Everyone knows the story of Romeo and Juliet from the pen of William Shakespeare. But have you ever thought of it as a description of the process of the transformation of human desire (Eros) into divine love (Agape)? Laurence Freeman started me thinking in this direction with his article in the book, Purity of Heart and Contemplation: A Monastic Dialogue between Christian and Asian Traditions (Continuum Press, 2001, p. 247). A recent Trinity Rep / Brown University production of the play prompted me to explore this path further. The lovers’ first exchange at the dance is beautifully couched in the language of religious pilgrimage, even though hormones are raging and Eros is in full flight. Romeo is the pilgrim and Juliet the saint at the shrine where he comes to worship, seeking a healing touch and a kiss (Act I, scene 5). Their next exchange is at the balcony (Act II, scene 3) where Romeo sees her as the sun, the light of his life, and Juliet asks “What’s in a name?” encouraging him to disown his family name and set aside all the enmity between their families. She understands the wider context of their love and is seeking a path through the conflict. When Romeo tells Friar Lawrence, his mentor, of his new love, the Friar is at first skeptical but also sees the possibility that “this alliance may so happy prove to turn your households’ rancor to pure love.” Here is the hope of the play that the desire of the young will occasion the conversion of their parents from enemies into friends. We know from the teaching of Jesus that the work of loving enemies is the work of divine love (agape).
Friar Lawrence and Juliet (more than Romeo) grasp what needs to happen for love to win over hatred: the families must grieve their way to repentance. Romeo seems incapable of controlling his emotions, but he is willing to try to follow the friar’s advice. Juliet dismisses Romeo for his own safety (“it is not the nightingale: it is the lark”) to exile in Mantua, and the Friar contrives a risky plan to re-unite them. By taking the potion and feigning the sleep of death, Juliet risks everything. An accident turns the story into tragedy when Romeo does not get the message and truly thinks she is dead at the tomb. You know the rest of the heart-rending scene as they end their lives in each others’ arms. Their sacrifice and death poses the question with which the play concludes: will the warring families reconcile? Yes, the fathers commit to a memorial to their children who were the “sacrifices of their enmity.” The Prince of Verona concludes, “A gloomy peace this morning with it brings; the sun for sorrow will not show his head.”
The ending reminds me of the original ending of Mark’s gospel, not exactly a glorious proclamation of resurrection but a definite hint of it. The passion of the young lovers has been turned from erotic impulse into true love for one another and compassion for enemies. There is nothing more divine than to forgive and to give one’s life for one’s enemies, as Jesus has shown us.