Editor and author Joseph Pearce's new work, “Shakespeare on Love,” sees the Catholic presence in “Romeo and Juliet” and corrects popular interpretations of the play, which see the pair only as victims.
“If we're not prepared to treat it as a cautionary tale, with Romeo and Juliet being in the wrong, the play is unsettling, because somehow they're the good guys and yet they finish so badly, and surely it's not fair,” Pearce, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts' writer-in-residence, told CNA May 20.
“But once you understand that actually the outcome is the consequence of their own actions, decisions, and choices, and also sins of omission of the lack of parental guidance – parental bad influence actually – all of a sudden it is seen as a profoundly Christian, cautionary tale.”
Pearce explained that his motivation for writing “Shakespeare on Love,” released in March by Ignatius Press, was to “correct the misreading of 'Romeo and Juliet' by the modern academy.” Some interpret the lovers as victims of fate, with no one at fault in their death because fortune and fate eradicate free will.
Since the 19th century and the Romantic era, when emotion was exalted over reason, the play has been read overwhelmingly through that lens, seeing Romeo and Juliet as heros for love and victims of their families' hatred for each other.
The Romantic reading of “Romeo and Juliet” distorts the meaning of love, Pearce said, making it “really about feelings, and that feeling usurps reason where romance and love is concerned, and it's become the norm for critics to read 'Romeo and Juliet' in that way.”
“But of course 'Romeo and Juliet' was not written in the light of Romanticism...but in the light of a profoundly Christian understanding of morality and love, with love being something that is connected to reason and will, and the necessity of laying down one's life for the beloved.”
“Shakespeare on Love” is meant to “rectify the non-Christian understanding” of “Romeo and Juliet,” analyzing the play's text to demonstrate how Shakespeare portrays the pair as culpable for their outcome, stuck in a self-indulgent passion that ultimately harms them both.
Pearce shows that Shakespeare portrays both Romeo and Juliet as lacking prudence and temperance, but that their elders, who ought to guide them in the virtues are similarly lacking. Pearce then sees the play as a tool for teaching morality and the nature of true love.
Since “Romeo and Juliet,” together with “Julius Caesar” is one of the most widely taught texts of Shakespeare in high schools, Pearce considered it important to correct its interpretation, saying it is “almost invariably taught badly.”
“Shakespeare is a powerful voice, a voice that's been distorted by the secular academy, and that's something that needs to be rectified,” Pearce concluded.
His reading of the the text of “Romeo and Juliet” is meant “to have Shakespeare understood as Shakespeare understood himself.”