A Masterpiece for all cultures: Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet is a masterpiece by William Shakespeare. It's a tragedy about love and rivalry, and it has its proud place among the most famous works written by the Bard. Even today it is still read and represented widely in many different languages and countries. It was put on screen several times over. The impact this play has on the world's culture is hard to exaggerate in culture and the media. The story and the characters are so iconic and well known, the stuff of legend, which is why it's a very safe bet to think that every person living in the western world today knows at least the essentials about the characters and the play's story.
This is a tragedy. It's a painful tale in which two sincere lovers lose their fight against the world to remain together and end up dead. The odds are not in their favor from the very beginning, the environment, family interests, and all factors become formidable obstacles they cannot surmount in the end, hard as they tried. There is an expression coined to describe a situation like theirs, "star-crossed lovers." This refers to lovers who find themselves in a situation in which most elements are in the way of their coming together. The play's main characters are famously called Romeo and Juliet, and they belong to different families that have a very old vendetta against each other. This is a story about impossible, forbidden love and it's become a staple in popular culture. This remains the quintessential love story in human history. Romeo and Juliet are thought to be Shakespeare's better-known characters and, indeed, you will find people in this world who cannot recognize the name of William Shakespeare but who will still know something about Romeo and Juliet and their plight.
As history went by, Romeo and Juliet also became cultural staples in films as much as in literature. The account of the romance has become available in several different ways. Their story keeps capturing the popular imagination because people feel they can understand them from many different points of view and even many different cultures. At this point, it is so famous and well known that it can seem to be commonplace or even trivial. But we should take a moment to stop and think about the way in which this play came across to Shakespeare's audience centuries ago. Were they able to internalize Romeo and Juliet's plight or was it just a bit of fun for them to see these things happen on stage? We can answer this question by looking at the way that this kind of tragic love story has remained a cultural symbol over the centuries without stop.
At the time Shakespeare's theatre company was doing this play at The Globe it was thought to be popular entertainment, something aimed at the passions of the audience and nothing more. When you have an audience, reading or sitting people in a theatre, nothing will engage them more deeply than a tragic love story. That single fact makes Romeo and Juliet's story personal, it gives it natural depth for readers and watchers, at some level when you explore this play you find that it's already familiar to you even tho you had not read it in full detail before, seen the movies, or seen the play.
It happens most frequently that people don't read the play's text, or see the movies, or attend an actual play. They choose something more manageable, like a lecture summary or a written summary or some other alternatives that require less time, effort, and attention. This happens as well with Don Quijote de la Mancha, Les Misérables, and most other classic books, plays, even poems. They are so familiar just by hearsay that knowing something about them already becomes an obstacle to understanding them deeply instead of an advantage. But some critics would argue that this is precisely what a being a classic means.
The way in which people answer to Romeo and Juliet's love story is a reflection of how their society thinks about relationships and love and the general ingredients and conditions that make them or break them. For Romeo and Juliet, it's a long-standing family feud that both allows them to meet but forces them to be apart as well. It both fuels and defines the tragedy in those two ways. And that allows Shakespeare to create a play that can be adapted to many different contexts, cultural, historical, and symbolical.
Knowing all that, it behooves us to examine Shakespeare's play considering all those different contexts that surround it. Being as classic and familiar as it is, the play continues to be rich in diverging meanings. Love and conflict are, for sure, the most apparent subjects in the play. But a little though on cultural context will allow us to see far beyond that easily.