If you asked for a classic example of a romantic couple, an awful lot of people would immediately identify Romeo and Juliet...despite the fact that Shakespeare wrote the play as a tragedy, that there is no happily ever after for the doomed lovers, and that the word "romance" itself wasn't even in common usage until much later than the play was written.
Why, then, do the two characters continue to be such an iconic example of passion? I think the answer is simple: They risked it all.
Being inappropriately in love in Shakespeare's Verona would have been no laughing matter. Young men and women had little in the way of personal freedom, and family loyalty wasn't optional; blood ties had more weight than any personal feelings. We tend to think of Italy as a country, but it wasn't -- not at that time. Verona was an individual city-state, often at war with other cities, and that meant internal power struggles were conducted house to house within its walls. Children were trained for their roles in society, and expected to fulfill them. For girls, it meant accepting marriages for the betterment of their houses. For boys, it often meant dying on the point of an enemy's sword if it helped the family cause.
Set against that backdrop, Romeo and Juliet's love seems even more remarkable...a defiance that is either incredibly brave, or incredibly foolish. There are a lot of opinions on the matter, and I won't debate them here, except to say that Shakespeare recognized that beyond the grand passion, there was an inevitability to its end...which is why he wrote it as a tragedy, and not a triumph. Romeo and Juliet is a tale of two crazy kids overcoming the odds to find true love and happiness. It's the story of two crazy kids meeting the irresistible force of fate, and losing. In the end, their deaths have a kind of diplomatic magic to them; they are united in their bridal tomb, and their families have achieved some kind of peace, however temporary. But even the most optimistic of romantics wouldn't call that a happy ending.
So why does it work? Perhaps because we understand and want to believe in the feeling of love at first sight: an insane rush of beauty and wonder that lifts us out of the merely practical and into the sublime. Perhaps because there's a certain grim beauty to Romeo's frantic despair at losing his Juliet, and Juliet's calm certainty that she can't then live without him. At our cores, as human beings, we want to believe that love can be that strong...strong enough to utterly consume us. And that's the romance of it: not for Romeo and Juliet, but for the onlookers, warming themselves beside a fire that was too intense to live for long. We vicariously enjoy the heat, but don't risk the flames.
That, however, isn't why I wrote Prince of Shadows, my retelling of the play. I wanted to explore the consequences of Romeo and Juliet's love on those around them, and I wanted to do it in the period, which has a kind of doomed beauty of its own. Benvolio, for instance: Romeo's cousin is often at his side in the play, always intent on heading off trouble that Romeo seems to attract. But if he's as levelheaded and peaceful as the play suggests, why does Mercutio say that Benvolio has the worst temper of all of them? What's his story?
And Mercutio himself is a mystery; he takes a dark turn during the play from a clever, funny man to one determined to provoke everyone he meets. Who's this Rosaline that Romeo is so blindly in love with before he meets Juliet? And why does Romeo throw away everything for a girl he just met -- and one he knows he can never have? Why would Juliet risk everything for him?
So many questions, and so much to explore. I chose to do it while trying to follow the template of a Shakespeare tragedy, and including some elements that appear in many of his other works: witches, curses, and a blind need for revenge. I also chose to try to create a feeling of archaic language while still making the story accessible to modern readers; one of the key goals I had was to integrate language from the play and weave events around the scenes. I felt it was really important to preserve as much of the flavor not only of Shakespeare, but also of the whole period and its attitudes as seamlessly as possible. It was a risk on several levels, but I felt it was critical to the story I wanted to tell -- one of society's pressures, and the way that people grow or break beneath it. Each of the characters in Prince of Shadows faces a future they don't want, and each seeks a way of defying, controlling or accepting it. There's more tragedy than just that of Romeo and Juliet, but more triumph as well.
In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare gives us a quote that seems applicable to Romeo and Juliet just as well: "Love is blind, and lovers cannot see, The pretty follies that themselves commit."
Love might be blind, but we will all continue to look on the story of Romeo and Juliet with new eyes for many years to come.