My friend Rachel recently wrote (after a conversation with me) about Romeo and Juliet. I quite like what she has to say, but to my mind, she omitted the most interesting thing about the play: the comparison with Othello, that other (and far superior) Shakespeare play about “star-crossed” lovers. Othello is crucial for understanding Romeo and Juliet. Their similarities in terms of their examination of idolatrous versus marital love are illuminating, obviously, but I’m thinking more of their differences, which when you line them up seem almost schematic:
- Othello chooses idolatry, while Romeo does not, that is to say, Othello is a master storyteller, while Romeo is an immature young man who experiences his infatuation as coming from outside.
- Othello’s temptation and tragic fall appear to come from outside, through Iago, while Romeo’s appear to come from a refusal to listen to outside advice.
- Othello’s “point of no return” is his murder of his beloved Desdemona, while Romeo’s is his murder of one deemed responsible for the death of his beloved Juliet.
Let’s posit this reading of Othello (inspired by Stanley Cavell): Othello’s love for Desdemona is really an attempt to control her, to tell a story about her and his relationship with her; Iago represents something present within Othello that appears to come from outside, namely, the necessity for Desdemona to be nothing more than a character in Othello’s psychodrama; and the logical end-point of this internal psychodrama is the murder of the beloved, murdered because only in death can she be made into an object rather than another human being with her own free will. So: Othello is about how the lover can desire to obliterate the person of the beloved in favor of an image.
Then, applying the schematic transformation outlined above, we get this reading of Romeo and Juliet: Romeo’s love of Juliet is something forced on him by society, through the cult of courtly love; his rejection of outside help actually comes from outside, from that cult’s individualism and glorification of rebellion; the logical end-point of society’s telling Romeo to rebel against it, is for Romeo to in fact do so, blaming it for destroying what it told him to idolize. So: Romeo and Juliet is about the way the lover tries to escape from society through the beloved, but in doing so only acts exactly as society has determined he will, worshiping the image of interchangeable beloveds.
Romeo participates in the corruption of civil society in his very attempt to escape it. If this is plausible, I want to say that Othello counts a tragedy, while Romeo and Juliet doesn’t; it’s more of a satire. The distinction being, tragedies are about how the moral failings of individuals lead them to commit terrible deeds, while satires are about how the moral failings of an entire society leads to the destruction of its members. Romeo is culpable, certainly, but his sins are society’s sins, unlike Othello, whose sins are very much his own.
Incidentally, I think this is why in Othello, Desdemona, then Othello, then Iago dies, while in Rome and Juliet, it goes Paris, Romeo, Juliet. It’s about how Shakespeare wants to structure the catharsis offered. In both, the one who dies last matters most. Desdemona and Juliet are both victims, but in Othello the point isn’t the victim, it’s the flawed hero, and the precise location of his flaw: Iago is the source of the problem, and we all have our own internal Iago. In Romeo and Juliet, the stress isn’t on the rebellion against society, or the fact that the rebellion is really self-directed, it’s on the collateral damage: no one kills Juliet, but indirectly they all do. Tragedy is individual diagnosis: “you too could do this deed, and it’s because you are this way. So change.” Satire is communal prognosis: “you all are this way, and look what it leads to. So change.”