Before young William Shakespeare wrote his play about two poetry speaking, hormone-driven teenagers who defy their families' long-standing feud and risk everything to be together, love wasn't even considered a suitable subject for a "tragedy."
Not anymore. Written at the beginning of Shakespeare's career as a playwright, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595) is now considered to be the greatest love story of all time. It wasn't a sleeper hit, either: the play was so popular in its own time that it was published twice during Shakespeare's life (1597 and 1599). Considering the state of printing press technology at the time, that's kind of a big deal.
Shakespeare adapted the storyline from Arthur Brookes' popular Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet (1562), a looong English poem based on a story that dates back to a novella by Masuccio Salernitano called "Mariotto and Giannozza" (1476). But it's not just a remake. Ever heard of the Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet? Yeah, we thought not. Shakespeare made the story immortal—or, at least extremely long-lived. The balcony scene alone (Act 2, Scene 2 in most editions of the play) is one of the most memorable and recognizable moments in all of Western literature.
Despite its fancy pedigree, Romeo and Juliet is also considered to be one of Shakespeare's most accessible works. Along with Julius Caesar, it's typically one of the first Shakespeare plays studied by Western students, who get a dose of Elizabethan theater, Shakespearean language, and, of course, love poetry. And it's not just a school favorite; it's an audience favorite, too. Romeo and Juliet has been performed countless times by world-renowned theater companies and remains an audience favorite.
It's also one of the most adapted plays of all time—Franco Zeffirelli made it into an Oscar winning film in 1968 and the play was also adapted into a Tony Award winning musical, West Side Story (1957). Romeo and Juliet has inspired countless pop lyrics, like Taylor Swift's "Love Story," Dire Straits' "Romeo and Juliet," and The Reflections' doo-wop style "(Just Like ) Romeo and Juliet." Almost any "forbidden love" stories can trace their genealogy back to Romeo and Juliet, from Wuthering Heights to Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga.
But is it really nothing more than a silly blockbuster? Is reading Romeo and Juliet the equivalent of students 400 years from now studying Love Actually www.imdb.com/title/tt0314331? Famous seventeenth-century journaler Samuel Pepys dismissed the plays as "the worst that ever [he] heard in [his] life" (source). And even we have to admit that Romeo seems a lot more like an emo teenager than a man in the grips of immortal passion.
Well, you're not going to wait around for us to tell you, are you?
A lot of people think the balcony scene is about as deep as a twelve-year-old interpretation of true love. Boy meets girl, they stare into each other's eyes and say a lot of poetic things. Cue sappy music. Anybody who makes it past the age of fourteen, of course, realizes that's not what love is about. Swearing undying commitment to each other fifteen minutes after they've met isn't love—it's infatuation.
But Romeo and Juliet is not just about what happens when two hormonal teenagers collide. It's clear to anyone who's watched Engaged and Underagedthat getting what you want out of young love isn't always all it's cracked up to be. The real moral of the story here is that sometimes love is doomed to fail, and that applies no matter how old you are and what time you're living in.
Why? Because no one loves in a vacuum. In the first few weeks of a love affair, you might feel like you and your lovah are in a world of your own—but pretty soon, reality comes crashing back. You've got homework to do, or jobs to go to; parents breathing down your neck, or employers wondering why you keep calling in sick. And that's not even to mention your friends, who've stopped inviting you to hang out.
But let's say that you do stay together. You marry your teenage sweetheart and set up house together. Pretty soon, you've got bills to pay, maybe kids to feed, or you're the one who's waking up at 6AM to take the dog for a walk again.
Our point? Romeo and Juliet is at least partly a tragedy about the clash between private love (you and your honey) and public interest (convenient marriages, or paying bills, or raising a family). We may not have quite the same roadblocks that Romeo and Juliet have, but intense, passionate love can be just as antisocial in the 21st century as it was in the 16th century. How do you negotiate the minefield? Well, hopefully better than Romeo and Juliet did.