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And They Lived Happily Ever After? Will Gnomeo & Juliet Have a Happy Ending?

It started out like Romeo and Juliet, but it ended up in tragedy.

– Milhouse Van Outen

I have to be honest. I studied Romeo and Juliet in secondary school and I just didn’t get it. Not the fancy-ass language or the outdated words, but the appeal of the play. Seriously? This piece of work right here is frequently regarded as one of the romantic pieces of literature ever written? A play about a teenage fling which ends in suicide? Where Romeo falls for Juliet on the rebound and they never get to spend any time together? Where a convenient third-act quarantine serves to lead to the play’s tragic conclusion? I never really got the appeal of the work – I mean, it was good and smart, but it struck me as a lot more cynical and bitter than most seem to think it is. And so this trailer for Gnomeo and Juliet arrives, and I’m wondering – will a whole generation of children end up scarred by the image of gnome suicide?

Truth be told, if you asked a random sampling of people about Shakespeare’s play, I guarantee you that the vast majority of them will recall the set-up – young lovers from two households “alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene.” However, I assure you that most of the people will gloss over the “a pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life” bit. In fact, the pop culture image of Romeo and Juliet is the story of true love conquering all, when it’s clearly the opposite. I doubt the vast majority of people give much thought to the irony of describing a couple genuinely happy together as “Romeo and Juliet”.

Truth be told, I don’t expect the aforementioned Gnomeo and Juliet (which looks charmingly inoffensive, even if it doesn’t look particularly exciting) to stay true to the original text. I think a whole generation of children would be scarred by the bloodshed (or whatever gnomes have for blood) and the tragic death of the two leads, all played out to “the classic music of Elton John.” I just find it fascinating that we’ve coopted the play into our popular lexicon as shorthand for love winning over social adversity when Shakespeare’s core observation was that only in death could the two be together.

Of course, Prokofiev originally wanted to give his ballet Romeo & Juliet a happy ending. He wanted a final dance number – after all, two corpses on stage makes for a fairly limp finale to a ballet, doesn’t it? Ironically enough, it was Josef Stalin and his other Soviet censors who stepped in as a defender of the Bard’s original vision – not because under that moustache hid a genuine literary lover, but because Prokofiev would have used his ending to espouse his views on “Christian science”.

Now with 100% extra gnomes...

Still, I think the fact that Prokofiev originally felt he could give his ballet a happy ending while retaining name Romeo & Juliet says a lot about the play in popular imagination. During second school, I came to my own personal epiphany about Shakespeare’s play, one which was pretty depressing a student rote learning the piece line-by-line: popular imagination doesn’t care what Shakespeare actually wrote, it just cares about what it wanted him to write. The public wants a definitive over-arching story of love reaching across social class and conquering all the hurdles in its way – it doesn’t matter that the characters in Romeo and Juliet fail spectacularly, because we’ve decided that that part of the story isn’t important.

We don’t want Romeo and Juliet to be what it is, we want it to be what we want it to be.

We have a mould that we want Shakespeare’s love story to fit into, and it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t conform to our expectations in such strict terms. We can take the name that Shakespeare gave it – and he borrowed heavily from source materials like Tristan and Isolde – and we apply it to a nameless ideal that we want to believe in. We all want to believe in an all-conquering love, and “Romeo and Juliet” works as shorthand, even if it isn’t necessarily – or strictly speaking – accurate. The title was written by Shakespeare, so it grants it a sort of lofty appeal, doesn’t?

It’s just something which has bothered me a little bit. It has become a sort of paradox feeding back in on itself. We use Shakespeare’s play to provide a label to this sort of love story because it’s a prominent work, but I also believe that the play itself has begun to feed back off this – would it be so popular if it didn’t inspire an archetype that is ultimately rather divorced from its own themes? If it didn’t inspire movies like Gnomeo and Juliet, would I be studying it in school?

The short answer is that I don’t know. It just occurred to me while watching the trailer Gnomeo and Juliet and wondering how many of the parents will explain the actual story to their children on the ride home. Not too many I bet. Not that I’m saying they should – I think kids are harder to scare than we think, but I don’t think that there’s anything especially romantic about the play itself, just a lot that’s downright tragic. However, we didn’t need another tragedy, so we bent it to our collective needs.

2 Responses

  1. The original story by shakespear is better. do you have original book from shakespear?

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