Upon Revisiting Romeo and Juliet

I suggest you try this. It’s very rewarding.

Step 1. Read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. You might not like it the first time.  That's okay. You may say, “What? They tells us how it’s going to end at the very beginning?” Or, “What? They decide to get married on the first night they meet?” Or, “What? Entertainment that doesn’t have a happy ending? How is that supposed to be fun?”

Step 2. Read the play again. And again. And again. Five or six times a year for fifteen or so years. At some point, you’ll change. And not in a good way. You’ll get old and cynical. You may find yourself saying, “This is not a play about love. It’s about lust. And teenage impulsiveness. It presents suicide in an overly romantic light.”

Step 3. Go see the play done well. This is ideally accomplished at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, but you might pull it off elsewhere.

Step 4. Reflect on something you’ve told [gets out cocktail napkin. Does some quick math] approximately 2,250 students about this play, about how it’s marvelous precisely because, even though we know how it will end, we still care about the characters and hope it will turn out differently each time. Remember all those times you’ve told a classroom full of students that every time you see the show done live, you carry some tiny suspicion that this time they’ll surprise you with a twist ending. He doesn’t drink the poison! She wakes up just a little sooner! The friar arrives and finds them both alive! When the parents and the prince show up, they figure out what’s happened, everybody forgives everyone, and they all live happily ever after. Maybe this time it will go down that way. Maybe, just maybe.

Step 5. And then, on your eightieth time hanging out with Juliet and her Romeo, you realize your cynicism is wrong. Yes, it’s a play about lust. Yes, it’s a play about teenage impulsiveness. Yes, it paints suicide in an overly romantic light. But it is a play about love. Sure, there’s the naive, innocent, stupid and pure and beautiful love between these two kids. But the experience of watching the play is about adult love, too. We know how it might end. We know, in a way these young characters can’t, that there will be tragedy and pain. We know there will be miscommunication and bad timing and family politics. We know sometimes love will be pierced under a best friend’s arm, betrayed, sabotaged by family conflict, even canceled prematurely when someone gives up or dies. But we hope it will end differently this next time. We hope no one will poison love or stab it or banish it or run away when they hear the cops coming. We keep coming back for love, not the kids’ naive, dopey, doomed love, but our own hoping-against-everything-we-know kind of love.

Choosing to re-read or re-watch Romeo and Juliet is a recommitment to falling in love. Every heartbreak you’ve ever experienced is just the prologue. Maybe this time your love will turn out differently. And if it doesn’t, you can still choose to read it again.