Romeo and Juliet – A Queer Recontextualisation?

Evren Munro
September 7, 2023

Evren’s Rambles on Alternative Readings and Adaptations

I’ve been sitting on this idea for a good while. It was meant to be published during Pride Month as a sort of personal celebration of queerness in history and literature, but instead I sat on it for months, dissatisfied with what I was writing. Initial drafts of this article were really, really boring. They read like a highschool essay where I had to justify every single thought I had on this topic with lengthy analysis and formal language (let’s be honest, it was probably a response to the trauma of English classes being so prescriptive in their ‘creativity’ and ‘critical thinking’) – in short, it sucked.

The TL;DR could be summarised easily – Juliet’s monologue could be read through a queer (specifically, trans, though it could be read as gender nonconforming in general) lens and therefore, that is really cool. Here’s all the justification for it in a near line-by-line analysis.

Here is a small snippet of what I spared you of:

The entire speech is a beseeching of Romeo to reject his family and his name, to choose love – selfish, beautiful, and forbidden love – over his family who would condemn their relationship. In turn, she promises to do the same, if he would not reject his own family, demonstrating an equality atypical for the time (a further queerness to their relationship, where men were typically more active in a partnership than women, a pattern in their partnership as evidenced by her taking the initiative to plan a way for the two of them to escape and be together, even if it ended badly . . . but that’s not the point of this article). She reaffirms his core identity in spite of his name and family multiple times throughout, her specific choices in words echoing more modern rhetoric often . . .

I was barely a moment away from launching into PEEL structure and telling you every literary technique that was used in the one soliloquy . . . Dear lord.

Instead, as I sat on this, I got thinking . . . why do I feel the need to justify that I, as a queer dude, see Romeo and Juliet as a tragic tale of young queer lovers, unable to explore themselves in their first foray into the world, and forced to death because of it? Why can’t I just say ‘Oh, Romeo and Juliet is T4T, actually’ and be done with it?

This brings me to this semester and my Adaptations class (hi, Dave, LitSoc thinks you’re cool), where, funnily enough, we had a BYO Shakespeare week. Which, obviously, immediately got me thinking back to this article . . . One of the things we discussed was misreadings, intentionally taking a text and misinterpreting its core themes as illustrated by the author to then do an adaptation of it – wait, holy shit, this is LITERALLY what my original plan for my article was. I’d taken the original monologue, looked at the theme of rejecting familial identity in favour of love, happiness, and self-truth, and decided that it was a call to queer people who had faced similar situations. Even though Romeo and Juliet was considered the Pinnacle Heterosexual Love Story™ (which I am now beginning to understand was also likely a product of highschool English classes being so one-track minded, how interesting . . . ) I’d still found a way to reconstruct it:

In a world where for a significant portion of history anything queer was considered forbidden and taboo, it’s easy to see how we would be drawn to a story centred around a forbidden, scandalous romance vehemently opposed by our families and loved ones. Forbidden, star-crossed romances are the literary equivalent to bread and butter for LGBT+ audiences, with many queer stories compounding on this with not just scandal demonstrated through queer pairings, but other tropes as well, especially with the element of unsupportive family members.”

Which is, ultimately, ABSOLUTELY REALLY AMAZINGLY COOL! I have so much creative power at my fingertips! I can just do a few simple justifications and some flimsy highschool level analysis and, suddenly, Romeo and Juliet has transformed from the bland play everyone is yapping on about as a Masterpiece of Literature and Shakespeare’s Magnum Opus into something deeply relatable and important to me, personally.

But it was here I ran into another roadblock.

Why does this even matter?

I can rant on for days about why it matters to me, obviously. I was reclaiming something that had always been framed as not for me, I was able to use someone else’s words to justify my own standing because goodness knows people would never listen to my own. It made something I’d previously seen as boring and frankly overrated more fun for me. But why would other people care? I mean, maybe some of those scholars who like to claim that Shakespeare was secretly queer all along would care but, to be honest, I wasn’t even claiming that. I was just adapting a story through reading it in a slightly different way from ‘normal’ people.

Dear reader, I’d forgotten the Cardinal Rule of writing – indeed, of all life, to a degree – it doesn’t matter what other people think, as long as you’re happy. It mattered because it mattered to me (and also, probably half of the Pubs Team who were sick of hearing me procrastinate and swear it would be ‘done soon, I promise’ each weekly meeting). Why should I worry about what other people think?

And, lo and behold, isn’t that also somewhat the point of Juliet’s words from the balcony?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet . . .

No matter the way we look at Romeo and Juliet, no matter the way we adapt or change it, it’s still Romeo and Juliet: Shakespeare’s apparent most famous play. Even if I’m reading it through a distinctly queer lens, that doesn’t change the actual source text, or whatever Shakespeare’s intentions were when writing it. Honestly, it’s probably not even the strangest reading or rewriting of it that exists – Gnomeo and Juliet comes immediately to mind, and it haunts me. So if it makes me happy, and it’s still got those core tenets that ultimately build the story as we know it, who cares if it matters or not?

So Romeo and Juliet are secretly T4T, actually. I’m probably going to write a story where they live happily ever after as my Adaptations assignment because it’s consumed my mind. And I’ve now established I am a giant nerd who can and will analyse a monologue line by line to justify my point in a very public publication. Oh dear.