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Romeo, Juliet and the Religion of Romantic Love
The God of My Idolatry

shakes2.jpg (3980 bytes)I confess. Shakespeare in Love was my pick over Saving Private Ryan in 1999 for best movie of the year. As I've said elsewhere, Private Ryan isn't even the best war movie of the year, The Thin Red Line, is better.  If Ryan features perhaps the greatest battle scene of all time in its opening twenty minutes, after that, everything is sequel. On the other hand, Shakespeare in Love contains one of the most romantic love affairs ever filmed, and, following the plot lines of Romeo and Juliet, it builds relentlessly toward its inexorable conclusion. By superimposing an imaginary love story over the narrative of Shakespeare's writing, rehearsing, and staging his play, Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard are able to transform the bard's original into a post-modern commentary on the nature of love.

shakes.jpg (7406 bytes)The combination of poetry and erotic passion that connects Joseph Fiennes (Will Shakespeare) and Gwyneth Paltrow (Viola De Lesseps) in this film is unbeatable. This is clearly Paltrow's greatest performance thus far, and she is a perfect love object for the young playwright who makes her into Juliet. Remember what Shakespeare's story is all about. A fourteen year old Juliet, engaged to be married, falls in love with the 17 year old Romeo.  Their relationship would have been regarded as adultery in that day and time. In the overlay provided by Norman and Stoppard for this movie, the teen teenager falls for an older, married man. She is an intern, of sorts, in his theatre company. 

This affair, whether in the Shakespeare original or the movie overlay, involves all the "salacious" activity our newspapers have been obsessed about for most of the past year, but somehow this adultery soars to the point that it is studied by every high school student in America.  Those who are alarmed about the content of contemporary movies, music, television and other media, should think about this very carefully.   What is the "message" communicated by this work of Shakespeare transformed into a post-modern morality play?

Yale Professor Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human, defines what he believes was Shakespeare's message in Romeo and Juliet. "This play is the largest and most persuasive celebration of romantic love in Western literature."  And the most articulate evangelist of love in the play is none other than Juliet who declares to Romeo:

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep: The more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.

Romeo is, she declares in the same dialogue, "the god of my idolatry."  This, says Bloom, is "an epiphany in the religion of love."  Epiphanies are, by their very nature, short lived.  And passion, even passionate love, is often closely related to death. In "Romeo and Juliet," a double suicide provides the only escape for the young lovers whom the whole world would conspire to separate. They die, not in punishment for any wrong doing, but because the political and social realities of late feudal society did not make sufficient room for such a love as this.

In the movie, the star crossed lovers are separated too, but there is a resurrection of sorts, following a ship wreck along the coast of the New World, and we see Gwyneth Paltrow walking alone, across an open beach, toward the promised land. And what are we to make of this story in our world which is, if anything, over indulgent of such romanticism?  Note that Juliet's line about Romeo could be turned around upon Joseph Fiennes' lips to read, she is "the goddess of my adultery." And, indeed, the Norman / Stoppard gospel seems to be that such love will triumph in the end, not only against the narrow norms and conventions of society, but even against the force of fate and death itself. Forced to choose between the living God and the god of such idolatry, I would choose the former. Still, if you want to be swept away, on a flight of fancy, toward the infinite possibilities of human love, this movie is a good place to begin. Just keep in mind that love and death are very closely related in the drama which we all live out here on earth, and one cannot choose one, without in the same breath, choosing the other.

Charles Henderson
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