Lately, while applying for jobs and trying to adapt to my hometown after college, I’ve been watching a lot of Doctor Who. The last few episodes that I’ve watched have moved me to tears. It’s not too often that a work of fiction inspires true, deeply felt emotion in my heart, and when one does, it’s such a beautiful thing that I must stop what I’m doing and let myself feel all the emotions that are happening in and (seemingly) around me. That’s the highest honor I can give a book or a movie or a show: that it inspires true feeling.
Watching a character die is an emotional thing. Watching characters get healed from their illnesses and hug each other for the very first time, just before another character finds some form of redemption and dies of old age: my heart is bleeding on the ground and I’m going to be an emotional mess for an hour.
I used to hate Romeo and Juliet. The play and the characters. My fifth grade English teacher used to have each class do a production of the play. I was Lady Montague, and my best friends were Capulets. That experience probably contributed to my dislike for the story, but since that first reading, I’ve never been able to understand why it’s supposed to be such a great love story. Sure, Romeo’s hot and mysterious, but you don’t marry him on your second date, and you definitely don’t commit suicide over him. As for Romeo, well, homeboy was swooning over Rosaline literally five minutes before he met Juliet. And then marriage on the second date and suicide beside her not-dead body. They’re teenagers. Yeah, they feel things deeply, and they get intense crushes, but oh my gosh, that’s not love.
Two adaptations of the play made me see the characters differently.
The first was a 2011 retelling by Anne Fortier that was simply called Juliet. Fortier must have asked herself, “What if the curse was real?” What if Mercutio actually cursed the Montagues and the Capulets when he cried, “A plague o’ both your houses”? A modern-day Juliet basically discovers that she’s a Capulet and needs to get together with a mysterious guy named Romeo who’s the descendant of the Montagues before more bad things happen with the curse. Fortier switches back and forth between medieval and modern Italy. In this version, Romeo thought Juliet was hot, but she didn’t want anything to do with him unless he could help her get revenge on her family’s murder. I haven’t read the book in four years, so I can’t remember what I thought of modern Julie (the ritual curse-breaking thing was weird), but the medieval Romeo and Juliet actually had depth. They knew each other for longer than a week, and their love felt more real. They weren’t dumb teenagers.
The second adaptation was a 2014 webseries called Jules and Monty that was created by some students at Tufts. In this adaptation, Jules and Monty are kept apart by a fraternity war: Jules’s brother is the “Lord” of one frat, and Monty belongs to its rival. They meet at a frat party, and they document their spring semester through vlogs for a class. No one actually dies, but you have things like drugs and social death that make the story feel newly tragic. I’m not completely sure what counts as a spoiler when you’re talking about an adaptation of one of the most famous works of literature in the history of Western civilization, but it turns out that when you remove the poison and the dagger, lost love makes the heart break.
Sometimes when you hear a story too much, you forget how to immerse yourself in the characters’ experiences. You start to analyze it until you see metaphors and sonnets and existential meanings. You don’t cry. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to cry in a Shakespeare play, because I definitely have not, but I assume that we read Romeo and Juliet because we want to feel. We want to talk about the heartbreak of waking up in the tomb the second after your love drinks the poison. We want to talk about fights that have gone too far. We want to talk about regret.
Thanks for the feelings, Billy.