Here is the Prologue to Joseph Pearce's new book, Shakespeare on Love: Seeing the Catholic Presence in Romeo and Juliet (Ignatius Press, 2013):
The Greatest Love Story Ever Told?
In the history of the world, and in the canon of world literature, there have been many great love affairs and many legendary lovers. We think perhaps of Helen and Paris, Odysseus and Penelope, Aeneas and Dido, Antony and Cleopatra, Dante and Beatrice, Paolo and Francesca, Petrarch and Laura. And, of course, whenever we think of the world’s greatest lovers we can scarcely avoid thinking of Romeo and Juliet. Yet when we step back from the list we notice something a little odd about the lovers and their love affairs. We are struck by how different one love affair is from another. On the one hand we have the adulterous passion of Helen and Paris, with its destructive consequences; on the other, we have the loyalty and chastity of the devoted wife Penelope, who serves as a beacon of light on her husband’s dark journey home. We have the disastrous love affairs of Aeneas and Dido, and Antony and Cleopatra, in which the lovers are so obsessed with each other that they forget and neglect their duties to their family, friends, and country. We have the adulterous love of Paolo and Francesca that leads to the murder of Francesca’s husband and the hurtling of the lovers into the hell of their infernal passion. At the other end of the lovers’ spectrum we have Petrarch’s idealized love for the unattainable Laura, and Dante’s idealized love for Beatrice, the latter of which, stripped of all selfishness, baptizes Dante’s imagination, enabling him to ascend to the mystic heights of beatitude. Thus we see that the right sort of love can lead us to heaven, whereas the wrong sort can condemn us to hell. If this is so, what sort of love do Romeo and Juliet have for each other? Is their love the right sort or the wrong sort? Is it heavenly or hellish? Is it fruitful or destructive?
Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the most famous love story ever written. Its cultural influence is so profound that Shakespeare’s “star cross’d” lovers have become synonymous with the very meaning of romantic love. But what exactly does the world’s greatest playwright have to say about the world’s greatest lovers? Does he sympathize with their plight? Does he consider them blameless, or are they at least partly responsible for the tragedy that awaits them? Is the love story about fatalistic forces beyond the control of the protagonists, or is it a cautionary tale warning of the dangers of unbridled erotic passion? And what does Shakespeare have to say about the relationship between romantic love, or eros, and the greatest love of all, the love which God has for man, which manifests itself in his giving his only Son as a willing sacrifice for man’s salvation? What relationship is there between eros and caritas, between the romantic love between a man and a woman and the love of Christ for humanity? What is the connection between the most famous love story ever written and the Greatest Love that there is? These questions are asked and answered in the following pages as we endeavor to see Romeo and Juliet through Shakespeare’s devoutly Catholic eyes.
More about the book:
Having given the evidence for William Shakespeare's Catholicism in two
previous books, literary biographer Joseph Pearce turns his attention in
this work to the Bard's most famous play, Romeo and Juliet.
"Star-crossed" Romeo and Juliet are Shakespeare's most famous lovers and perhaps the most well-known lovers in literary history. Though the young pair has been held up as a romantic ideal, the play is a tragedy, ending in death. What then, asks Pearce, is Shakespeare saying about his protagonists? Are they the hapless victims of fate, or are they partly to blame for their deaths? Is their love the "real thing", or is it self-indulgent passion? And what about the adults in their lives? Did they give the young people the example and guidance that they needed?
The Catholic understanding of sexual desire, and its need to be ruled by reason, is on display in Romeo and Juliet, argues Pearce. The play is not a paean to romance but a cautionary tale about the naïveté and folly of youthful infatuation and the disastrous consequences of poor parenting. The well-known characters and their oft-quoted lines are rich in symbolic meaning that points us in the direction of the age-old wisdom of the Church.
Although such a reading of Romeo and Juliet is countercultural in an age that glorifies the heedless and headless heart of young love, Pearce makes his case through a meticulous engagement with Shakespeare and his age and with the text of the play itself.
Joseph Pearce is writer in residence and Visiting Fellow at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. He is the author of The Quest for Shakespeare and Through Shakespeare's Eyes and editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions of Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear. His other books include literary biographies of Oscar Wilde, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
"Joseph Pearce's book on Romeo and Juliet stands like a lighthouse in
the murk of modern literary criticism. His approach challenges the
assumptions that govern popular 'scholarly' work on Shakespeare in our
time. It is massively researched, convincing, intelligent, and (happily)
interesting. I commend it highly to all possible readers."
- Thomas Howard, Author, Chance or the Dance?