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Mind Over Pop Culture: Romeo and Juliet

Does familiarity with a story dim its effects on a person?If over 400 years have passed since its creation, can a play still encourage a person to self-harm?With William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it seems that question is still very open. The numerous movies made of the story help keep it in the public consciousness, like Baz Lurhmann’s 1996 adaptation, Romeo+Juliet.

The play centers on Romeo and Juliet, two young lovers from warring families who fall in love at a party.  After marrying in secret, Romeo is involved in a fight with Juliet’s cousin and kills him.  He is banished from the kingdom.  In order to be together, the friar who marries them gives her a potion that mimics death.  Romeo never gets the message that she’s not dead, and comes back into the city.  He eventually kills himself at her side.  When she wakes up, she sees him dead and also kills herself. The play ends with the Prince telling the families of their responsibility in their children’s deaths.

The way the play is often taught does have a tendency to glamorize suicide.  Romeo and Juliet are seen as the ultimate lovers, who could never be without one another.  Their love is idealized, and their suicide is seen as the final desperate act of love.  In fact, the story’s focus on them encourages such a reading, and such an adaptation.  In Lurhmann’s movie, for example, they are certainly shown that way.

The thing is, though, the play isn’t written that way.  It’s clear throughout that the lovers are depressed and looking for a way out.  Both families use their children to set up alliances without seeing what they want, leading to a very palpable lack of control that the teens face.  They marry in secret, with the friar openly telling them that he wants their marriage to bring the families together, which is a huge burden on them.  The behavior of both teens change dramatically in a very short period of time, and their hopelessness and grief is palpable.  The fact that the play is a tragedy is also telling.  Shakespeare showed how sad the loss of these two young lives was, not idealizing their end.  It’s even implied that their deaths changed nothing in the war between the two families.

The problem is the way the story is presented to the audience.  Often, the two young leads are shown as being deeply in love, and their suicide is a romantic act.  That kind of presentation is dangerous, and can lead to a more positive view of suicide.  We need to change the way the play is taught, filmed and staged to lead away from that reading to something more realistic, and in line with what the play actually says.  That way, suicide is seen the way it really is, a fatal symptom of an illness.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please reach out to the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.  If you’d like to read about someone who’s using Romeo and Juliet to help educate about suicide and teach resiliency and prevention, visit http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1988-12-05/features/8802220016_1_romeo-and-juliet-youth-suicide-prevention-sara-deats.

Next week, we’ll look at The Caveman’s Valentine.  What do you think about Romeo and Juliet and its relationship to suicide?  What were you taught about it?

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