Beginning in 2011, for the first time in many states, teenagers marked as sex offenders after having consensual sex with a minor may be allowed to petition to be taken off the offender registry under changes in "Romeo and Juliet" laws.
In reading Jezebel writer Erin Gloria Ryan's article about these recent developments, I was struck by two things: our society's feelings about Shakespeare's teen lovers, and Ryan's ending comment to her article.
Ryan concludes by saying, "I'm wary of weakening laws designed to protect children too young to consent to sexual activity. Perhaps the solution to the Romeo & Juliet problem is to provide counseling to both the girl and boy. And keep them away from poison-pedding apothecaries."
Ah, counseling. What Romeo and Juliet couldn't have done with that?
Take a look back at your original Shakespeare (if you didn't burn it upon graduation, that is). What's the thing that stands out to you about Romeo's and Juliet's parents, other than the murderous feud?
Probably your answer is: nothing. For that matter, where are Romeo's parents? They show up at the play's beginning, asking Romeo's cousin Benvolio where Romeo has been lately, and what's been going on with him lately. But once they find out, they do what they do best -- absent themselves. Benvolio volunteers to handle it, and Montague and wife exeunt stage.
Juliet's parents don't do their daughter much better. They are present, yes, but paying attention they are not. Juliet's mother seems unable to be alone with her daughter. Her father is more concerned with his own honor and reputation than his daughter's wishes, and Juliet's appeals to her mother fall on deaf ears. The lines of communication aren't blocked in this family; the telephone poles fell down long ago.
Who do Romeo and Juliet have? Romeo has his poison-peddling, advice-dispensing apothecary, and his friends, and Juliet has her Nurse. Replacement parents, yes, but the generation gap is clearly there. Romeo has close friends, but Juliet doesn't seem even to have that.
If there is any reason why the Romeo and Juliet analog seems appropriate today, it is this. Do all teens who have illegal sexual relationships have bad, absentee or incompetent parents? Of course not. Is there reason to suspect, however, that when children are acting entirely contrary to their parents' wishes or teachings, that there is a breakdown in communication on one side or the other? More likely.
One of the things our society tends to take away from Romeo and Juliet is the concept of star-crossed love. Another is obvious, as seen in the name given to these laws -- modern society's readers tend to feel uncomfortable with the realization that Juliet is barely 14 and Romeo is 16, possibly older. In context, Shakespearean society would not have been bothered much by the ages.
But one of the main concepts Shakespeare was trying to communicate was the problem of youth, and the things that could happen when youths felt they had no guidance or trustworthy adults in their lives. In Romeo and Juliet, all the adults have their own agendas, even the Nurse and the priest: the priest wants to use Romeo's relationship to bring peace, and the Nurse wants to see Juliet securely married (and she doesn't seem to care to whom). True, their agendas are not necessarily counter to the lovers,' but they aren't exactly in line with them either.
Ultimately, Romeo and Juliet is an appropriate analog for these situations, but not just because it's about two young teens in the throes of hormone-ridden infatuation. It's appropriate, too, because it's about youths in need of guidance. In any situation covered by the "Romeo and Juliet" laws, we have youths in need of guidance, from as many responsible, caring adults as possible -- adults with the goodwill of the teens foremost in their minds and hearts.
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