state – a political reality that was already obsolete by the time he was teaching at the Lyceum. But for Aristotle, human activity always needs the right background. Nowadays a good marriage would be thought of as being built almost exclusively on the affections of the couple themselves without much reference to what lies beyond them. But in Shakespeare’s day marriage was something that took place in the community, which meant with the consent of the two families involved – and that is why Romeo and Juliet are doomed. Theirs is a secret marriage, though, terrible irony, their marriage, if it had been public, might very well have healed the rift between Montague and Capulet. After all, the Friar consents to marry them with this very idea in mind:

For this alliance may so happy prove,
To turn your households’ rancour to pure love.

(Act II, scene 3)

What this play warns us about is the privatisation of love. Of course we admire Juliet and her Romeo, but the truth of the matter is, surely, that love is not a purely private matter. It has public resonance and the rite of marriage is always to be celebrated before proper witnesses, who represent the community in which the marriage takes place. Married love is a special relationship, but at the same time one of the many sorts of relationship that goes to make up the web of relationships that is society.

So, Romeo and Juliet and the Friar and the Nurse all ought to have given more thought to the needs, not just of the young couple, but of Verona itself. I have always found the Prince’s magnificent rebuke of great interest:

Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace,
Profaners of this neighbor-stained steel—
Will they not hear? What, ho! you men, you beasts
That quench the fire of your pernicious rage
With purple fountains issuing from your veins,
On pain of torture, from those bloody hands
Throw your mistemper’d weapons to the ground,
And hear the sentence of your moved prince.

(Act I, scene 1)

The lesson of the play is that Verona needs peace, and that peace comes with self-control. Without self-control we are “beasts”. The riots on the streets and the riots in the human heart seem in parallel to me. And the old Aristotelian adage – Moderation in all things – seems as apt as ever. We are in rebellion sometimes against external authority such as the Prince’s peace, but also against the internal authority of reason. Both can do harm to ourselves and to the society we live in. But of course, in the end, we are so defenceless against love, and that is why there

[For] never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

Act V, scene 3)

  • JabbaPapa

    Romeo and Juliet has an aspect to it which is usually neglected, which is its function as a Catholic Mystery Play.

    The name Romeo means pilgrim, and the play can be understood as the journey of the two lovers away from the turmoil of earthly love and existence, towards the peace of spiritual love found in the Church, and finally to their reward in heaven, attained necessarily through death.

    The slow abandonment of their earthly and fleshly concerns transforms them both, and though they are doomed in this world, the progress of the play brings them ever closer to fulfillment through Christ in the next.

    Their families are entirely of this world, as is shown in their ruthlessness and violence towards each other, and it is only be their ultimate rejection of that hatred and violence that the two transcend this worldliness, and in the Church, despite their physical deaths but in the glory of the spiritual life, bring a hope of some reconciliation and faith to their warring families.

    The Leonardo di Caprio and Clare Danes version is surprisingly sensitive to this aspect of the play !!

    Of course, it’s also a great love story.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Thanks for that…. very interesting.

  • Vince

    I don’t know if “moderation in all things” is an Aristotelian adage – I just know that the motto “nothing in excess” was carved on the temple of Delphi.

    Anyway I am not sure that “moderation” is a key christian virtue. I would say, like Chesterton, that this is the reverse : excess is really a christian virtue, and saints were excessive ; extreme with their love of God, their neighbors and truth, extreme with their hatred of evil and lies. Surely moderate saints do not exists. Was saint Perter moderate ? Saint Paul ? Saint Francis ? Where do we find “moderation” in Jesus’ words ? Actually you do not find so alien a word to christianism

    Christianism is a subtle balance of extremeness – like wild horses tamed by a superior force of intelligence to run all in one direction ; like all human passions polarized toward good.

    “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.”

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    I did not claim that moderation was a Christian virtue, but an Aristotelian one; which is not the same thing.

  • Mr Grumpy

    But are you not commending it to us as Christians? Vince seems to me to make a very good point.

  • Jjpepe

     Interesting, by the way, did you know that that church is in Mexico City?

  • JabbaPapa

    It’s also a virtue in both Renaissance and Baroque thinking.

  • JabbaPapa

    It’s also a powerful symbolic celebration of Christian marriage in the eyes of the Christ, in this interpretation :-)

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    I am commending it certainly in certain fields, e.g. the sexual passions, certainly. Possibly in financial matters too. But not across the board.

  • Mack

    Good work, all!  Thanks!

  • tz1

    The battle between the two houses was also not a purely private matter, yet if peace could have been achieved, perhaps this romance would have not been tragic.

    Few matters are truly private, but involving the nurse and friar meant they were not between the couple.  The Church teaches Subsidiarity, so there is a very long continuum between the privacy of an individual and nation-wide publicity.  Bringing in the nurse and friar meant it wasn’t just between the two.  They could not bring their respective houses in because they were at war.  Yet where was any other part of the community where they could go to seek wisdom or counsel in the matter?  Where the couple could go to adjudicate the division between the houses so they could get married?  But one or the other house might lose and disown the child.  The alternative would not be for the government Verona to micromanage everything.

    The community was disordered.  When that happens, the proper lines between private and public at the various levels are distorted or destroyed.  Much like now the national governments are taking control of the local street police.  Everyone is under surveillance.  Oh, but sex is still “a private matter” up to and including murdering the unborn when convenient or demanding treatment for devastating or deadly diseases.  Privatizing love might be a problem but today the only thing privatized is sex – except in Airport Security zones.

  • Franc

    “Neither Romeo nor Juliet chose to fall in love, and their falling in love is clearly not a good idea, but neither of them have any choice in the matter.”Please try to remember this sentence the next time anyone makes a derogatory or negative comment about love between two men or two women.  

  • ColdStanding

    Yes, but they committed suicide which is a grave sin, no?  To me that would suggest that their flight from their relatives so ensnared by the World lead them only deeper into sin.  If anything, to me it is an example of, from scripture:

    AMEN, amen I say to you: He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up another way, the same is a thief and a robber. 

    How can error be corrected by more error?  Romeo is surely a thief and a robber aiming to pluck from the house of his enemies one of their prized possessions.  Disordered desire leads to disordered results.  

  • JabbaPapa

    Having a hissy fit are we ?

  • JabbaPapa

    Yes, but they committed suicide

    If you’ve seen a representation of the play, you’ll realise that it’s not that clear-cut.

    In a Mystery Play, death is symbolic, and not intended to be interpreted literally.

  • ColdStanding

    You rest too much upon it being a mystery play.  It seems to have stopped you from fully considering the ramifications of the scene in the play.  What ever the play may be alluding to, the fact that they are represented as having committed suicide can not be discounted as mere symbol. It is SYMBOL!  Bold, pay attention, look upon and dread SYMBOL. There is no suggestion of a joyful outcome.  It is a very specific kind of death, the direct opposite of martyrdom.  The martyr is killed by the world for belief in God, the suicide kills their own life, and in so doing risks eternal damnation, because of the failure to take into account God’s plan of salvation.  There isn’t anything in Catholic teaching that suggests that killing oneself is the road to salvation.  Suicide is taking.  Martyrdom is giving. We are exhorted to die to the world and live in Christ – the living continues.  R & J evidence only total destruction.  

  • americanusnovus

    Natural virtue, according to both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, is a mean between two extremes, one of excess and one of defect.  For example, courage is a sort of fearing in moderation, neither excessively (cowardice) or defectively (rashness).  Thus, in acting virtuously we are behaving with moderation.  Now Aquinas states that supernatural virtue is an extreme.  So yes, Christians are called to an excessive life of theological virtue.  However, Christians ought to strive for a life of both natural and supernatural virtue, which is fitting since grace builds on nature. 

  • Jonathan West

    What this play warns us about is the privatisation of love. Of course we admire Juliet and her Romeo, but the truth of the matter is, surely, that love is not a purely private matter.

    You could very easily turn that around and say that the moral of the play is that love ought to be a private matter, and that the lack of restraint was on the part of the feuding families who ought to have known better. After all, you say “In fact, all the adults fail these two children in love.”

  • Jonathan West

    What this play warns us about is the privatisation of love. Of course we admire Juliet and her Romeo, but the truth of the matter is, surely, that love is not a purely private matter.

    You could very easily turn that around and say that the moral of the play is that love ought to be a private matter, and that the lack of restraint was on the part of the feuding families who ought to have known better. After all, you say “In fact, all the adults fail these two children in love.”

  • JabbaPapa

    You rest too much upon it being a mystery play.  It seems to have stopped you from fully considering the ramifications of the scene in the play

    Of course it’s not clear cut — nothing ever is in Baroque Art.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    ‘We are in rebellion sometimes against external authority such as the Prince’s peace, but also against the internal authority of reason.’
    Please try to remember this sentence the next time anyone makes a simplistic comment praising any form of love.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    There’s a certain ambiguity here in the way ‘moderation’ is being used.

    Aristotle talks of the virtue of ‘sophrosune’ (usually translated ‘moderation’ or ‘temperance’) which is having the right ability to enjoy bodily pleasures. He also talks of the ‘mean’ (usually, ‘to meson’) as the right state of the virtue between two (vicious) extremes.

    Aristotle certainly thinks that we should always be moderate/temperate about bodily pleasure: there is something wrong about someone who has no enjoyment of sex/food; there is something wrong with someone who is obsessed with them. (Although more needs to be said from a Christian point of view, this isn’t a bad starting point: a balance between the Manichean hatred of the body and the sybaritic indulgence of it.)

    However, the mean doesn’t mean (!) just some sort of mathematically determined halfway point between two vices: it means the appropriate balance. (As determined, not by some sort of ethical slide rule, but by the sensitivity of the wise person (ho phronimos).)

    And so it’s perfectly possible for someone to be on fire with love of God and for that to be the right balance (to meson). But it wouldn’t be possible for someone to be on fire with sexual lust, and for that to be a action of moderation/temperance (sophrosune).

    Although, as I’ve said, that basic pattern needs development from a Christian point of view, it’s still the scaffolding on which Aquinas develops his ethics in the Summa Theologiae IaIIae.

  • licjjs

    Vince

    I have always loved St Thomas Aquinas’ Hymn for Corpus Christi, the ‘Lauda Sion’: ‘Quantum potes tantum aude Quia major omni laude Nec laudare sufficis….’  or as St Augustine says, ‘The measure of love is to love without measure’.  However, these saints are speaking of the love of God; to love a creature like that would be idolatry and perhaps more people are guilty of this than we think.

  • Daclamat

    Nice little earner. Nuff said

  • Meema

    “..sexual passions, certainly. Possibly in financial matters too..”
    What about: 
    “..sexual matters, certainly. Possibly in financial passions too…”

  • whytheworldisending

    Stalin didn’t choose to become Stalin, and so on…. the point is that we don’t know what we are doing, since we don’t know the future. We either trust in God our creator – who made us men and women – or we trust in another principle, such as wealth, pleasure, power, military might, reputation, human reasoning…etc. Trusting in anything other than God leads to doom. Sexual permissiveness and deification of individual choice is based on nothing more than the pleasure principle. It is idolatrous and foolish.

  • Mr Grumpy

    That’s enlightening, thank you.

  • David Zammit

    I so agree that love is the most powerful force -for good or bad- that humans can experience.
    Self control is needed to control romantic love as otherwise it can destroy and consume those who experience it. But love can never be quenched by sterile self control. It’s like trying to put out a fire with paper! I think the only way to control love is to transform it and channel but never ever to repudiate it. This is only possible with the help of God…who is Love.

  • theroadmaster

    The passage of love is seldom smooth, no matter how passionate.  Potentially the deep attraction of star-crossed young lovers can bridge existing conflicts that exist in both society and families and bring back stability to such situations.  Shakespeare seems to be re-iterating the Christian wisdom that  love which at the start can barely be contained, is often tempered and matured within the Institution of marriage.  Marriage publicly states the inner intent of the loving couple in an official manner, to enhance their own mutual love and be open to procreation, as well as contributing to the common good of society around them.