tell the man to shut up and talk right: reading romeo and juliet

There is a standing argument between The Cat and I that always seems to boil down to the same point:

What’s so great about Shakespeare?

She says his characters are ridiculous—at least in the tragedies—his plots wouldn’t work by any stretch of the imagination and the mere mention of his name in general conversation turns out to be one of the fastest ways to be labelled a great stinking hipster by anyone other than a third year university student deeply invested in studying the classics—and to my unending regret, I have to concede she is right on all points … however …

Because Romeo and Juliet is my second most favourite play of all time and because I used to be a third year uni student and because I’m entirely too much of a hipster to subscribe to that overdone label (read with a Melbourne accent), I’ve decided to spend my third Red Chair review talking about words … and the simple fact is no-one has ever done words like Shakespeare.

So why didn’t the balding bard just shut-up and talk right?

The short answer is he could have—but it’s highly unlikely that we would still be talking about it 300 years later.

The trick to reading Shakespeare, I think, is being able to recognise that everything in the work—characters, plot, time, setting the whole damn lot—is a means to an end.

Even the most stuffy of theorists have to admit that two drunk teenagers falling in love at a party, because she’s a hottie and he’s a bad boy with just enough of a smile to make you think you can change him, is a little more than slightly unlikely.

That said, I doubt those stuffy theorists frequent pop-rock fringe concerts full of socially loose teenagers … but we have to remember that the plot is not important.

What is important are the words.

The secret to understanding Shakespeare is in caring more about how the story is told than the actual story itself.

Think about the profession of the bard—a guy who is paid to tell a good story.

And this is exactly what Shakespeare does—he tells a good story.

Looking at Romeo and Juliet—one of the more flamboyant tragedies—there are still so many layers embedded inside that the whole thing would never work any other way.

Simply put, we call him the bard because lyrically, poetically, structurally, no one could do it better than him … because he did it all in one play.

On the top level, we have the plot and as much as anyone argues that it is unrealistic, it is one of the most reproduced unrealistic plots every written … think of any Katherine Heigl movie and then add suicide at the end.

The next level down you have the lyrical words—so flowery and beautiful it’s like they were composed in a dew drop on the up-turned face of a red rose petal lingering on the soft and blushing cheek of your truest of loves as you wake together in a forest of sweet floral smells and fluffy little bunny rabbits.

Then on the next level you have the poetry. Just considering the fact that the play is written entirely in iambic pentameter (the rhythm that goes da-duh … da-duh … da-duh … da-duh … da-duh …) tells us that the only thing that matters in this entire play are the words.

Every line is written to such strict rules that the words move beyond value because they’re the only words that would work.

This is why Shakespeare is eternal—not only does he lay out a plot that is as accessible as the hottie and the bad boy falling into a passionate affair, it is written to such structural and poetic perfection that it cannot be written any other way.

In the end, whether you love his words or hate them with enough pent-up fringe-fury to overrun Paris and every soy chai cappuccino sipping Parisian hipster there, you simply must respect the man for what he did best.

In the end the answer is simple. Read Romeo and Juliet—it will only take an hour or two and Katherine Heigl and every rom-com heroine will be waiting for you on the other side.


Sending you a packet of Tim-Tams, tissues and your Bridget Jones knickers from the friend who makes you keep buying rom-coms in the hope they’ll get better …



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