Learning from Romeo and Juliet

A few weeks ago, I took down from my bookshelf Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  My intent was to write a column for The Catholic Thing on the contemporary significance of the tragedy of those two star-crossed lovers.  Before I could, the renowned Catholic literary interpreter and critic, Joseph Pearce, published an article on this very theme.  Nonetheless, I decided to write myself, since I want to engage Romeo and Juliet as a means to probe our present Western ethos and our contemporary ecclesial pastoral culture.

Pearce rightly notes that there are two interpretations of Shakespeare’s play. The first, and most prevalent one today, is that Romeo and Juliet are lovers in a most innocent manner. The tragedy is that, because of the hatred between their families, their love ends in heartbreaking death.  But as Pearce rightly perceives, Shakespeare’s intent is to demonstrate that irrational hatred and irrational love both lead to death.  Romeo and Juliet, for example, pursue their love in a mostly erotic, unrestrained fashion – they cannot wait to jump into bed together.  They display no prudential or temperate self-control, and so their impetuous pursuit of a disordered love leads to their tragic demise.

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, there is none, in my judgment, more beautifully written.  The lyrical phrases crafted, the poetic images painted, the passionate dialogues between Romeo and Juliet, and even the ardent soliloquies are tempting and seductive.  Who is not moved by the immortal balcony scene?  Thus, the audience/reader is seduced into claiming as his or her own this deceptive portrayal of love – even to the point of wanting to partake of and to rejoice in the beauty and joy of Romeo’s and Juliet’s expressions of love and sensual pleasures.  By seducing his audience/reader with the beauty of his language and images, however, Shakespeare purposely intends (hopes) to educate his audience/reader – that the seductive beauty of disordered love will lead to their own tragedy.  Only virtuous love leads to the joy of life.

The world, particularly today’s Western culture, has not learned the truth that Shakespeare attempted to teach.  When we look at society today, we behold unbridled sensuality, a sensuality that has lost all reason.  We observe such sensualness in the preponderance of fornication, adultery, and in the ever-present stories of sexual harassment.  We also find it within the various forms of gender theory and all of the forms of sexuality whose bountiful mutations seem to know no limits.  Moreover, much of what is fostered is wrapped in sentimentality – the romantic beauty, joy, vibrancy of all forms of uninhibited sexual pleasure.  It’s often declared: Love is love.  And who can be against love?


The tragedy, as Shakespeare well knew, is that such seductive, sensual sentimentality leads to death – sometimes physical death, but always to spiritual death.  Those who engage in such irrational acts of love become enslaved to a lifestyle that possesses neither beauty, nor joy, nor life.  Rather, such sexual activity breeds despair, hopelessness, and depression – even when, in arrogant rebellion, it demands that it not only be affirmed but also advanced, even codified in law.  The truth of the Gospel is not only foreign to such a lifestyle, but it cannot be tolerated by such a lifestyle, for it is inimical to the demonic world in which many live.

What may be even more tragic is that many in the Church have themselves been seduced by this sentimental, irrational sensuality.  In Shakespeare’s play, Friar Lawrence plays a pivotal role. He is said to be a good and holy man. At one point he cautiously declares to Romeo: “Thou art wedded to Calamity.” Yet in the end, he himself becomes captivated by Romeo and Juliet’s reckless love, and so furthers their frantic and desperate designs.  He provides the potion that will feign Juliet’s death, a death that Romeo believes to be real. He, in turn, purchases real poison and consumes it beside Juliet’s supposed dead body. When Juliet awakes, she finds Romeo dead, and she takes his knife and stabs herself. Friar Lawrence’s “pastoral strategy” directly leads to the tragic deaths of both Romeo and Juliet.

There are not a few priests, bishops, and cardinals who not only evade addressing the sins of their flock (in what they deem pastoral sensitivity), but actually further the disordered sensuality that is prevalent today. In their false sense of kindness and understanding, and in an attempt to ease consciences and bring contentment, they accompany their flock down the sinful road that leads inevitably to death.  What’s most tragic is that they claim to be following the lead and example of the present pope.  They want to be as merciful as he is merciful.

Thus, for example, it’s intimated in Amoris Laetitia that those in irregular marital unions, that is, those divorced and remarried, may rightly receive the Eucharist. Likewise, we find the pontiff sending a handwritten letter to a priest thanking him for his pastoral ministry to the gay and lesbian community, a ministry that flaunts homosexual and gender-diverse lifestyles. It’s becoming more and more common for priests and bishops to advocate the blessing of same-sex unions.  When those in ecclesial authority think and act in such a manner, they are Friar Lawrences of our day. With mistaken kindness and mercy, they are providing the poison that will spiritually kill their erring sheep.

I’ve focused here exclusively on the irrational excesses of mistaken sexual love. There are, obviously, other erroneous, senseless obsessions within our world today.  The only rational cure for all such iniquities is the Gospel.  Only Jesus can free us from sin and its curse of death.  Only in Jesus, through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, can we live virtuous lives as children of the Father.  To preach the Gospel today may precipitate persecution and death, as Jesus himself forewarned.  Yet martyrdom is imbued with authentic love – love of Jesus and of neighbor, and so bears the fruit of life.  Although there “never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo,” there is no story of more joy than this of Jesus and his holy souls.


*Image: Romeo and Juliet: The Tomb Scene by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1790 [Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, England]

Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, a prolific writer and one of the most prominent living theologians, is a former member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. His newest book is the third volume of Jesus Becoming Jesus: A Theological Interpretation of the Gospel of John: The Book of Glory and the Passion and Resurrection Narratives.