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." Written at the beginning of Shakespeare's career as a playwright (around the time he wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream), The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595) is now considered to be the greatest love story of all time. According to famous literary critic Harold Bloom, Romeo and Juliet "is unmatched, in Shakespeare and in the world's literature, as a vision of uncompromising mutual love that perishes of its own idealism and intensity" (Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, 197). 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 – it's right up there with Hamlet holding Yorick's skull in the graveyard.
The play was wildly popular in its own time – it was published twice during Shakespeare's life (1597 and 1599), which was kind of a big deal, given that the printing press was nothing like our current technology. 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).
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 are introduced to the conventions of Elizabethan theater and also get a healthy dose of love poetry, which Shakespeare peppers throughout Romeo and Juliet.
Some critics, like famous seventeenth-century journaler Samuel Pepys, have refused to take Romeo and Juliet seriously. (Let's face it, the play is often dismissed as Shakespeare's trashy blockbuster.) Despite Pepys's assertion that Romeo and Juliet "is a play of itself the worst that ever [he] heard in [his] life, and the worst acted that ever [he] saw these people do" (source), Romeo and Juliet has been performed countless times by world renowned theater companies and remains an audience favorite. It is 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-wap style "(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet."
Of course, Romeo and Juliet is the template for all literary stories about socially "forbidden" love, including The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights, and, more recently (and controversially), Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga.
A lot of people think the balcony scene is about as deep as a twelve-year-old interpretation of true love. Boy meets girl, cue sappy music. They stare into each other's eyes and say a lot of poetic things. Anybody who makes it past the age of fourteen, of course, realizes that's not what love is about. Romeo and Juliet's interaction can seem pretty shallow. They're swearing that they love each other fifteen minutes after they've met. That's not love – it's infatuation.
But Romeo and Juliet is not just about what happens when two hormonal teenagers collide. It's clear to anyone that's watched Engaged and Underaged that 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.
This story is relevant as a cautionary tale to anyone that's ever been in love – next time you're fresh out of a breakup and see some young couple kissing at the bus stop, you can take solace in the thought that they're likely to break up soon via text message. At the end of the day, young love isn't worth killing yourself over. Love like Romeo and Juliet's just doesn't happen in real life. If you fall into the mythical half of society that is happily married, you might take away the good feeling that passion is delightful but is useless without communication. Shakespeare reminds us that lack of communication, or communicating through your church representatives, might end up in badly timed double suicide.
It's also important to remember that Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, not a romance. Fine, love hits our two young heroes hard, but they act rashly, and it costs them their lives. They live in a time fraught with tension, and as there's no omnipotent Bono-figure to call in for conflict resolution, all the odds are against them. In Shakespeare, as in life, everything is tragic when times are tragic, and even love can't be expected to solve every problem. You can't buy the world a Coke, and you can't blaze through your own life living only on love. Romeo and Juliet moves us because we hope to feel the love that these two feel, but it stays with us because we're jarred by the poignancy of their failure and loss. For all the good strategizing, great sex, and poignant speeches, Romeo and Juliet is a simple lesson that love doesn't conquer all. But it has the potential to conquer each of us. We can take solace in our shared misery or delight here, but the most important thing is that, whatever we feel, we're all feeling it. Cold comfort, but comfort nonetheless.