I have never been a big fan of Romeo and Juliet. Call me cynical, perhaps, but I highly doubt that two fourteen year olds can make mature, rational decisions about marriage and love. In a Shakespeare class I took last semester, however, my professor was able to cut through my cynicism and help me see the story in a new light. She argued that the tragic protagonist of Romeo and Juliet is neither Romeo nor Juliet, but the city of Verona itself, a place where civic order has failed.
The cause of the failed civic order is the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues. Tension is high even in the first scene of the play, when two Capulet servants joke around about killing Montague men and raping their women. Throughout the play, Shakespeare builds on this tension until fights break out and citizens end up dead. Verona is an ailing city that needs to be repaired.
Enter the star crossed lovers, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, who, in a whirlwind of emotion and hormones, decide to get married after knowing each other for only a day. When Romeo comes to Friar Lawrence to see if the friar will officiate his wedding to Juliet, the Friar tells him, “For this alliance may so happy prove,/ To turn your households’ rancour to pure love.” Friar Lawrence agrees to help Romeo and Juliet not because he believes that they are in love, but because he hopes the marriage will quell the anger between their families and fix the civil order. Only, the play ends with Romeo and Juliet dead and Verona pretty much the way it was at the beginning.
Isaac Marion’s fantastic young adult novel Warm Bodies, which was recently adapted into a movie, is a retelling of Shakespeare’s story set in the zombie apocalypse. R, a zombie, falls in love with a girl named Julie after he… wait for it… eats her boyfriend Perry’s brains. Talk about star crossed lovers. While the premise may seem silly at first glance, Marion’s story is dark, complex, and lyrical and is also a fascinating retelling of one of our culture’s most enduring love stories.
As in Shakespeare’s Verona, the world in Warm Bodies is also troubled and crumbling. Marion writes, “It didn’t take much to bring down the card house of civilization. Just a few gusts and it was done… Good citizens realized the lines that had shaped their lives were imaginary and easily crossed. They had wants and needs and the power to satisfy them, so they did. The moment the lights went out, everyone stopped pretending.” The world in Marion’s book is broken and in desperate need of repair.
Just as Friar Lawrence hoped that Romeo and Juliet’s relationship would fix things in Verona, R and Julie’s relationship in Warm Bodies begins to fix things in their dystopian world. Their relationship slowly builds and evolves into a powerful love, which proves to be a cure for the zombie epidemic. As soon as R meets Julie, he begins to change, to become human again. The other zombies, when they see the love between R and Julie, begin to change as well, to get better. Through their love, R and Julie are able to forge a path to a better civilization and a better way to live.
The power of love is the main theme of Marion’s book, and is what makes it an important story in our world of sarcasm and cynicism today. R and Julie are able to save their world because they fight against the greed, hate, and apathy that the other characters feel in the story, and succeed where Romeo and Juliet failed because of this. R tells himself to, “Peel off these dusty wool blankets of apathy and antipathy and cynical desiccation. I want life in all its stupid sticky rawness.” Marion’s book is a clarion call to look around at what is wrong here in our world, in our civil order, to see what we can fix with kindness, consideration, and sincerity.