June 14, 2013

Who Needs a Broken Heart?

Interesting and helpful essay from Joseph Pearce on what's love got to do with it
The sobering lesson of Romeo and Juliet falls today on deaf modern ears

Oh what’s love got to do, got to do with it,
What’s love but a second-hand emotion;
What’s love got to do, got to do with it,
Who needs a heart
When a heart can be broken.
— Tina Turner

This primal difference between the two loves—one true, the other false—is at the heart of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The play satirizes the false understanding of love, lampooning the language of the Petrarchan love sonnets and the adulterous finesse of amour courtois. On a deeper level it highlights the dangers of seeing love as rooted in feeling or emotion. For a Christian, and let’s not forget that Shakespeare was a believing Catholic, love is not a feeling but an act of the will in obedience to a Commandment. It is freely choosing to sacrifice our own interests for the good of the other. False love, being a slave to feeling and passion, is essentially irrational; true love, being a free choice in obedience to a perceived truth, is essentially rational. 

Throughout Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare connects passionate or libidinous love, rooted in feeling, with the “gossip Venus” and “her purblind son,” Cupid (Eros). It is from Venus that we get the adjective venereal, as it is from Eros that we get the adjective erotic. Romeo’s “love” for Juliet is both venereal and erotic—it is a servant of his libido. Thus, in the opening lines of the famous balcony scene, Romeo proclaims that Juliet is the sun, the light by which he sees, eclipsing all other perspectives. This “sun” is at war with the “envious” moon, equated with Diane, the goddess of chastity: “Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon.”  Romeo desires that Juliet should kill chastity and cast off her robes of virginity, her “vestal livery”, which “none but fools do wear”. His description of Juliet’s livery as “vestal” connects her to the goddess, Vesta, to whom the vestal virgins consecrated their virginity. In the Christian culture in which Shakespeare was writing, the adjective vestal was applied to any woman of spotless chastity. In stating that only fools live chastely and in his hopes that Juliet will “kill” chastity and “cast it [her virginity] off”, Romeo is showing his disdain for traditional Christian virtue. The same contempt for Christianity was evident in his desire to have the “sin” transmitted by his and Juliet’s first kiss: “Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urg’d! / Give me my sin again.”


And who needs a heart if a heart can be broken? The answer to this is simple, though seemingly unknown to the world in which we live: We all need a heart and we all need it to be broken! As Oscar Wilde reminds us in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, “God’s eternal Laws are kind / And break the heart of stone.”


Ellyn said...

Ruminating on the lessons from Shakespeare brings back the memory of a strange and funny moment. After a "Shakespeare on the Green" production of "Romeo and Juliet", as we were folding our blankets and packing up the picnic hamper, I overheard a mother ask her young son (about 13 or 14) what lesson he learned from the play. His response was "Never buy drugs from a priest." Not exactly what I expected, but probably a better lesson than the one my friends and I derived from multiple viewings of Zeffirelli's newly released 'Romeo and Juliet.' (O tempore, O mores - what a time to be young) It may have made Shakespeare lovers out of a few of us, but it also just fed our immature, erotic imaginations and did nothing to enlighten us about real love.

TS said...

Yes, a thousand times yes on that lesson being preferable to the other.

I was certainly back in the day guilty of reading it as pretty much the opposite of what Pearce is proposing here. I ascribed the tragic ending to bad luck and/or the evil of the families rather than to anything remotely related to the behavior of the star-crossed lovers.