On the wrong way of identifying with Romeo and Juliet

In his lecture on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, W. H. Auden observes that there are two wrong ways to identify with tragedy: one is complete identification and the other is complete differentiation.

We must combine identification and differentiation. The wrong way of identifying with Romeo and Juliet is to sympathize with their puppy love while saying, “I’m like Romeo and Juliet, even though I won’t commit suicide.” But Romeo and Juliet are not right to commit suicide, and we aren’t like them because we don’t love enough, not because we love as much but feel a moral distaste for suicide. Romeo and Juliet confuse romance and love. The ancient tragic character is one with whom fate is passionately offended. The modern tragic character is passionately related to an untruth that makes the tragedy. I myself have insufficient passion to be a hero. In ancient tragedy the moral is, “Take care not to offend the gods.” No martyr to truth, like Romeo, is possible in that drama, therefore, and no villain, who is passionately offended with truth, like Iago. 

Lectures on Shakespeare


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