This post contains some discussion of death.
I have read William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet more times than I care to count. Once in high school, three times in college (each for a different purpose), and literally dozens of times in my career as a teacher.
Yes, sometimes I do find myself recalling fitting quotations at awkward moments. (Bonus points if anyone can guess my favorite R&J quote.) Yes, we do keep track of the plot with a Body Count Chart in my classroom. And yes, I do find myself oddly fascinated with anything that purports to put a unique spin on a much-told story. So when I found Lisa Fiedler’s Romeo’s Ex: Rosaline’s Story at my local charity used book sale, I had to buy it.
I deeply appreciate the premise behind this book, which is basically:
- Love =/= infatuation =/= horniness.
- Also, people — particularly women — should be judged on more than their looks.
The story is basically a retelling of Romeo and Juliet through the points of view of rotating characters, mostly Rosaline (who, as the title might suggest, becomes the main character in this version) and Benvolio. While the meeting of Romeo and Juliet — and how it affects the feud between the Montagues and Capulets — remains the primary source of conflict in the novel, Romeo’s and Juliet’s voices, in terms of narration, make only occasional appearances. Other drop-in narrators include Tybalt and Mercutio. (I am a little sad that the Nurse never gets to narrate because how hilarious would it be to try to pick out the meaningful action from the many random tangents?)
As a character here, Rosaline is independent and intelligent in a way that Shakespeare’s women characters typically are not. She studies informally with a Healer in Verona and hopes to heal on her own someday. In fact, when she tells Romeo that she will “still live chaste,” it is in order to pursue this career ambition rather than out of any sort of religious devotion or commitment. As someone who’s had male acquaintances, colleagues, and even friends who expected that “their women” would put their career desires behind the desires of a (presumably male) partner, I thoroughly approve of this tweaking.
Additionally, Rosaline cautions Juliet — after Romeo and Juliet meet at the masquerade — that Romeo has a history of being infatuated by beauty and being fickle in those infatuations. She points out that if Romeo professes love for Rosaline that morning and equal or surpassing love for Juliet that night — well, he’s probably thinking with (and of) the organ in his pants rather than the one in his head now, isn’t he? She points out that real love is based on knowing who a person is — which is a relationship that must grow over time — rather than merely viewing someone’s appearance or observing how they act in a single circumstance.
What I love most about Rosaline (and if you’re playing the “guess my quote” game, this is a big hint) is her recognition of how fucked up it is that Capulet (and to different extents, Paris and Lady Capulet) would use Juliet, another human being, as a pawn in a legal and sexual arrangement formed without her consent.
But for all the ways I love what this retelling tries to do, I have a couple of serious criticisms of the ways it fails to deliver.
[Might be some spoilers here.]
First, for as much as Benvolio professes that his love for Rosaline centers on her kindness and intelligence rather than her beauty — well, both he and other characters make routine references to Rosaline’s looks. Not that it’s difficult to believe that someone in love with Rosaline (or any woman) would find her beautiful. It is, however, somewhat less authentic when her beauty is the first and most repeated trait upon which Benvolio comments.
Moreover, despite Rosaline’s remarks to Juliet that real love takes time to develop, Rosaline and Benvolio voice their feelings for each other within the timeline of the play. That is, while Benvolio and Rosaline first talk to each other earlier on the day of the Capulet ball and while they do retain their abilities to communicate while Romeo is banished and Juliet potion-ed, they effectively only know one another for about as long as Romeo and Juliet do. It’s true that Rosaline and Benvolio spend more time talking and observing one another before they decide how they feel, but essentially — If Romeo and Juliet’s love is unbelievable largely because of time frame, then by the same criterion, Rosaline and Benvolio’s love is only slightly more plausible.
I suppose part of my disappointment is my own deal. I’ve read and taught the play so many times that much of what I see as important and relevant in it is either under-acknowledged or else ignored altogether. Every time I see a retelling of it, whether it’s a movie or a new stage performance or a novel like this, I secretly hope it says everything that I see. Romeo’s Ex starts to go there but doesn’t get all the way. As a result, I want to love it but ended up only intermittently infatuated instead.