I prayed to God throughout high school that I would get my heart broken at least once before I met my forever. I scorned the idea of marrying my first love—what a boring life! I wanted depth; I wanted breadth; and I thought that romantic heartbreak was integral to the full human experience.
Very truly I tell you, ask and you shall receive. Now that my heart has indeed been broken, I ask the high heavens every night what went so wrong in my seemingly-idyllic childhood that I would form such a misguided prayer request. Granted, I wore ripped jeans under a pink skirt in fourth grade and whole-heartedly believed that I looked good. God and all His angels should’ve seen that as a warning to take my requests with a grain of salt.
About a month ago, I began to suspect that my desire for heartbreak was somehow related to my childhood obsession with Romeo and Juliet. It started at the tender age of seven, when I watched the 1968 film adaptation of the play. I was struck by the ending—in my naivete, Romeo and Juliet’s deaths embodied to me a love so powerful that it transcended all considerations of the self. The reason for my fascination evolved as I grew. By sixth grade, I deeply admired the courage that love inspired in Romeo and Juliet to break all social constraints. Trying to read the play was a funny thing: I understood each individual word, yet they collectively formed a mass of plain gibberish. I gave up after ten pages. Regardless, I memorized Juliet’s “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo” monologue [i] for no other reason than to prepare myself for a spontaneous performance, as if to publicly declare at any given moment, “Look! Look what a hopeless romantic I am!”
Indeed, Romeo and Juliet have become cultural icons for great love. We see this exemplified by Taylor Swift’s “Love Story,” the second song ever in history to have two separate renditions rank #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. The song recounts the narrative with one important difference: the ending indicates that Romeo obtains the approval of Juliet’s father for their marriage. The same kind of reframing occurs in movies like Warm Bodies. It follows the developing relationship between a zombie and a human, appropriately named R and Julie, some years after the start of a zombie apocalypse. As their love for each other grows, R gradually regains his human qualities. R and Julie eventually unite enough zombies and humans to end the apocalypse for good, winning themselves not only a military victory but a happy ending as well.
On their own, “Love Story” and Warm Bodies express the idea that love can conquer all, which isn’t necessarily a problematic statement. The issue is that these modern interpretations explicitly reference Romeo and Juliet, a story familiar to all; and as a result, the connotations tied to their happy endings transfer over to the original narrative. This glamorizes the relationship between Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as successful and their love as desirable. Even Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which remains true to Shakespeare’s script, alters the tone of the play by exaggerating its scenes to the point of camp: the movie opens with a gas station set on fire from an altercation between the two rival clans; Romeo sees Juliet for the first time through a fish tank in a psychedelic, dream-like state; they die in the golden light of a magnificent candle-lit cathedral. Luhrmann’s film creates a sense of opulence surrounding the two characters, thereby appealing to the audience’s visceral senses to produce a glamorizing effect.
Nevertheless, the most compelling evidence for the glamorization of Romeo and Juliet in our culture has nothing to do with music or film—rather, it’s the sheer number of Romeo and Juliet-themed weddings and photoshoots you can find with a simple Google search. As beautiful as they look, Shakespeare just might bite his thumb at them if he were still alive to see. For one, the fact that Romeo and Juliet are tragic heroes serves to hint that the play criticizes, rather than celebrates, the young lovers. So what happened between then and now? What caused us to develop such a criminal misinterpretation of the play? I argue that changing societal attitudes towards suicide is the culprit.
England has a robust history of demonizing suicide. The Christian view of suicide as a grave violation of divine commandment originates from 5th-century writings of Saint Augustine. During the Elizabethan era, both the church and the law classified the act of killing oneself as a subtype of murder. Suicide was therefore more than religious anathema—it was also a punishable crime. In fact, the term “suicide” appeared in the 1630s, roughly 30 years after the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign; prior to then, there existed no words for self-inflicted death that did not describe the perpetrator as either a criminal or a madman. Posthumously convicted “self-murderers,” deemed felons de se (“felons of the self”) by a coroner’s jury, were required to forfeit all personal belongings to the crown. In addition to the severe financial penalties, they were also denied a traditional Christian burial. They instead were given the honor of having their bodies taken to a public road, laid face down in the grave, and driven through with a wooden stake. People thought that these punitive rites would protect the community against the restless, malicious spirits of those who committed suicide. Religious leaders reinforced these superstitious beliefs by teaching that suicide was literally inspired by the Devil. This translated back into the law: coroners would officially report “the instigation of Satan” as the cause of a suicidal death, a practice that lasted at least until the late 17th century.
With this cultural context in mind, an Elizabethan audience would have considered Romeo and Juliet’s joint fate to be utterly repulsive—after all, no one finds financial and spiritual bankruptcy attractive. More importantly, Shakespeare makes it clear that their own character flaws resulted in their deaths. Romeo, for example, repeatedly demonstrates his excessive impulsivity. As a final showcase of this flaw, he prematurely concludes that Juliet is already dead. Right before he drinks the poison, he ironically points out that she doesn’t look dead at all:
O my love, my wife,
Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty.
Thou art not conquered. Beauty’s ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,
And death’s pale flag is not advanced there. [ii]
I remember mentally cursing out Romeo after reading this scene in grade nine. He really couldn’t wait another minute? Stupid! An Elizabethan audience likely thought the same. At this point, Romeo is clearly an example of what not to do.
Moreover, the closing scene focuses so intensely on the grief of two devastated fathers that it leaves little room for glorified imaginings of “two lovers united in death.” Shortly after entering with his wife, Capulet cries: “O heavens! O wife, look how our daughter bleeds!” [iii]. Montague then enters the scene alone, for his wife had suddenly passed away that night: “O thou untaught! What manners is in this,/ To press before thy father to a grave?” [iv]. The image of two fathers, who are very much living, standing before their children, who are very much dead, leaves the audience with a profound sense of loss.
I find Montague’s line to be especially heartbreaking. The way he scolds Romeo, even in death, evokes a tenderness that only exists as a product of intimacy and regret. Heartwrenchingly, his line seems to echo in the emptiness that Romeo’s presence once filled. Montague then pledges to build a gold statue of Juliet in her memory. Far from being satisfactory, the gold statue feels worthless in comparison to the real Juliet. It seems to heighten the pain of knowing that she has forever ceased to be, even though she could have been saved.
Decades after Romeo and Juliet premiered, attitudes towards suicide began to shift. The coroner’s juries, which determined whether someone was criminally guilty of suicide, functioned as one loci of change. These judicial bodies consisted of local townsfolk—friends, neighbors, and acquaintances with those they tried—and they saw first-hand how the suicide of one person could send an entire family into unsalvageable poverty. By 1660, there was widespread resentment over the financial punishment of forfeiture; it seemed like yet another dirty trick for the elite to profit off the poor. Forfeiture also interfered with traditional rules of inheritance, a custom that these townsfolk deeply revered. To purposefully evade the law, convictions of felons de se grew increasingly rare. Instead, coroner’s juries would give the verdict of non compos mentis, or the insanity defense, so that the posthumous defendant would be spared of any punishment.
The prevalence of non compos metis rulings continued to rise for the next century. By the 1830s, suicide was ruled as a result of insanity in 97% of cases. Although this shift originated from fiscal self-interest, it implicitly suggested that suicide was a medical issue, rather than a demonic attack. It was no longer necessary to condemn those who had committed suicide as diabolical; suicide became more excusable. Granted, suicide was still seen as deeply problematic, but this new framing created enough space for open discussion on the topic.
It was during the late 18th century that suicide started gaining the idealized shimmer we so often associate with the ending of Romeo and Juliet. This went in two separate directions. One facet of Romantic-era suicide emphasized irrationality and excessive emotion. Thomas Chatteron, who killed himself right before his eighteenth birthday, became the archetype for the tortured, starving poet when prominent writers like William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Lord Byron took him as the embodiment of Romantic tragedy. In this light, suicide became sentimental, pitiable, and attractive. The fictional suicide of Goethe’s young protagonist in his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther famously sparked a wave of “copycat deaths” across Europe, a phenomenon aptly termed “Werthermania.”
The other facet of Romantic suicide stressed rationality and intentionality. Writers began using suicide to make political statements against oppression, especially with regard to slavery and sexism. Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, for example, defended slave suicide as a form of liberation in Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery (1787): “It is the duty of every man to deliver himself from the rogues and villains if he can […] Some of the last parcel [of slaves], when they saw the fate of their companions, made their escape […] by jumping overboard.” Many white abolitionists adopted this characterization and referenced Roman republicans like Cato to reinforce suicide as an honorable act. Women’s rights activists, particularly Mary Wollstonecraft, then co-opted these narratives to decry the societal constraints on female autonomy. (White feminism, anybody? Appropriately, recent scholars have been quick to point out that Wollstonecraft was extremely mistaken in believing that the misery of white women could possibly compare to the suffering of enslaved peoples.) Wollstonecraft portrayed the female body as a prison enabling men to rule over women; by destroying the body via suicide, women are able to free themselves from tyranny. In short, suicide became the ultimate manifestation of a human mind rational enough to choose freedom and courageous enough to give up life for it.
Such understandings of suicide had two significant implications. First, they shifted the blame away from the individual. Second, they linked suicide to virtue. It is through these lens that Romeo and Juliet became romanticized a couple hundred years later.
“If their families weren’t so petty,” we might think today, “then there would’ve been no feud, and Romeo and Juliet wouldn’t have died!”
“Yet even in the face of such social obstacles,” we might continue, “Romeo and Juliet would rather be united in death than apart in life. Their love must have been so strong!”
It’s easy to conflate passion for love; it’s easier still to confuse a dedicated relationship for a healthy one. I think my own fascination with heartbreak was a part of the legacy left by Romantic influences. After all, when pain and self-destruction are seen as transcendent and noble, it makes sense that I would want to seek out those experiences. While it’s true that Romeo and Juliet doesn’t necessarily encourage us to actively pursue trauma, it’s equally true that our current cultural interpretation of it does.
When Netflix released Thirteen Reasons Why, the Internet erupted with backlash from professionals and the public alike. They were concerned that the show promotes suicide by framing it as a productive solution to adolescent problems. Just like how Shakespeare wasn’t inherently wrong to depict an all-consuming love, I don’t think it’s inherently problematic for the media to depict suicide either. There are, however, some key questions we must ask: how are we depicting suicide, and what are we shaping it into? Critics of Thirteen Reasons Why might say that the show endorses suicide as an effective tool for obtaining attention and revenge. This is clearly bad. Nonetheless, literature has proven itself mighty in its ability to transform our cultural interpretations of suicide. Perhaps we can use this to champion a new understanding of suicide that both discourages it and destigmatizes it.
I don’t regret any of the choices that I made while under the influence of naive romanticism. My experiences have amounted to who I am today, and I rather like the person I’ve become (cliché, I know). Despite my self-acceptance, I do wonder whether I could’ve saved myself a good bit of baggage had I simply learned earlier that the pain we see on paper and screens lose all its glitter in real life. Maybe then, Romeo and Juliet would’ve been a way for me to gain insight on heartbreak instead of a reason to want it. I recognize now that the former holds a lot more value.
[i] Shakespeare 2.2.33-49
[ii] Shakespeare 5.3.91-96
[iii] Shakespeare 5.3.202
[iv] Shakespeare 5.3.214-215
- Faubert, Michelle. “The Fictional Suicides of Mary Wollstonecraft.” Literature Compass, vol. 12, no. 12, 2015, pp. 652–659., doi:10.1111/lic3.12282.
- MacDonald, Michael. “The Secularization of Suicide in England 1660-1800.” Past & Present, 111, 1986, pp. 50–100. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/650502. Accessed 28 Feb. 2021.
- Pfeiffer, Lee. “Romeo and Juliet.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 15 Dec. 2009, www.britannica.com/topic/Romeo-and-Juliet-film-1968.
- Shakespeare, William, and René Weis. Romeo and Juliet. Arden Shakespeare, 2012.
- “13 Reasons Why.” Rotten Tomatoes, www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/13_reasons_why.
- “Warm Bodies (2013).” Rotten Tomatoes, www.rottentomatoes.com/m/warm_bodies.
- “William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet (1996).” Rotten Tomatoes, www.rottentomatoes.com/m/william_shakespeares_romeo_and_juliet.
- Wills, Matthew. “The Posthumous Mystique of Thomas Chatterton.” JSTOR Daily, ITHAKA, 13 May 2019, daily.jstor.org/the-posthumous-mystique-of-thomas-chatterton/.