Reader response criticism gained popularity due to its staunch opposition to the Russian formalist style of analyzing literature. Reader response criticism places power in the reader and takes into heavy consideration the reader’s feelings and biases entering and during the reading of a piece of literature following the formula “Reader+Text=Meaning” (Bressler 74). Implying that meaning subjectively comes from the reader I plan to take a critical look at William Shakespeare’s classic play Romeo and Juliet focusing on its views of love and view of life in the Renaissance.
Romeo and Juliet is said to be one of the greatest works of classic literature and the epitome of romance writing. . Though now personally I find the work a bit over-dramatic and an unrealistic view of love and life in the time period but can understand how depending on the age group reading this work and the personal experiences of the reader can drastically effect how the work is viewed.
I first read Romeo and Juliet my freshman year of high school when I was 14 years old, the same age as Juliet. I was with an older gentleman and I was convinced very much like Juliet that we would be in love forever and that only death would tear us apart. That was my first encounter with the work, and at the time I believed that it was exactly how love is and how love worked. It was my inexperience and naivety like Juliet’s that lead me to feeling that way. It took the harsh realities of living that showed me that love and life is not and cannot be like that. One relationship should not be worth dying for at such a young age. But I recall watching this play in high school thinking that was exactly what love was. This is how it should be. A girl and boy should easily be willing to die for one another and to protect their love.
I am now 21 years old, have been through a few more relationships have had a few more life experiences under my belt and reading Romeo and Juliet again it was only met with pained groans and a heavy amount of cynicism. What had changed? Why had my heart that was so willing to accept the concepts of love at first sight and a love so passionate that one would be willing to lose their life over suddenly turned to stone? Is it possible that this work is only effective when the reader is young and willing to accept these possibilities?
I personally do enjoy the play, I love the language and the diction and found the humor marvelous, but I also found it soppy and overly dramatic. Despite me having a current boyfriend I would never dream of dying for him yet alone to think of suicide if something were to happen to him. But the play also brought up several other personal correlations into my real modern life. In growing up with the Southern tradition of debutante the aristocratic society does not for me seem so far off. In fact, it was quiet familiar. Dancing with people that you do not know, being concerned for the family name understanding that rank is the only thing and that there are some people you are simply not to associate with. I understand the fear of being associated with someone the family considers to be a threat or just unworthy.
There are other concerns I had with looking at Romeo and Juliet the fact that this play happens in such a short amount of time, the play is said to take place in only one week. In one week this couple meets, marries, has sex, and die for each other. I doubt that was how things moved in the Renaissance, despite it being a much faster pace to courting than we in modern times are accustomed to. The courting process then and even in the Southern debutante tradition could be anywhere from weeks to months, formally about three months, still hardly enough time to form a relationship with someone worth dying over. Especially considering that the man is usually several years older than the female and the poor girl is often only marrying to make her family proud in both traditions, Juliet’s mother herself said she was married off when she was younger than Juliet to her much older husband.
I have a hard time stomaching the idea that a couple in one week’s time was infatuated enough to die for within one week. Though the people of the time especially in the upper class did believe in the concept of love at first sight, one week is hardly enough time to decide that this is the person worth spending the rest of your life with and then ending your life over.
Love at first sight was a concept I was willing to accept until recently. And even is talking with others about the topic some are willing to admit that they believe in it and others scoff at the very idea. Perhaps the issue is societal. That when we are young we are willing to entertain the notion of extremes in love and our society allows it. As long as we are between the ages of 12-16 years old it is perfectly socially acceptable to be infatuated in such a way and to fall in and out of love so quickly not only that it is almost encouraged. As if our society knows that all it will take is that first serious break up to snap us back to our senses and back to the reality that this is not how life works. We then snap out of it and our hearts harden. We then cannot accept the idea of love at first sight and a love so strong and so fiery that we are willing to die for it or cannot live without it.
In closing Romeo and Juliet is a fantastic work of literature written by the world’s most famed playwrights. This is considered to a classic love story but has been met with increasing cynicism and skepticism about its relevance in today’s society. Enjoying this piece through reader-response criticism allows each reader to draw their own personal conclusions and be affected by their own personal biases which create a unique reading experience from person to person.