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Hugo Blumenthal © 2004

The Curse of a Tragic Love

by Hugo Blumenthal

Without fear of oversimplification (but maybe stating something too obvious), we could say
that the story of Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous love-stories ever, if not the most
famous. Next to these star-crossed lovers, not many people seem to remember, or even know
about Tristan and Isolda, Leonardo and Eloisa, Dante and Laura, Werther and Carlotta… to
mention just a few names of other times famous characters that shared their love through the
pages of literature.
Such state of things could –certainly– be credited to Shakespeare’s highly dramatic and
poetic skills1; since the same story, left to many other writers, wouldn’t have reach such
success, for sure. As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for Shakespeare, the story would have been
probably forgotten, lost, since today no one seems to remember those other writers before
Shakespeare that in their time made use of the same story. Or to be more precise, if we still
know about some of them is mainly because of Shakespeare.
However, it would be at least quite polemical to say that Shakespeare was a much better
writer than Dante Aligheri or Goethe, or many other great writers that wrote about other great
and tragic loves. In the same way it would be quite polemic to say that Romeo and Juliet is
better than The Divine Comedy, or Werther, or many other classics of literature where all
those tragic lovers await for the readers to come again into life.
So, what’s in this story of Romeo and Juliet that seems so difficult to forget, to the point
that we want it back time after time, in new book editions, re-created in new adaptations for
the stage, as well as more classic ones, closer to the original Victorian performances, as well
as ballet and many films?
The truth is that there doesn’t seem to be anything markedly extraordinary about Romeo
and Juliet: he’s just another young man, she’s just another young girl. (Or could be such
“simplicity” of characters work as one of their appeal?). Curiously enough, probably the best
description of Romeo, or at least the most objective, comes from old Capuleto, who seems to
consider him “to be virtuous and well-governed […]” (I, 5, 67)2 . But all the other features of
Romeo and Juliet have to deducted them from their own words and actions.
Considering Romeo falling so suddenly in love with Juliet (“love at first sight”, as some
people call it), and forgetting that other girl that just a few hours before he thought to be in
love with (though she didn’t correspond him in his passions), he seems variable in his
passions (or in the “object” of them). Or, at the same time than been quite passionate, as his
fervent love declarations manifest, he’s also quite practical, for been able to change the object
of his love so “easily” and still keeping the same passion, or even more, for a girl who
actually could correspond him in his love. Such sudden switch in his feelings could make us

1 “We should expect a dramatic poet like Shakespeare to write his finest poetry in his most dramatic scenes […]
what makes it most dramatic is what makes it most poetic.” T. S. Elliot, Selected Essays, p. 52, quoted by
Nicholas Brooke, Shakespeare Early Tragedies, p. 86.
2 At least, it’s quite unlikely Capuleto would be praying about the qualities of the son of his worse enemy if there

wasn’t enough truth in his words, a truth difficult to negate or dismiss. However, such words are going to look at
least in part incorrect, since Romeo is going to look more carried by his passions (as when coming back to Juliet
after the party, risking his life in it “just” to see her again; or trapped in the snails of honour and revenge after the
death of Mercutio), hardly in correspondence with a “well-governed” behaviour more proper of, say, Paris.
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Hugo Blumenthal © 2004

wonder if Juliet, not been discovered expressing her feelings so openly without her
awareness, could have had a destiny similar to Romeo’s previous love, forgotten for a more
expressive and corresponded love. However, all this is mainly speculations since there’s
certainly the possibility that Romeo has fallen in love this time if we are going to believe in
the truth of his words when he says: “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! / For I
ne’er saw true beauty till this night.” (I, 5, 49).
Which brings us to Juliet, the only descendant of the Capulet family, who apart from her
dubious beauty 3, probably the most evident characteristic is her young age (she’s not yet
fourteen), something that her father uses as an excuse to not to think yet about marriage,
though curiously enough nobody else seems to think the same: obviously not Romeo, or Paris,
but also not her mother (apparently wishing to get rid of her, through her marriage with Paris)
or friar Laurence (who consents to marry her to Romeo)… But also not even Juliet ever
makes use of such argument against marrying Paris. So her age doesn’t seem to be that
important, but used as a clear screen to project the maturity and practicality of her behaviour.4
And for their love, in the case of Romeo at least it seems to come first through vision, as if
it would be mainly Juliet’s beauty what makes him to love her. However, at this point, we
should take into consideration that paradox between love and perfection: Do we love because
the perfection of the other, or that other looks perfect because we love him/her? In other
words, does Romeo love Juliet because of her beauty, or is she beautiful mainly because he
loves her?
The case is that Juliet is more than perfect to Romeo’s eyes, to the point of associate her in
his words to light and brightness (“…she doth teach the torches to burn bright!”), and jewels
(“It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night / As a rich jewel in a Ethiop’s ear”); to truth and
beauty (in contrast with false “beauties”), and richness (“Beauty too rich for use, for earth too
dear…”) (I, 5, 43), among many other attributes.
All these metaphors, similes and other poetic images in Romeo’s love discourse seem to
point towards something like courtly love (though, even today love still seems incapable of
escape completely from such an influence), with Juliet as his lady. But, right from the
beginning, and despite such poetic idealizations, Romeo seems to wish something more, more
than the mere pleasure of contemplating and adoring her, more “physical”: first he wants to
touch her arms, then to kiss her, and from then is quite clearly in his words that he wants to
have sex with her.
In the case of Juliet is difficult to distinguish what could have made her fall in love with
Romeo, since love could have come through her eyes, watching the “dear perfection” of
Romeo; through her ears, listening to his voice (“My ears have yet not drunk a hundred
words / Of thy tongue’s uttering, yet I know the sound.” ( II, 2, 58))5… or because she’s going

3 Of course, we hardly could expect objectivity from Romeo, who’s madly in love with her. But also, if Juliet is
that beautiful, she should have a lot men pretending her, which doesn’t seem to be the case. Of course, she’s still
quite young, but as her mother says, at her age… Other doubts about the objectivity of “beauty” arise after
considering that would Romeo being that perfect as Juliet seems to see him, why has he been rejected by
Rosaline?
4 Against the idealistic Romeo who declares that “…what love can do, that dares love attempt…” (II, 2, 68), she

seems to know better that there would not be any love if he’s discovered and killed by her family. Also, we can
clearly see that while Romeo talks “Th’exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine” (II, 2, 127) (with it’s
sexual connotation, but all the same quite idealistic), Juliet brings out the more practical concerns about marriage
(“If that thy bent of love be honourable, / Thy purpose marriage…” (II, 2, 143)).
5 Also, what’s in Romeo’s voice that make him so recognizable, to the point of being recognized not only by

Juliet (since she’s in love with him, it’s natural she would recognize his most particular attributes), but also as a
Montague by Tybalt (“This, by his voice, should be a Montague.” (I, 5, 53))?
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to feel flattered by Romeo’s guts to require her love directly to her (and especially against
such dangerous conditions, at the heart of the house of his enemies… though she didn’t know
this until later on that night), since Romeo is the only one that goes directly to her to request
her love. The more conventional Paris seems forced to follow the rules, asking first for the
approval of her parents, something that seems to ignore her as human being, ignoring her
feelings and her capacity to take decisions about her own life.
The thing is, since in Juliet discourse doesn’t seem to predominate any of this, we could
just venture he hypothesis that all of this have some importance in her affects. And, as a
matter of fact, if it wasn’t for the dramatic device of the balcony scene, where she could speak
her heart out without properly betraying the “rules” of female behaviour assigned for matters
of love, we all (including Romeo) could have had some difficulties, trying to discover if she
loves Romeo like he loves her. (But since the play is not about their love, but hate or the
consequences of violent hate between two families… Shakespeare had to accelerate their
relationship, making clear at that point that they love each other to make more complete the
tragedy to come).
So, Juliet is practically spared of the role of the almost inaccessible Lady in the game of
seduction, not only for such dramatic device but also because of their circumstances, the
rivalry between their families, that renders their relationship as unthinkable, impossible, to the
point that they have to pull things faster than usual, because they know that every hour could
be the last of their love. However, a big part of the magnificence of this play is in the game of
their mutual seduction, in their interchange of words of love.6 A game where Romeo seems to
have the most active role (he’s the one who attempts things, like kissing her), leaving Juliet to
play the role of resistance, though not completely rejecting but prompting his desire. As a
partner in crime, right from the beginning she accepts the game… as when Romeo situates her
as a saint, conceding Romeo’s devotion to her. She doesn’t seem to attempt anything (“Saints
do not move, though grant for prayer’s sake.” (II, 2, 104)) but implies her acceptation of
Romeo movements, stepping into his game of similes and metaphors, assuming her position
in Romeo’s love. Also, she’s not properly speaking a mute mirror-surface where Romeo could
project his narcissistic ideals. She’s going to speak to him, she’s going to reveal him her
love… Or what she thinks is love.
As the lacanian philosopher Slavoj Zizek points out… “I am truly in love not when I am
simply fascinated by the agalma in the other, but when I experience the other, the object of
love, as frail and lost, as lacking ‘it’, and my love none the less survives this loss.”7 Is in that
sense that we could speak of love here, since, despite the idealization of the other through
language (Romeo compared to a rose, or a god; Juliet compared to an angel, the sun, a
precious jewel, and so on), they both made quite evident to each other that they’re not
completed, full of themselves… that they “lack” something in the other. What’s that lack? It’s
difficult to tell, since they are not –not matter how credible they look– “human beings” in the
full sense of the words, subjects that we could psychoanalyse… and since the time is too short
to provide us with more clues…
Which bring us to the question of time because of the prohibition, or better, the apparent
impossibility of their love, with the implicit, obvious prohibition (since, who could have

6 “If a member of an audience did not understand a word of English, he could appreciate the excitements,
hesitations, assurances, answers and, finally, the shared and almost silent intimacy of this wooing in the very
sound of the words that are spoken: the rhythms express emotion; they suggest physical activity and sexual
involvement.” Brown, p. 51
7 The Zizek Reader, p. 164.

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forth-see a love between members those two families, to make it explicitly prohibited?), that
goes to precipitate them into tragedy, but also giving them the excitement of having
something to fight against… (almost everybody knows the temptations and pleasures of
banned things), making possible –by the way– the drama (almost everybody knows that
happiness doesn’t make good stories… or for that matter, good plays).
So, the impossibility of their love seems to redeem more clearly their relationship as one
of the most perfect loves. In other words, the external prohibition of their circumstances
(apparently external to themselves) seems to make possible the illusion that without this
prohibition such “perfect” is accessible.8 Fantasy that, like a malediction, seems to make us
always wish for some sort of masochistic tragedy, to assume some sort of Romeo and Juliet
roles, in most of our love relationships, longing for such sort of prohibition to give us the
passion, a bigger meaning… As if reality wasn’t enough… What makes us come, again and
again, to this play, in any of his actual forms, to testify once more (and dream once more with)
the possibility of such tragic and perfect love.

Hugo Blumenthal
London, 2004

Bibliography
Nicholas Brooke, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Shakespeare’s Early Tragedies (London: Methuen &
Co., 1979), pp. 80-106.

S. S. Husey, The literary language of Shakespeare (London: Longman, 1982).

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, ed. by Brian Gibbons (England: Thomas Nelson &
Sons, 1998).

The New Collins Concise Dictionary Of The English Language (England: Collins, 1982).

John Russell Brown, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Shakespeare’s Dramatic Style (London: Heinemann,
1972), pp. 39-71.

Slavoj Zizek, ‘Courtly Love, or Woman as Thing’, The Zizek Reader, ed. by Wright and
Wright (UK: Blackwell, 2003), pp. 150-173.

Filmography:
Romeo and Juliet. Dir. William Woodman. Century Home Video. 2002.

8 Against the too simplistic dialectic of prohibition/desire, Zizek remarks that “[…] external hindrances that
thwart our access to the object are there precisely to create the illusion that without them, the object would be
directly accessible – what such hindrances thereby conceal is the inherent impossibility of attaining the object.”
The Zizek Reader, p. 155. Despite that without such difficulties in their way, it’s easy to imagine them loosing
their force, their love becoming sort of banal…
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