By Janet Allen, Executive Artistic Director
One need look no farther than the headlines of any current news source to know that teen suicide is again on the climb, making Romeo and Juliet a relevant and necessary piece of theatrical literature in our time. Why do young people take their own lives? Often this has to do with a fundamental misunderstanding, as it does in this play. Romeo and Juliet’s misunderstanding springs from a letter that goes undelivered, but it is emblematic of so many misunderstandings that plague our young people today: the letter could easily be substituted for a text or tweet or email gone wrong. It is too easy to find contemporary resonance in this ancient play.
We know that what leads to Romeo and Juliet’s collective demise is a feud between their families. The play doesn’t iterate how this feud came to pass or who started it—only that when members of the families meet, it soon turns to bloodshed. Here Shakespeare signifies how human division becomes so easily ingrained: whether it is differences of race, or socio-economics, or class, or religion, humans are very good at identifying the “other” and assuming the worst of anyone who I is or seems to be part of that “other” group. Americans are particularly good at this division at present, and have further refined the lines of supposed “otherness” to include those who are differently educated or those who live differently. In our own state, the divisions are as much urban or rural, city or small town, college educated or not, as they are racial or economic. We are at no loss to find differences from people who, for one reason or another, we deem to threaten our way of life. That we do so keeps us from understanding individuals for themselves; rather we see them as emblems of their group identity.
Romeo and Juliet look past those “other” stigmas in an instant: they see each other as individuals, unique beings, not as members of a rival family or group. Love blinds them to differences. It also, in Shakespeare’s hands, makes them poets. Their love literally ennobles their speech, lifting it to dizzying heights of metaphor and wisdom. Their love also leads them to higher purpose: they want to mend their warring families through their love, to teach healing and forgiveness. This is why they are so moving to us more than 400 years after Shakespeare created them: they are wiser than their elders and have deeper wells of compassion and forgiveness. They are wiser than us.
None of this is to suggest that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is to be seen merely as a sociological tract; of course not. It exists as a great flight of poetry, with some of Shakespeare’s best wrought characters and most breathtaking plot. Consequently, it is a play that we need to see several times in our lives: first when we are perhaps even younger than the doomed lovers; then at their age, when the play can sweep us off our feet; then as young adults reflecting on the loss of innocence that we, too, needed in order to grow; then as parents who bear the terrible burden of overlooking our children’s heart struggles; then as elders whose wisdom should be leading our communities out of the narrow confines of teaching hate to our children. We each fall on this continuum somewhere. Romeo and Juliet reminds us that we must take responsibility for teaching our children to value life and understanding over hate and division. Only then, perhaps, can we keep from losing our children to death at their own hands.
The IRT produces top-quality, professional theatre that engages, surprises, challenges and entertains people throughout their lifetimes, helping to build a vital and vibrant community.
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