The other day my husband rang me up at lunchtime.
‘Did you get a look at our boy’s English literature essay?’ he wanted to know.
‘Of course not,’ I replied. No sensible child passes homework onto a mother who works in that area for her approval. Many years ago my son told me quite straight that what he expected from a mother was support and encouragement, but NOT corrections to his schoolwork. Naturally his essays are a closely guarded secret and I would never dream of prying. My husband, however, has no such scruples.
‘Well I did,’ he said. ‘It was lying on the desk upstairs so I read it. It’s hilarious!’
I was perfectly aware that on the weekend, one thousand words on the issue of whether Romeo and Juliet were to blame for the tragedy that befell them had been bled from his body at extreme cost. He had come to find me while I was doing something domestic in the kitchen, saying: ‘I don’t know how to begin.’ This is always a problem, I agree. I asked what the title was and he told me, and I made various suggestions, to which I received the responses too long, too short, not quickly enough into the question, too quickly into the question, mmm yes well, just not exactly what he was after. It’s a kind of warrior dance, a song he sings before going into battle. Eventually the critical point was reached when it was more unpleasant to talk to me than actually write the thing and he sidled off. And bless him he sat there and wrote until he had finished, so really he’s pretty good for fourteen.
‘Oh go on, what did it say?’ I asked.
‘It’s full of the kind of moral absolutes that adolescents have. The conclusion he comes to is that it’s Romeo’s fault for asking her to marry him after only the second date. Because no one should do that, it’s way too impetuous.’
‘That’s beautiful,’ I said.
‘And then it’s Romeo’s fault again because he kills himself too fast. Why didn’t he hang around a bit? Get a second opinion? It’s priceless. You should read it; it’s still up there.’
As a dear friend of mine used to comment, don’t lead me into temptation, I can get there all by myself. The essay was an exquisite example of my son’s thinking, which is both literal and logical. And of course he’s quite right. What was Romeo thinking, deciding to get married so rapidly? And that death scene is just a mess, isn’t it, a series of terrible decisions undertaken with bad timing and an extraordinary death wish for your average sixteen year olds. I think my son liked Romeo and Juliet well enough as a play, but it never caught his imagination, never swept him up into its feverish plotline. He still thinks that love is soppy. When a piece of art doesn’t quite captivate you with its fantasy universe, then it’s very easy to stay at one remove and to pass an opinion on what occurs rather than enact some literary criticism. To say, it’s not really plausible, or that it wouldn’t have happened the way it did, or I would have behaved differently. I’ve said before that, although we all have them, I’m not thrilled by opinions, which are a Walmart form of knowledge. They rely absolutely on the inside of the individual’s head for their authority, and given all the cognitive distortions I was listing the other day, you wouldn’t really want to depend upon that for clear, insightful perception.
Only a step further in thinking and you can make some literary criticism out of them. Let’s suppose that an implausible event usually happens within the context of the play (or the book) for a good reason. What is it trying to tell us? Romeo and Juliet do commit too fast, they do react with a fatal lack of hesitation when things go wrong; it’s the very impetuosity of their youth and character that hurtles them into a magnificent, passionate love. That’s what we think, isn’t it? The faster relationships deepen, the tighter those bonds are forged, the more dramatic and exciting and altogether better the love is. Although it may not be true; that belief may be a strange cultural validation when we also know that love takes many forms and the slow-burning, much-tested form of love may in fact be the strongest of all. Still, there it is. Their passion thrills the audience, and then brings about their downfall. The same quality that makes them transcend their ordinary humanity and brings them a spectacular experience, then casts them into an early, unnecessary grave. And that’s what tragedy is all about; it’s about a formidable and distressing paradox: the way that what is admirable and strong may turn out to be the cause of our own destruction. My son did sort of get there in the end. Or in his own, bored, glad-to-see-the-conclusion phrasing: ‘I would say the feud was the biggest thing stopping them then the other characters in the play like Mercutio and Tybalt and then the bad luck and fate and at the very bottom Romeo and Juliet choosing a few wrong decisions and going to fast for there own good.’ Ah, if he ever gets his ‘there’s’ sorted out, he’ll be a chip off the old block one of these fine days.