Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Whatever happened to Rosaline: Romeo's Idea of Romantic Love

A heart drawn in sand on a beach

Oh Rosaline, Rosaline, where art thou? Whatever happened to you? Last time I heard from you, you were going to dismiss or forsake love for the cold arms of a monastery. You refused the tender loving heart and open arms of a determined and passionate lover like Romeo and decided instead to lock yourself up in iron vows of chastity.

When we first hear of Rosaline, it is through the pining mouth of Romeo. In fact, she never physically appears, but it seems that some of the characters know her or rather know of her. Romeo's love is no unspoken secret. His pain is known; by his friends and family members it is often judged as futile or even frowned upon. Romeo, a young man, seems like Antony of old who had lost his heart, mind, and soul to the object of his affections, namely Cleopatra, and some used to label this type of behavior as effeminate in those battle-hardy times.

It is this heart-ache that drives Romeo to mask and show himself among the hated Capulets in thirst of a quick glimpse of Rosaline's beautiful face. Instead, as correctly predicted by Benvolio, he meets a beauty much fairer than chaste Rosaline, and even Romeo himself foreswears his previous love for this new, young and enchanting Juliet. This beautiful love-interest is indeed herself interested in love, and so Romeo's amorous feelings are reciprocated for a change.

There are a few things I would like to observe here. First, Romeo's change of heart seems rather quick. We get the feeling he has been in love with Rosaline for sometime (though admittedly not that long) and one quick view of Juliet seems to be sufficient to banish all those thoughts and feelings. Either Romeo's love for Rosaline was superficial in the first place, or his feelings can turn from one person to another in a wink, hence also lacking depth and substance. In fact, whenever Romeo talks about love thereafter, many, for instance, Friar Lawrence, assume he is still referring to Rosaline.

Also, the circumstances surrounding Juliet, her position and perhaps her age, may make it an obstacle for Romeo to mention her explicitly, and he confides his secret only to a select few; Friar Lawrence is one of them, as he is deemed instrumental in orchestrating their happiness, which, as tragedies are wont to do, unfortunately and uncontrollably turns into its bleak opposite.

But were Romeo's feelings for Rosaline real after all? How could they be replaced so quickly and without a trace? Does Romeo really love and feel affection for others, or is it merely an abundant expression of his own infatuation with the mere idea of love?

It occurs to me that Romeo longs for an abstract and ideal love, which may be inspiring; however, once this craving is fully achieved and exhausted, it will leave him empty. He perhaps, if only on a subconscious level, realizes that Rosaline is indeed completely out of his reach. Of course, he could continue loving her with his boundless adoration, but over time, the situation may become monotonous and cumbersome. 

That does not mean that it cannot be done; many have idealized love to a degree that in fact the consummation of the relationship would actually do harm to those idealistic feelings. This is the type of pure love that poets select and safeguard for their muses, such as Dante's Platonic affections for Beatrice.

But Romeo needs more fodder for his love to burn, and Juliet perfectly fills that void and fits the bill. She loves him, which gives him hope; their situation is difficult and dangerous, which fuels his passion. It might be no coincidence that he vehemently falls in love with those who are from his enemies' families, hence ignoring women from his own group and clan. But should this love be fully reciprocated and consummated and were it to end happily ever after, it would lead to the withdrawal of love.

It seems that most comedies end at the point of marriage, and if they did continue afterwards, it would become a “tragedy.” In the epic prototype-romance Titanic, Jack and Rose have to die for their love in order to rescue it, and for it to remain fully intact and vibrant. Had they married and had children, i.e. fall into the trap of conventional married life, their passion may have dried up, as was interestingly demonstrated or insinuated upon by Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road. 

There Mendes chose to portray, à la Bergman's devastating Scenes of a Marriage, the slow decay and eventual destruction of a marriage. It was no coincidence to have contracted and reunited in Revolutionary Road both actors who had once played Jack and Rose. Revolutionary Road is like a what-if scenario of a love after marriage, an alternate version of the movie Titanic presenting us what would have happened had the couple survived together.

This may sound bitter - unlike Bergman, I would not revel in the fact that divorce rates may increase after this post, nor do I dissuade anyone from getting married here - but I am just showing that such idealistic love may have little in common with reality and that our mundane, day-to-day existence may beat away at those crystallized feelings. And in this context, for their love to survive, Shakespeare had notably no other choice but to kill them off and have them reunite after death, similar to Titanic centuries later. Ironically, it is their joint and tragic death for love that makes their love worthwhile and timeless.

At the same time, there is hidden criticism of this type of blind love. Both of these characters put their and other people's lives in danger due to their ill-fated and doomed romance. It seems that both, but, in particular, Romeo, are so in love with the idea of love that they are ready to sacrifice themselves for it. Put differently, they think that they cannot survive without the other person's love and / or existence leading to the double suicides.

Yet such feelings may not be real or grounded in reality to begin with. In fact, Rosaline and Juliet may be interchangeable after all. I am reminded of the lines of Kazantzaki's Last Temptation of Christ, where the so-called guardian angel tells Jesus that in the world there is only one woman but many faces. The essence of femininity is one and is represented or refracted in different individual women.

This, obviously, reduces the status, worth and dignity of women. By believing them to be supernatural entities, a petrified figment of our idealized imagination or even goddesses, we of the male species will never feel content with what we find in real life. Since we overlook their humanity, we see any supposed flaws as a denial or rejection of our lofty and unrealistic desires. 

It is similar to Kundera's disappointing realization that women are the same as men, with bodies like machines that will rot and smell and that will go to the bathroom etc. The idealization of women that puts the beautiful sex on a pedestal will also turn them into unattainable objects.

Ironically, the idea of interchangeability was expressed in Juliet's speech on what is in a name. She famously states that a rose is a rose but would smell as sweet by any other name. In fact, the meaning of Rosaline's name is rose. To say that any other name would become the same thing may be alluding to the fact that Romeo has simply replaced the rose with another flower, Rosaline with Juliet. But the end effect is still the same: one woman, many faces.

What may be seen as a tragic love story is indeed tragic, but for different reasons. Their love may have been too heedless and blind to lead to any sort of lasting happiness. Juliet cannot be really blamed as she is young and full of romance and ideals appropriate to her age, let us not forget that she is barely fourteen.

The blame should fall on Romeo who has not only seduced this young woman, but who has been pursuing a type of love we mostly read about in novels; all this time, he is driven by his sense of passion and excitement. Such love is ill-fated and doomed to begin with, and it would have been better had he stayed with Rosaline who would not have requited his love and, as a result, not put herself or other people's lives in danger. 

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