How many times do we have to watch Romeo and Juliet before they get it right? Just once, couldn't Friar John be on time? Couldn't Juliet wake up just a little sooner? Just once? Or do we need the tragedy to tell us its real story?
Romeo and Juliet is the best known love story in Western Civilization. It was told many times before the Bard worked his magic, and it has been told many times since. Aside from its traceable sources and direct descendants, an astonishing number of unrelated works share motifs: ill-chosen lovers, sleeping potion, live entombment and double-death. The first and last of these are common to all the examples below; the second or third also occurs. Shakespeare used all four.
The "ill-chosen lover" theme was defined by a high school student as, "Your parents never like your friends." Sound familiar? I have both used it and been accused of it. An early example of paternal disapproval is the well-known story of Pyramis and Thisbe told by Ovid in Metamorphoses (c. 10 A.D.), and used twice by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Pyramis and Thisbe are forbidden to associate, so they whisper through a chink in the wall their fathers have built to separate their houses. They promise to meet outside the city walls and thence to run away. Thisbe arrives first and, frightened by a lioness, runs to a cave, dropping her veil behind her. Pyramis finds the veil bloodied by the lioness, and concluding that Thisbe has been devoured, stabs himself. Thisbe returns from the cave, finds the dying Pyramis, and, distraught, falls on his sword. They die in each other's arms.
In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hermia's father forbids her love for Lysander, and the young lovers agree to meet outside the city walls and thence to run away. After a night of brilliant confusion in the forest they, presumably, live happily ever after—but not until they've watched Bottom and his friends perform a "rude mechanical" version of Pyramis and Thisbe. The "frame" story ends happily; Pyramis and Thisbe, as usual, end disastrously.
Shakespeare found the motif of a sleeping potion to avoid an unwanted marriage in The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, 3,000 lines of uninspired poetry by Arthur Brooke (1562), based on a French novel. The Bard was also familiar with an English prose translation of the same French novel(1567). These English versions culminate a chain of no less than ten novels, plays, poems, adaptations and translations in Italy and France during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
The third motif, live entombment, occurred in classical Greece, Christian Rome and nineteenth-century France. Thisbe sought refuge in a cave, though she did not die there, and Antigone and Aida go to their deaths in "vault[s] of stone." The title character of a play by Sophocles (495-405 B.C.), Antigone was born from the unholy union of Oedipus and his mother. Antigone's two brothers have slain each other in battle, and her uncle, Creon, assumes the throne. His first decree forbids the burial of one brother. Antigone defies the edict and performs the necessary burial rites. She is condemned to be "locked living in a vault of stone."
The play concerns personal integrity versus civic duty, and divine prerogative versus human, but Antigone and Creon's son, Haimon, are in love. Haimon runs to the cave to save her and finds that "in the cavern's farthest corner. . .[she] made a noose of her fine linen veil/And hanged herself." Distraught, he stabs himself and dies with Antigone in his arms.
An 1871 opera by Verdi is yet another example of ill-chosen love leading to double-death in a tomb. Aida, daughter of the Ethiopian king, living in slavery in Egypt, is in love with Radames, leader of the Egyptian armies. As war, love and jealousy intertwine, Aida's father is captured, and Radames helps them to escape. He is accused of treason and sentenced: "Beneath the altar of the offended god, you, living, shall be entombed." As the fatal stone seals Radames in his tomb, Aida emerges from the shadows to join him in their last duet.
What makes this basic story so universal? Do adults and societies impose rules? Do kids defy them and dream up outlandish schemes to outwit them, and sometimes run away? Do they think their love is really strong enough to make everything turn out okay in spite of others' experience—and they'll take incredible risks to prove it? Do we mean to say, "See what happens when you disobey your elders"?
Surely, children choose friends and actions outside their parents' preferences. But do we have to die for it? Probably—a little. Do we really hope the message will get through? Probably not. Perhaps the potion symbolizes our youthful illusion of invincibility. Perhaps the tragedy suggests that our passion for risk and romance is entombed with our youth, that we trade it for children to repeat the cycle.
Have you heard the one about the boy and girl who fell in love at first sight and their parents objected and . . . and . . . and . . .? Just think of how it might have been!