Thoughts on Romeo and Juliet

Contains spoilers.

Romeo and Juliet, published in 1597, is arguably the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays.  It has definitely been the one I’ve been most aware of since childhood, though that might be due the fact our school got us to do a production of it when I was 8 – which was very fun indeed!  I played Paris and relished the death scene.  Probably the best role I’ve ever had in a play, actually.  But that’s digressing.  I remember thinking at the time I wanted to read the ‘original book’, but was put off the idea when I found out it originated from a 400 year old play.  Now, 9 years later, I decided to finally read it.  Because of its immense popularity and widely renowned nature, this is a hard play to discuss objectively.  I knew the story off by heart before reading it so that will also have affected my response.

I think my main reaction was shock towards the plot.  I’d heard beforehand that Juliet is far younger than Romeo and that their relationship only spanned 3 days, but I had no idea just how distastefully this would come across even in the writing itself.  There’s a whole spiel about Juliet being ‘not yet 14’ – it’s never said how old Romeo is but we can presume he is older than 13, and Paris is probably around the same age.  Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it quite creepy that all these men should be chasing after a girl so young.  I could perhaps just forgive this, except the timescale of the play is so ridiculously played out:  Romeo and Juliet meet at a party he’s crashed, and within a page they’re tasting one another’s saliva.  That’s not love, that’s a hook-up at a party.  I can only presume they’re both drunk (actually, that might explain the entire play).  The fact that their first conversation has the form of a sonnet is a nice touch, but alone is not enough.  The next day they are married because, you know, they’re in love.  Like the people who go to Las Vegas for a party and wake up the next day married.  I had a similar problem with Les Misérables.  Thing is, I highly doubt Romeo actually loves Juliet.  To begin with he’s sulking over this girl called Rosaline, partly because she doesn’t love him but the main focus seems to be on her insistence to ‘remain chaste’.  Suddenly Romeo’s intentions become a bit clearer.  Friar Lawrence gets is right on the mark when he says:

“Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!
Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken?  Young men’s love, then, lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.”

This might indicate that even Shakespeare disapproves of their relationship.  Is Romeo and Juliet supposed to purport the same idea as his Sonnet 130; to make fun of traditional relationships?  The play does begin as a comedy, after all, only then collapsing into a tragedy.  Was Shakespeare having a laugh?  If that is his intention, he has certainly failed!  Romeo and Juliet has somehow, perversely, become the archetypal love story of “star-cross’d lovers”.  Though I would prefer the alternative of it being a ‘Great Hormone Story’, personally.

I don’t mean to sound overly critical; there were other elements I enjoyed.  Most of all, of course, was Shakespeare’s masterful use of language.  This, again, was held back by the poor plotting of the romance – beautifully written dialogue about love makes the situation even worse, in fact – but the language can be appreciated in isolation as lyrical and deeply poetic.  No examples spring instantly to mind, though again I find myself impressed by just how many modern phrases Shakespeare coined.

Romeo and Juliet does beg a question, for me, on the relationship between language and plot.  Some ‘literary elites’ may argue that true value is found in the skillful and original use of language, but I’m very much on the side of having a detailed, convincing plot, even if this means sacrificing the language.  Which is why I prefer the perhaps sometimes blandly-written Hunger Games or Harry Potter to Shakespeare, simply because they develop characters and stories to a much greater degree.  Other than being ‘star-cross’d lovers’, what development did Romeo and Juliet really have?  When they fall in love, I’m unconvinced.  When they commit suicide, I’m bored.  When Juliet says she would rather her parents die than Romeo be banished from Verona, I’m repulsed by the character.  The reader/audience is supposed to be on Juliet’s side, not cheering when she dies.

Sorry, ranting again.  The use of a chorus interested me.  Is it a technique Shakespeare uses a lot?  This is only my fourth of his plays (after Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Othello), but I’ve never seen it before.  I also felt the concept of feuding between the Montague and the Capulet families was initially well established, with the point becoming really well made of the futility of such a strife (even if I would argue Juliet’s death is more a reaction to her father’s patriarchal dominance, trying to force her into an arranged marriage, than the quarreling between families).  

Overall, Romeo and Juliet is a great story that’s let down by lazy* storytelling.  Most of my criticisms do, I admit, come from applying a 21st century worldview onto a story written in the 16th.  Is it wrong to look at old plays from the perspective of modern values?  Well, I am a reader in the 21st century and if the play no longer feels convincing then it simply hasn’t stood the test of time.  That’s not to say there’s no value for Shakespeare in the modern world; many aspects of his plays remain hugely relevant today, which is a testament to his skill as a writer, and I don’t think his mastery of the English language will ever stop provoking awe.  I’m just afraid that, in this case, it didn’t work for me.

Final rating (if forced): 6.5/10

*Oh no, it’s a mortal sin to call The Bard lazy, isn’t it?  Well, while his use of language may be unrivaled, the plot is lazy.  The amount of times I’ve bitten my tongue to stop myself arguing with a teacher who kept finding excuses to cover up Shakespeare’s plot holes…  The unquestioning reverence our society holds Shakespeare in is wrong.

[I should probably point out that there is a lot of Shakespeare’s work I like.  Sonnet 130 is a really interesting subversion of poetic conventions at the time and most of Macbeth is a complete joy to read].

Thoughts on The Great Gatsby (2013 Film)

Contains spoilers.

 

This won’t be a full review, due to my lack of concentration at some parts as a result of it being my first 3D film and also the fact that I haven’t read the original 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, nor seen any of the other film versions, which I feel I’d need to experience before making a full assessment of the film.  I walked in blind, as it were.  It’s directed by Baz Luhrmann, who I’m told is a skilled director, and has previously directed Romeo + Juliet and Australia, neither of which I’d seen but had heard a lot about.

To me, the most thought-provoking aspects of the film is its themes within the historical setting.  Set during the Roaring Twenties, a period of unparalleled economic growth within the USA following the First World War (and preceding the inevitable collapse of the system in the 1929 Wall Street Crash), this was the period of jazz, of unenforceable prohibition and of corruption.  The film certainly glorifies the nightlife scene of New York in 1922, showing a seemingly endless sequence of parties, pleasure, alcohol and chaos.  It’s certainly atmospheric, but my main reaction was thankfulness that I never lived during this period!  The film encapsulates the changing moral landscape of the time, which is also expressed through the romantic relationships characters form.  Gatsby, Daisy and Thomas all participate in extramarital affairs, while Nick and Jordan’s fling begins in an alcohol-fueled party.  The film is no advocate of the sanctity of marriage, and it’s fascinating to see society’s change portrayed so successfully.  The importance of money within the film also stood out to me – scenes are littered with references to the gap between the wealthy and the poor.  Indeed, the crux of the film lies around the idea that Gatsby did not feel worthy of Daisy’s love until he had made something of his life.  It’s difficult to say whether the book’s message was for or against this individualist, ‘dog-eat-dog’ culture; the novel would really need to be read  to say for sure.

A result of many of these themes is that I personally found it difficult to relate to many of the characters.  I struggle to understand the forces which drive the characters in their greed and their lusts.  Why does Gatsby see such an importance in money?  The parties, the affairs… I had the same problem with Othello, leaving me wondering whether it’s flaws in the writing or flaws in me.

There are many comparisons to be made between the period the film is set and the society of today.  Economically, the excesses of the 20s bear a lot in common with the economic book experienced in the early 2000s, only to be shattered by a financial meltdown in a similar way.  The same values of individual profit, private enterprise and the ‘American dream’ still dominate today, despite having been proven fundamentally flawed again and again when unregulated.  Ultimately, it’s Gatsby’s need to attain individual economic success – which he achieves through the illegal distribution of alcohol – that proves to be his downfall and prevents him from experiencing a happy ending.

Despite my feelings towards the characters, I can’t deny they are well written and acted.  Hearing the lyrical lines many were given made me want to read the novel, even if the eventual plot and themes had the opposite effect.  I was surprised by how likeable a character Gatsby proved to be; I imagined he would be a flawed, irredeemable character, but I was mistaken.  The character is possibly even portrayed as too virtuous.  He’s brilliantly acted by Leonardo DiCaprio, who always impresses me with his diversity.  I also enjoyed Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, the story’s narrator – the only character I personally believed to be realistic.   Daisy is well acted by Carey Mulligan, although her role in the story rather annoyed me.  She is viewed as an object, as a prize, by the men who compete over her.  Never is this clearer than in the confrontational scene, where they both cry variations of: “She is mine!” “she loves me!”  That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except she is there with them and says nothing.  She cries a bit, then wanders off, then is all, “oh, don’t make me choose.”  But essentially, it’s a confrontation between Gatsby and Tom over Daisy, in which she has no input.  I appreciate these were the values of the society at the time, but it still irritates me.

It was an interesting decision, in setting up the period, to use modern music.  In the soundtrack can be found names including Beyoncé, Florence + The Machine, Lana Del Rey and André 3000 (presumably a rapping robot – or sounds like one at any rate), all of whom are generally in the charts right now.  The obvious decision would have been to go for 20s jazz music to set the period but, oddly, modern pop music kind of works.  It establishes that this is a period of partying and excess, ideas that most pop music today push forward.  I don’t like the music, but it works.

Finally, I was quite impressed by the levels of detail and symbolism present in the film.  Little touches, like that optician billboard symbolosing the ‘Eyes of God’, judging characters and disapproving of their lifestyles, or the green light across the bay acting as a source of hope for Gatsby, make me realise how The Great Gatsby became a literary classic.

Overall, I have conflicting feelings over The Great Gatsby.  I kind of liked it and disliked it at the same time.  Visually, it’s beautifully directed by Luhrmann, but I’m unsure of how I feel about the central concepts of the story.

Final rating (if forced): 7/10

Advanced Higher English Exam!

Yesterday I sat the second exam of the May 2013 Block: Advanced Higher English.  We only do one essay in the exam due to having submitted a creative writing folio (both will be published online on the 6th August 2013… And one might even end up in a paperback anthology a little later!).  The writers we’ve studied over the year are William Shakespeare (Othello and Antony and Cleopatra) and Carol Ann Duffy (16 plays – I can’t bear to name them all).  Duffy was always meant to be my back-up question, so I went for Shakespeare when the question looked possible:

“Iago and Octavius Caesar are each, in their own ways, obsessed with power.”
Keeping this assertion in mind, compare the role and function of Iago in  Othello with the role and function of Octavius Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra.
(30 marks)

I know that looks like an easy question – and it was – but I struggled with it.  Sounds silly, but I hadn’t expected to be asked explicitly about the antagonists.  I had the knowledge to draw together an answer but not the time to properly plan and bring all the evidence I needed together (I expect the examiner will be amused by my desperate scribblings on the front page; if not amused, then at the very least they might pity me).  Looking back, I did essentially answer the question, which always helps, but I did so in such a clumsy and digressive way that I don’t expect to have done fantastically.  Hopefully enough to have passed, but…

Still, the exam only constitutes 30% of the overall grade, and I don’t need it for anything besides pride – since I’m doing English Literature at university, I feel that I really aught to be handling this.

Coming soon: Geography and RMPS Higher!  Then freedom and boredom (and probably more interesting blogs as a result).

Procrastination

What bizarre evolutionary route led us to consider not doing anything the best strategy for getting things done?  

I’ve had the whole weekend to revise for my Prelims next week, which fall as:

Monday: English
Tuesday: Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies
Wednesday: History
Thursday: Geography

SO THERE REALLY ISN’T TIME TO DO NOTHING!  Except, I have.  I’ve sat about, I went cycling, I read the news, I played games on the computer – I even read about 100 pages of Breaking Dawn.  And enjoyed it.  That’s how willing I am to avoid work!  Ughhhh.

Even writing this is an act of procrastination.  “Without revision, chaos is come again!”  to paraphrase Othello.  Which reminds me, I think I have some revision to do…