Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Love and Responsibility

In my last post I wrote about Dante and "Custody of the Eyes", particularly how Dante's genuine mature purity gives the lie to the faux mature purity of those who think the rules don't apply to them.

And just now I came upon this insightful paragraph by Stephen Zelnick in the Ignatius Press Critical Romeo and Juliet - (emphasis mine)

Shakespeare catches us in the same net of moral discovery as Dante does in his depiction of Paolo and Francesca in his Inferno.  We love what destroys us, and we prefer these destructive things to the difficult regimen our mixed nature requires to bring us to the good for which we hunger.  Only moral leadership, the integrity of the law, the calm authority of religious institutions, and the assumption of adult responsibilities can ensure peace and honor.
And yet, these very checks and balances, this "assumption of adult responsibilities" is missing in the Verona of Shakespeare's play - and, obviously, in the St. Louis, or New York or Cleveland of our day.

Zelnick manages to thread the needle nicely in his essay on Romeo and Juliet.  He avoids the opposing tendencies of either seeing the love between the two as idealized and perfect and the source of salvation (which it isn't), or as seeing the love between the two as merely infantile and base (which it also isn't).  In a way, the love is both - noble and ignoble, a great impulse wrecked by the fallen natures that give rise to it and that fail to shape and properly canalize it.  He sees the nobility of the love of Romeo and Juliet, even in the context of the ignoble elements in it and around it. 

And he sees quite clearly that Romeo and Juliet is a much more complex, intelligent and difficult play than high school teachers and students make of it.  It has more in common with Shakespeare's King John and with the mature morality of Dante's Inferno than it does with our modern notion that we should always "follow our bliss", even when that bliss is below the belt.

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