Challenges to Established Orders by Love-Based Experiments (with William Shakespeare’s ROMEO AND JULIET as a Perpetually Vexing Case in Point)

George Anastaplo


            Alliances (both contemplated and consummated) are critical throughout William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. They can assert themselves in family feuds that have long disrupted the peace of Verona. The Prince finds it hard, as do local religious authorities, to moderate long-simmering animosities.

Such passions seem to be glorified in venerable titles of nobility. They, in turn, usually seem to depend on substantial property allocations, at least in these circumstances. Such allocations support retainers expected to serve distinguished families across generations.

All of this can seem natural, if not even divinely-ordained, to those long accustomed to these arrangements. Such powers and the attendant prerogatives may never be explicitly questioned. But there are “forces” at work that can make effective control of passions (if not even the overall system itself) difficult to maintain.


            Thus, there is the youthful Romeo who seems determined to be a lover. His efforts can be made more exciting by being directed toward women “on the other side” in the longstanding social divide in the city. His major efforts at the outset of the play are known to be with a view to Rosalind, a beauty in the rival camp in Verona.

We do not get to know her. We may even wonder how well he had ever known her. Certainly, he does not seem to have figured significantly in her calculations.

Indeed, it can be wondered whether she ever sensed how critical she had once been in his calculations. What does this suggest about how seriously such apparently meaningful relations should be taken? Who else, it can even be wondered, had been moved by her in the way Romeo had been, with still other disturbing consequences unknown both to her and to us?


            However all this may be, it seems to be suggested, JULIET is special. Once SHE is seen — not either heard of or otherwise learned about? – no one else matters to Romeo. Her response to Romeo seems similarly unreserved and all-encompassing.

Of course, others had noticed Juliet’s beauty. But it seems that she did for Romeo – for him personally and deeply – something no one else ever had. The rest of “the world” could at once become inconsequential for him. Does her response to Romeo itself reflect her awareness that no one had ever regarded her as he does?

Is there even a form of worship exhibited here that she may consider herself exalted by? Is he, in turn, encouraged that a goddess responds thus to him? The aura of the mystery of an authoritative Revelation may be evident here.


            But also evident is how much everyday (even humdrum) understandings about civic obligations underlie expectations about love relations. We are accustomed in such matters to restrictions based on age, family ties, and spiritual allegiances. Our entire love-managing system can seem curiously disciplined, considering how much can sometimes be made of the sovereignty of love.

The spiritual assumptions of one’s time or place may help shape sensibilities for love relations. It can be wondered, of course, how much familiar Western appetites and practices (including with respect to property) have been shaped by two millennia of Christian instruction. It can also be wondered how we should regard the questionable forms of love encountered from time to time today in the Western World.

But short of extreme measures – whether in the form of inventive appetites or in the form of an obsessive asceticism– there are the attitudes we associate with routine (that is, Western) individualism. One form this can take is a highly productive market economy. Another form is the general understanding that one is left, at least in the Western World, remarkably free to make (and, to a lesser degree, to un-make) love relations.


We can be accustomed to tales of what Love can do to and for us. Thus, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra can advertise a December 2013 program in this fashion,

From the moment that composer Hector Berlioz saw actress Harriet Smithson, he was hopelessly lovestruck. In an opiate-fueled frenzy, he created his greatest masterpiece, Symphonie Fantastique, to express his unrequited love.

Much the same can be said of Romeo’s love for Juliet, a mostly “unrequited love” which too can inspire another “masterpiece.”

Still, is there not at the heart of the perpetually engaging story of Romeo and Juliet a profound foolishness? Should it not be recognized as obviously appalling that two attractive youngsters should deliberately resort to suicide? In each case, it is insisted that life is not worth living if the beloved should not remain immediately available.

And yet, in each case, the indispensable Beloved was evidently unknown to the lover a few days before. At that time, life itself was very much to be treasured, however troubled it may have at times appeared. Obviously in need of application here is the guidance provided by a Sense of Proportion (guidance that can be confirmed by Bottom’s observation to Titania, “[A]nd yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together now-a-days…”).


            Are not lovers such as Juliet and Romeo apt to be deeply deluded? Do they express in an extreme form the delusions that have found expression in family feuds and civic unrest? And what (it can even be wondered) did the well-intentioned Clergy exhibited here not understand?

Particularly troubling can be the reduced (if not even obsessive) self-centeredness that the Lover is driven by. True, this drive can be proclaimed to be a Dedication to the Other. But that Other’s significance usually depends on the would-be Lover’s access thereto.

Thus, it can be suspected, the Other typically exists only as a plausible objective for the Lover. Thus, also, there is a limit — at least among the sane — about one’s dedication to those conjured up in dreams. Then, of course, there are the Beloveds one encounters in the Stories of others.


            One can recognize, when one stops to think about it, that the allegiances and resources one has are in large part due to chance. Much the same can be of the language and the “personality” (or temperament) one has. Particularly variable here are spiritual attachments.

What sense can it make, therefore, that one (whether male or female) should kill oneself because one cannot expect to have next week the person one did not even know existed last week? What duty does one have in such circumstances toward those with whom one has already developed intimate ties over decades? Is there not something grotesque in making as much of the Moment as both Juliet and Romeo are determined to do?

Indeed, should it not be wondered whether the self-centeredness exhibited here should even make one someone to be avoided, not cherished? What does it say about any audience that can be caught up by such a radical devotion to what happens to appear to be one’s own? We may even dare to wonder whether any playwright who caters to such fancies tends to corrupt those whom he thus beguiles.


                        What love, then, should be taken seriously – and to what effect? The passions of the moment, we can observe, do readily come and go. It can sometimes be wondered afterwards, “What could I have been thinking when caught up in that passion?”

Much more sensible, and far more apt to endure, is the love between parent and child — and, to a lesser extent perhaps, between siblings. Related to these attachments, although less natural, are the civic obligation one develops. Such relations can even come to seem family-like in their intimacy.

Of course, lovers can develop enduring attachments across decades, but more often than not (at least among us today) those attachments are not apt to be as solid as those between parent and child. Even so, enduring attachments can come to be celebrated, sometimes (depending on time and place) as confirming a relation implicit in the original infatuation. Consider, for example, Robert Burns’s John Anderson: My Jo:

 John Anderson, my jo, John,
When we were first acquent;
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonie brow was brent;
But now your brow is bald, John,
Your locks are like the snow;
But blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson, my jo.

John Anderson, my jo, John,
We clamb the hill thegither;
And mony a cantie day, John,
We’ve had wi’ ane anither:
Now we maun totter down, John,
And hand in hand we’ll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot,
John Anderson, my jo.


            However all this may be, should it not be recognized that there is something dreadfully unsound (to say the least) about an understanding of love (as well as of allegiances) that can produce the corpses of the attractive youngsters encountered in Romeo and Juliet? What are the illusions upon which depend the appetites and the despair repeatedly displayed in this play? And is there not something deeply misguided in audiences drawn to such stories?

Our two lovers kill themselves, each believing at the time that the other is already dead. What is gained by such self-sacrifice? Are such deeds beautiful acts of devotion — or are they instead somehow ugly acts of revenge?

In each case, the Lover who could best treasure the memory of the Beloved is no longer to be among the living. The final act of ruthless mutual obliteration here is performed by Juliet. It is perhaps indicative of the radical self-centeredness promoted by this play that (so far as I know) it is never wondered, by anyone either in the play or among centuries of its observers, whether Juliet in killing herself may not have killed also any trace in her (and hence part of a potential embryo) of the marriage Romeo and she had just consummated.

These remarks were prepared for the November 18, 2013 meeting of George Anastaplo’s year-long William Shakespeare seminar for the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, The University of Chicago. They should be included in his Reflections on Property, Taxes, and the Constitution (the ninth volume of a contemplated ten-volume Reflections series, five volumes of which have been published as of 2013).

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