love got to do, got to do with it,
What’s love but a second-hand emotion;
What’s love got to do, got to do with it,
Who needs a heart
When a heart can be broken.
Love is a
smoke rais’d with the fume of sighs;
Being purg’d, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes;
Being vex’d, a sea nourish’d with loving tears.
What is it else? A madness most discreet,
A choking gall, and a preserving sweet...
I have lost myself; I am not here:
This is not Romeo, he’s some other where.
… if love be blind,
It best agrees with night. Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron, all in black …
Come, night; come, Romeo …
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
What is love? For Tina Turner it’s
an emotion, second-hand and second-rate. For Romeo, it’s mere madness;
something sweet and bitter on which we choke; something that makes us lose
ourselves and our senses. For Juliet it’s a blindness that makes us prefer the
darkness to the light.
For John Lennon, it’s all we
All we need is love, love, love is
all we need; all we need is tawdry emotion and the bitter-sweet madness that
makes us blind to everything except the darkness of the Night. If this is love,
it can go to Hell. Indeed, if this is love it’s already going there.
But is this love?
For St. Paul, love is the greatest
of all the virtues. For Christ, the two great commandments are to love God and
to love our neighbor. On the deepest theological level, God is love. God and Love are One. It is ironic, therefore, that
Jesus Christ and John Lennon are in apparent agreement. Love is all we need.
The problem is that John Lennon
does not mean the same thing as Jesus Christ when he speaks of love. For Lennon
and his legion of admirers, love is about doing our own thing; it’s about
marching to our own drum. In other words, it’s ultimately self-centered. It’s
about me and not the other. For Christ, love is about laying down our lives for
our friendsand for our enemies. It’s ultimately selfless and self-sacrificial.
It’s about the other and not me. In short, and to put the matter bluntly, the
“love” that Lennon espouses is the very opposite of the love that Christ
practices and preaches.
This primal difference between the
two lovesone true, the other falseis at the heart of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The play satirizes the false understanding
of love, lampooning the language of the Petrarchan love sonnets and the
adulterous finesse of amour courtois.
On a deeper level it highlights the dangers of seeing love as rooted in feeling
or emotion. For a Christian, and let’s not forget that Shakespeare was a
believing Catholic, love is not a feeling but an act of the will in obedience
to a Commandment. It is freely choosing to sacrifice our own interests for the
good of the other. False love, being a slave to feeling and passion, is
essentially irrational; true love, being a free choice in obedience to a
perceived truth, is essentially rational.
Throughout Romeo and
Juliet, Shakespeare connects passionate or libidinous love, rooted
in feeling, with the “gossip Venus” and “her purblind son,” Cupid (Eros). It is
from Venus that we get the adjective venereal, as it
is from Eros that we get the adjective erotic. Romeo’s
“love” for Juliet is both venereal and eroticit is a servant of his libido.
Thus, in the opening lines of the famous balcony scene, Romeo proclaims that
Juliet is the sun, the light by which he sees, eclipsing all other
perspectives. This “sun” is at war with the “envious” moon, equated with Diane,
the goddess of chastity: “Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon.” Romeo desires that Juliet should kill
chastity and cast off her robes of virginity, her “vestal livery”, which “none
but fools do wear”. His description of Juliet’s livery as “vestal” connects her
to the goddess, Vesta, to whom the vestal virgins consecrated their virginity.
In the Christian culture in which Shakespeare was writing, the adjective vestal was applied to any woman of spotless chastity. In
stating that only fools live chastely and in his hopes that Juliet will “kill”
chastity and “cast it [her virginity] off”, Romeo is showing his disdain for
traditional Christian virtue. The same contempt for Christianity was evident in
his desire to have the “sin” transmitted by his and Juliet’s first kiss: “Sin
from my lips? O trespass sweetly urg’d! / Give me my sin again.”
A telling judgment on the nature of
Romeo’s love is given by the Chorus, a neutral and therefore objective voice,
which might be seen as the narrative voice of the playwright himself:
Now old desire doth in his
And young affection gapes to be his heir;
That fair for which love groan’d for and would die,
With tender Juliet match’d, is now not fair.
Now Romeo is belov’d and loves again,
Alike bewitched by the charm of looks.
According to the authoritative judgment of the
Chorus, there is no difference in Romeo’s love for Juliet than with his earlier
love, his “old desire”, for Rosaline. He is “belov’d and loves again, / Alike
bewitched by the charm of looks”. The use of the words “bewitched” and “charm”
are palpably significant. There is nothing healthy in Romeo’s obsessive
infatuation for Juliet, anymore than there had been in the earlier infatuation with
Rosaline. In both cases, he is bewitched “alike,” possessed by “the charm of
looks,” the vanity of the eyes. The only difference is that now he not only
“loves again,” i.e., in the same manner in which he had loved before, but is
“belov’d.” In other words, whereas Rosaline had spurned his amorous advances,
Juliet had succumbed. The difference is not in the “love” that Romeo offers,
which is as false in both cases, but in the response of the object of his
desire. Rosaline retains her chastity; Juliet casts it off.
Once one understands the erotic
nature of the love that Romeo and Juliet have for each other, the tragic
consequences seem almost inevitable. The real heart of the tragedy, the ironic
and paradoxical twist, is that Romeo and Juliet are possessed by the devil that
hides in their possessiveness of each other. Romeo’s madness and Juliet’s
blindness are caused by an obsessive and possessive “love” that excludes any
other love and which exorcises both God and neighbor from their affections.
They are doing their own thing, marching to their own drum, following their
feelings, and to hell with everyone else.
The sobering lesson that Romeo and Juliet teaches is that the thing possessed
possesses the possessor. This is evident in Romeo’s blasphemous remark in which
he exclaims that “heaven is here / Where Juliet lives.” Juliet is Romeo’s alpha
and omega, his beginning and his end. She is the goddess to which he owes the
sum of all his worship. It is for this reason that he chooses this “heaven”
even when it becomes his hell. Lovers of literature will be reminded of how the
love between Romeo and Juliet parallels that between Catherine and Heathcliff
in Wuthering Heights. Compare Romeo’s
remark with the words of Catherine about Heathcliff:
If all perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and, if all else
remained, and he were annihilated, the Universe would turn to a mighty
stranger. I should not seem a part of it … Heathcliff resembles the eternal
rocks … a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliffhe’s always, always in my mindnot as a
pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myselfbut, as my own beingso,
don’t talk of our separation again.
Catherine is possessed by
Heathcliff who is the eternal rock upon which she builds her church. It is,
therefore, not surprising that she confesses to Nelly that she would be
“extremely miserable” in heaven. Her “heaven” is where Heathcliff is and
nothing will separate her from the “love” of her god, not even the love of God.
In similar vein, the “love” of Paolo and Francesca, Dante’s adulterous lovers,
also parallels the love of Romeo and Juliet. Dante’s lovers are as inseparable
in hell as they had been in their lives, making their lustful “heaven” in each
other’s arms, blown hither and thither for all eternity by the winds of
heedless and unsatisfying passion.
In Dante’s Inferno
the lustful are described as “those who make reason slave to appetite” or as
those who let their erotic passions “master reason and good sense.” Like Paolo
and Francesca, Shakespeare’s lovers have overthrown reason in pursuit of
passion. Embracing their madness and blindness, their “love” has surrendered to
the force of feeling. Succumbing to the sway of emotion, they have willfully abandoned
reason to satisfy their irrational appetite. Their love is headless and
therefore heedless of the bad consequences of the bad choices being made.
Shakespeare and Dante, both believing Catholics, are well aware of the danger
of separating love from reason. Love, like faith, must be subject to reason; a
love that denies or defies reason is illicit and is not really love at all.
In some ways, Romeo and
Juliet can be seen as a cautionary commentary on the two great
commandments of Christ that we love the Lord our God and that we love our
neighbor. The two lovers deny the love of God in their deification of each
other, with disastrous consequences, and their respective families deny the
love of neighbor in their vengeful feuding. It could be said that the venereal
and vengeful passions of Verona represent the culture of death in microcosm. A
society that turns its back on Christ and His commandments is on the path to
self-annihilation. If the lessons are not learned and the warnings heeded, the
sinful society will be doomed to be damned.
The lessons are learned by the
Capulets and Montagues at the end of Shakespeare’s play, which bestows a happy
or at least a hopeful ending to the story of the star-crossed lovers. It
remains to be seen whether the culture of death in which we are living will
heed the warnings and learn the lessons.
Let’s end as we began with the
questions posed by Tina Turner: What’s love got to do with it, and who needs a
heart if a heart can be broken?
On the one hand, the love of Romeo
and Juliet has nothing to do with love in the true sense. On the other, it has
everything to do with love because it shows what happens when false loves take
the place of true love. The lesson that Shakespeare teaches is that true love
is necessary. It is like oxygen. Its absence is deadly.
And who needs a heart if a heart
can be broken? The answer to this is simple, though seemingly unknown to the
world in which we live: We all need a heart and we all need
it to be broken! As Oscar Wilde reminds us in The Ballad
of Reading Gaol, “God’s eternal Laws are kind / And break the heart
Oscar Wilde knew more than most
about the blindness and madness of pursuing illicit passions. He hardened his
heart in pursuit of a false “love” that he later called pathological. As one
who embraced the culture of death and then recoiled in horror from it into the
arms of Mother Church, the last words should be his:
Ah! happy they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?