So I am currently reading Stanley Wells' 'Shakespeare, Sex and Love' (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Shakespeare-Sex-Love-Stanley-Wells/dp/0199578591/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top) Not only does he show the unbelievable knowledge that makes him the pre-eminent Shakespeare scholar of modern times but it is incredibly easy to read. He does assume a certain level of knowledge from his readers but in all honesty I'd hate it if he didn't.( I still prefer Jonathan Bate - not sure what it is about his style but it makes me think he's the one I'd want to share a bottle of Sauvignon with.)
My dilemma is two fold. I am not sure yet how I feel about his interpretation of the sonnets (although his discussion of the lyrical poems - Venus and Adonis etc is really convincing) and therefore will probably come back to those at another point. More frustrating though is his convinction that R&J deserves a whole chapter on the basis that it is the play that deals with the concerns of love at the most impressive level in Shakespeare's canon. I am in all honesty shocked by this. I can't believe that Wells believes R&J to be an exploration of anything other than teenage hormones amazed by the novelty of lust. Whether Shakespeare himself included autobiographical elements in his plays is a topic too big for most of us to seriously comment on with any authority but it is true that he married a woman eight years his senior, having already got her pregnant, so it is logical to presume he knew about teenage sexual encounters. In my view, R&J is a story about obsession, infatuation and desperation - but not love. Shakespeare, as Wells acknowledges, opens the play not with the romantic sensibilities of finding 'a new heaven, a new earth' but instead with the bawdy exchange about maidenheads and naked weapons from Sampson and Gregory - not an auspcious beginning. He goes on to introduce a Romeo who mourns not just for the lack of Rosaline's fair touch but more for love itself. It is easy to see Romeo as a character who is in love not with his fair maid but with the idea of being in love. It is love who makes 'misshapen chaos from well seeming forms' not Rosaline herself and it is love that Romeo, at his most passionate, chastises. In Tom Stoppard's witty 'Shakespeare in Love' he has Joseph Fiennes playing the role of Shakespeare tell the actor who is playing Romeo that he can't give too much of his passion away in these early scenes before he even meets Juliet- but arguably this is exactly what Shakespeare did. The imagery of Act 1, Scene 1 where Romeo notes that 'Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs/Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes;/Being vex'd a sea nourish'd with lovers' tears:' is replaced when he finally gains Juliet's approval with an analogy to schoolboys and their books - hardly an image containing the same level of intensity (whilst usefully drawing our attention to Romeo's youth and inexperience.) Later in response to the direct challenge put to Romeo about the fickle nature of his affections by Friar Laurence, the protagonist's reply is the difference between Juliet and Rosaline is not how he feels about them but 'she whom I love now/Doth grace for grace and love for love allow;/The other did not so.' So his commitment to Juliet is not more permanent or stronger than the feelings he had for Rosaline - they are just reciprocated. Rosaline never even appears on stage (at least in the original text - although many modern productions include her at the party scene,) so it beg the question 'why bother to include her?' The only argument surely, is that she illuminates Romeo's character and what we learn through this is that he is a fickle and melancholic young man who tends to obsess over the idea of love rather than the reality of it.
In response to the criticism that Romeo's suicide can be taken as a testament to his feelings for Juliet - again I would point to the style in which Romeo makes this decision as well as the context. The dramatic pace Shakespeare needs at this point in the play may justify the convenient entrance of the apothecary but Romeo shows less doubt than Juliet when she is drinking the friar's potion - from which she believes she will wake up. This again displays the impetuous nature of his character but also an awareness of the situation in which he now finds himself. Romeo has been banished from Verona (and presumably can not go to his family for help - although this remains ambiguous) , his reputation (which we know from Capulet's words earlier was pristine) is ruined and he is responsible for the death of both his best friend and his wife. Irrespective of whether life might be worth living without Juliet herself, it seems that this is a low point for other reasons too.
If Shakespeare really wanted to write the 'greatest love story of all time' then he could have attempted to do that (and arguably got closer with other plays) but what he gives us in R&J is an exploration of the idea of infatuation - intense, beautiful no doubt but fleeting and in its essence, youthful.