I accept that Romeo Montague has his faults. Two huge faults in fact. Firstly, there is his habit of enacting murderous revenge on cousins-in-law who kill his best friend. Secondly, is his rather deplorable attitude to seduction:
From Love’s weak childish blow she lives uncharm’d.
She will not stay the siege of loving terms,
Nor bide th’encounter of assailing eyes.
His description of love as an attack betrays a patriarchal assumption that women are a ‘thing’ to be conquered and taken, with force if necessary. Alas, not much has changed in 400 years since this play was written.
And yet, in my experience as an English teacher, the thing that invokes the most ire from people, regarding Romeo’s character, is his tendency to mope and talk about his feelings. The adjective ‘wet’ (showing a lack of forcefulness or strength of character; feeble) is one I often hear to describe him, and it is surely an adjective more inspired by the metrosexual effeminacy of Di Caprio’s portrayal of Shakespeare’s eponymous star-crossed teen, than by the actual acts (murderous revenge, for example) that Romeo commits in the play.
On World Mental Health Day, I think it’s important to note that Romeo’s tendency to discuss his feelings-however ‘wet’, mopey, or superficial we may perceive them to be- is a strength of his, rather than a weakness.
Let’s not forget, Romeo is in a bad way. His own father notes his tendency to ‘…draw/ The shady curtains from Aurora’s bed’ and ‘Away from light…private in his chamber pen himself.’ The argument regarding whether Romeo is in love with Rosaline or not is a futile one: the fact is, he feels as though he is in love, and that’s enough justification for the behaviours that we might now ascribe to the clinically depressed.
This thing with Rosaline: it’s affecting him. Therefore, when Benvolio entreats him in Act 1 Scene 1 to explain what ‘sadness lengthens [his] hours’, and Romeo replies as he does-with hyperbolic and poetical lamentations on the pains of unrequited love- we must celebrate this fact.
Consider the masculine world of Verona. This is a place of violent sexual bravado and aggression. This is a place where men boast about rape and peace is a word to be hated. In a world where masculine toughness is so valued, Romeo’s frank and open honesty about his own feelings, however ridiculous they may seem to us, is a real strength. And kudos to Benvolio too: it’s bloody lovely to see a man who cares so much about his friend.
English teachers: this year, if you’re teaching Romeo and Juliet, please do the boys in your class a favour: slag Romeo off for the murder off Tybalt and be sure to berate him for his sexism. But please. Please, please, please commend him for the fact that he talks about how he feels.