Is Romeo and Juliet the Greatest Love Story of All Time?

This photograph by Michael Daniel is of the Public Theater showing of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. It is one of multiple film and theatre adaptations of the popular novel.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: a romantic fantasy that has stood the test of time and has been deemed a worthy read by the toughest critics; however, the conclusion of this epic saga brings the gruesome deaths of two adolescents and four others, thus begging the question – is it even a love story at all? While the author’s writing was exemplary and ahead of its time, certain key facts diminish how romantic and fantastical the adventure can be considered…

Firstly, what images does your mind conjure up when you think of a thirteen year-old girl? Innocence, probably, tinged with the colour pink. Passionate love – probably not. In this day and age, marriage between a thirteen year-old and sixteen year-old is considered scandalous and taboo, if not downright abhorrent. “There is nothing romantic or loving about this play, just lust, hormones, and teenage rebellion” is one reader’s firm opinion. Furthermore, many believe that the author was actually mocking the impetousness of teenage decisions rather than illustrating the beauty of “love’s light wings”. The only fact contradictory to this is that at the time of publication, both Romeo and Juliet would have been considered to be at a marriageable age. This toys with the notion that superficial characteristics can upstage the vast, magnificent idea of love, as the play shows nothing if not that true love should trump it all; these teenagers that let nothing stand between them and believe that love is worth death are the archetype of this ideal. After all, age is but a number.

Rainbow Rowell, author of Eleanor and Park, another ‘modern teenage romance’, provides her own opinion in the aforementioned book, by asking why it is that Romeo and Juliet has weathered the storm of time, to which the eponymous Park replies, “Because people want to remember what it’s like to be young? And in love?” William Shakespeare’s famous love story is evocative of an ardour that most associate with their passionate youth – while teenage love may be short-sighted, it is still a sentimental memory for most adults – a nostalgic feeling held close to the heart. Another popular author of a young adult book stated that “adults love in different ways, not the only way.” This is something that Romeo and Juliet teaches its audience time and time again. After all, how many millions of teenagers believe that their beloved “is the sun”?

Rosaline and Romeo’s love: one we get nary a glimpse at apart from at the very beginning of the play, in which Romeo talks about Rosaline, saying “she’s fair I love”. This is just lines before he meets Juliet and promptly forgets about the girl, whose praises he had been singing. This entire encounter far from romanticises Romeo and Juliet’s relationship, instead casting a suspect comparison with the similarly ill-fated love of Romeo and Rosaline and encouraging the audience to question: was Romeo ever in love with Juliet, or was it just ‘puppy love’, a meaningless infatuation? The depth of his emotions towards Juliet is immediately put into question, especially when he is willing to throw the word ‘love’ around so casually. Showing a fickle love interest is detrimental to the telling of this grand story; if Romeo was to lose his heart so thoroughly to Rosalind, only to forget her moments later, who is to say he wouldn’t have done the same to Juliet given the chance?

Closely associated with the idea of Romeo’s ridiculous recklessness, is the possibility that the entire play was intended as satirical comedy. Satire is characterised by the ironic parodying and subversion of the quintessential tropes of a popular genre – in this case romance – and many elements of Shakespeare’s ‘great love story’ seem to do this. Eleanor, Eleanor and Park’s other protagonist, isn’t as convinced of the play’s charms: “Romeo and Juliet are just two rich kids who’ve always gotten every little thing they want. And now, they think they want each other”. Supported by the fact that Shakespeare’s humour often scorns his own characters (see: Mercutio’s cruel pun on his own death), it is entirely possible, and very probable to many, that this entire drama solely serves to highlight and mock the luckless decisions our captivating teenagers made due to the misguided bravery, or idiocy, that often accompanies passion. 

Teenage rebellion is a key source of ignorance and stubbornness in the world, but is it conceivable that Juliet’s hasty head-over-heels love was simply another of its effects? A metaphorical statement is declared to the audience by Juliet, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. The purpose of this quote is to remind the audience that Juliet’s passion was not due to the pain that this particular boy caused her family, nor to the inane impulsivity of young nonconformity, thus setting the stage to introduce love as the mythical force behind their infatuation. It does not matter to Juliet that her Romeo is a Montague: their attraction is all that she allows to influence her decisions. 

It is undeniable that there has been a recent rise in stories mistakenly suggesting that the price of love is pain (whether this is emotional, such as in The Fault in our Stars, or physical, such as in Fifty Shades of Grey), but this idea has been around for centuries. The play Romeo and Juliet poses the issue of whether romance can be diminished by the toll it takes on its recipients – is their love diminished by the price they paid? More significantly, it must be considered that their motivation for loving each other may in fact have been a fundamental psychological need to torture themselves in relationships that would inevitably end tragically. 

This is a tragic tale in which the two “star-cross’d lovers” are destined to be apart, kept away by family, social constructs and, eventually, death, and that is why some people love it whilst many others detest it. As the world’s style of literature and entertainment evolves, modern love stories (or as they are now called, ‘romantic comedies’) are most commonly found at the other end of Shakespeare’s writing spectrum: comedies. A typical Shakespearean comedic ending, just like a contemporary love story, would have a happy ending in which the blessed couple would marry – as we have clearly seen is not the case with Romeo and Juliet. Simply put, the fact that our two suitors did not get their happily ever after sets modern audiences ablaze rather than eliciting dreamy sighs. This is a love affair that bucks traditional stereotypes of love necessarily leading to a happy ending, a volatile entanglement with high stakes that only make the tale all the more intense. Most importantly, the fact that the play ends at the height of their passion ensures the audience never has to witness their falling ‘out of love’ – their story will never tarnish.

Though readers’s impressions are important, it’s also crucial to consider the real-life implications of considering a gory tragedy the greatest love story in history. One such implication is adolescent suicides in the name of love; Victoria Kish-Donovan and Raymond Oswell, two young British lovers, 19 and 24 respectively when they first met, are just two examples of delusional souls who (seemingly unable to be together, and believing it to be a fitting end to true love) made arguably reckless decisions and ended their own lives, leaving behind grieving parents, siblings and children. Despite the fact that their story is not quite as famous, the fact that it is non-fictitious just makes it all the more tragic and taints the undeniable adoration of the many masses for the play. 

Whether or not you consider the ending fitting, or the characters unbelievably spectacular, it is at its heart a shocking and astounding love story that withstood the test of time due to the fact that it astounds with every new page. It accurately shows just how young minds, including the darkest and most undisclosed parts, think, and gives an unforgettable rendition of how teenagers can not only fall in love, but change their worlds as they do it. Repetition of astronomical references (particularly the wishes for a night never-ending) cast them in a sympathetic light: the control they seek over their universe and their story is, alas, just beyond their grasp.

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