Review: Shakespeare on Love
First: However catchy the title, this book is not about what Shakespeare has to say about love. A better title would be How Romeo and Juliet Should Be Staged — because it’s really about how Joseph Pearce thinks the classic play should be read, understood, and performed. But I admit, that doesn’t have as much “oomph.”
Second, I didn’t expect to find the book interesting. I don’t find the question of whether Shakespeare was secretly Catholic to be interesting, although I love Shakespeare (quick Shakespeare cred: I’ve seen both Cymbeline and Timon of Athens performed live, on purpose).
Third: I got swept into the book very quickly once I realized what it was really about. Pearce makes a strong case for his reading of the play, which is not all like the current fashion for interpreting it, and for its being a very Catholic play.
Like all plays, Romeo and Juliet is open to the director’s and scholar’s interpretation. The current one most in vogue is that Romeo and Juliet’s love is pure and beautiful, and that their deaths are the tragic results of their impossible situation and thus are everyone else’s fault. Pearce’s argument is that this romantic interpretation is not supported by the text or contemporary evidence. Instead, he says Romeo and Juliet are both supposed to be seen as heedlessly destroying themselves by deliberately choosing to let passion sweep them to their deaths.
He begins with a brief and startling (to our sensibilities) explanation of the story by the author of a long poem all scholars agree is Shakespeare’s source. In it, poet Arthur Brooke says clearly that his Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet is about young people who do very wicked things and die, urged on by a wicked friar. It’s a bald-faced, Puritan judgment on wicked Catholics, lust, and well-deserved death (not to mention eternal punishment).
The many things Shakespeare changed for his own play, Pearce argues convincingly, show that it is a Catholic meditation of the same idea (the reckless passion of youth) but with a different focus. Shakespeare’s lovers are reckless not because they are Catholic, but because they are young, and because the families who should be guiding them are wrapped up in a senseless feud. Left to their own devices they throw caution to the wind and, as Pearce demonstrates, knowingly choose destruction. As the Catholic Church teaches, God brings good out of their senseless deaths. But as the Catholic Church aslo teaches, it would have been better for everyone if all had led virtuous lives in the first place.
In what I found to be the most interesting chapter, Pearce shows that Juliet’s age (13) would have been even more startling to Elizabethan audiences than it is to us, and argues that Shakespeare made this deliberate change from his source to underscore her immaturity and vulnerability to Romeo’s advances. His chapter on Romeo, whom he sees as a seducer who does not really love Juliet, is less convincing but completely supportable by the text.
Pearce devotes two chapters to Friar Lawrence, which was one too many for this reader but probably necessary due to his pivotal role in the plot. Unlike the “wicked friar” of the source play who delights in the driving the lovers to their deaths, Shakespeare’s Franciscan friar is by Pearce’s reckoning carried away with the happy, if impractical, idea of reconciling their families. Far from being a Puritan vehicle to show how evil the Church is, Shakespeare’s Friar Lawrence is a good man who tries to accomplish a good goal through bad means.
The good he tries to do does, in the end, come to fruition — but not in the way he intends. The feud between the families ends. There is peace at last between the Capulets and the Montagues, but it’s the kind of peace that comes from knowing nothing worse can ever happen. Peace isn’t all the same.
I’ve seen Romeo and Juliet at least six times, but never like this, and much as I hate to give up a kindlier view of Romeo, I have to admit that Pearce’s explanation of the play fits the text better. Romeo goes from madly in love with a girl who won’t succumb to his advances to madly in love with a girl who will succumb to his advances in the course of a few minutes. She succumbs because she is too young to be able to (or want to) control herself. He only marries her because she insists on it. He rails that he would rather die than be banished, although banishment was a merciful punishment for the death of Tybalt, and he kills himself despite what Pearce argues were clear signs that Juliet was still alive (Elizabethans, far more familiar with dead bodies than we are, would to Pearce’s mind have known what to expect of a corpse after a day in a tomb).
The aim of passion is death, I learned in my medieval literature class, and Shakespeare — far closer to the medieval literary world than to the 18th century romantics — seems to have agreed. If Pearce is right, Shakespeare meant his protagonists to demonstrate that unregulated passion not only leads to death, but that people who indulge in unregulated passion embrace death.
It’s a good lesson for our time.
Shakespeare on Love: Seeing the Catholic Presence in Romeo and Juliet by Joseph Pearce is published by Ignatius Press and is available in paperback and as an electronic book.
Gail Deibler Finke is Senior Editor of The Catholic Beat.
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