One of my all-time favorite works of fiction is Romeo and Juliet. Measured in terms of complexity, profundity, and pure poetry, it’s probably not as good as some of Shakespeare’s other works–Hamlet, say, or King Lear, or even Much Ado about Nothing. But its power is still undeniable. Scholars think it’s Shakespeare’s most-performed play, and it’s been adapted into forms ranging from Broadway musical to Disney-style animated feature (and that’s just in the last few decades).
Two things in particular about the play have always struck me:
- At the start, the Chorus tells the audience exactly what’s going to happen at the end: “two star-crossed lovers take their lives.” Yet we can’t help but spend the intervening two hours rooting for Romeo and Juliet–as if this time, at long last, the play might end differently than it has for the last four centuries.
- The play is filled with comedy–and in many ways is structured as if it were a comedy. Even as he’s dying, Mercutio jokes, “tomorrow I will be a grave man.” And Shakespeare runs his star-crossed lovers through a series of misadventures and near misses (a secret wedding, a narrowly thwarted rendezvous, a fake death) that typically turn up in the comedies, rather than the tragedies, of his era.
Obviously, these two points are related. One way Shakespeare keeps us rooting for Romeo and Juliet is by employing dramatic structures that are consistent with romantic comedy. He makes us believe the story will find a way to work things out for them–because it just feels like that sort of story.
In this case, Shakespeare is teasing us. But I think his tease has a deeper lesson to teach: namely, that the difference between comedy and tragedy is often slight. It’s no greater than, say, the difference between a message arriving just in time and the same message arriving just a moment too late. It’s no greater than the difference between a sleeping potion that lasts for several days and actual poison. It’s no greater than the difference between “mere” infatuation and actual love at first sight.
And, as is the case with each of the pairings above, the difference is really only apparent if you’re standing in a position outside the action. From their position inside the play, Romeo and Juliet can’t see that they’re tumbling toward a tragic end. They continue to believe in their own comedic possibility–that their love’s labors will not be lost. Neither loses faith until Romeo finds Juliet in a tomb and believes–based on all that he can see, but wrongly (and ironically)–that she is dead. In fact, the tragedy becomes most biting precisely in this moment, when Romeo stops believing in his own happy ending even as we, the audience, know it still could be.
“Juliet is alive!” we long to tell him. “There’s no reason to kill yourself.”
I actually saw a production of Romeo and Juliet once at which a child in the audience called out these very words to Romeo at the pivotal moment, evidently unable to sit idly by while the hero committed suicide. The outburst brought a strange mix of gasps and laughter from the audience, as the illusionary space of the play threatened either to envelop us all or to burst entirely. I remember feeling both anxious and relieved, as if the naughty child had uttered exactly what needed saying.
Looking back on it, I see the moment as strangely, accidentally profound. The child, in his childlike way, was refusing to let the tragedy take over. Seeing a potential comedic ending slipping away, he decided to try to save it. He chose not to let the script just run its course–Chorus be damned! He chose, like Romeo and Juliet, to keep chasing the happy ending. He chose to keep believing in comedy.
And therein lies an even bigger and better life lesson. Not only is the difference between comedy and tragedy often slight. And not only can you often not tell the difference when you’re actually caught up in the action. But it pretty much always makes sense to keep fighting for the comedic possibility–for the chance that things will work out in the end. Because the alternative is to acquiesce in tragedy–or, worse, to let the tragedy take over when the comedy might still win. And that would be even sillier than shouting out in a theater–or holding out hope for Romeo and Juliet when the Chorus told you from the start how things would end.
Tragic times come, at some point, for all of us–but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be laughing along the way, or that happy endings are inherently less possible than sad ones.
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