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Defying the Stars: Tragic Love as the Struggle for Freedom in Romeo and Juliet



PAUL A. KOTTMAN


This essay aims to replace our paradigmatic interpretation of Romeo and Juliet with an understanding of love as the struggle for freedom, and to present Shakespeare’s drama as a vision of our “tragic” subjectivity. Kottman argues that, in order to plausibly account for the play’s outcome and the lovers’ own actions, we must first depart from our paradigmatic interpretation of the myth, which sees a dialectical tension between the lovers’ desires and the demands of society or nature. Contesting the notion that modern subjectivity is rooted in a conflict between individual desires and the reigning demands of family, civic, and social norms shaping those desires, he contends that Shakespeare’s play shows how Romeo and Juliet become who they are through acts of mutual self-recognition that mute such conflicts. The tragic core of our self-realization springs not from our personal struggles with external social or natural necessities but from the realization that nothing, not even mortality, separates or individuates us absolutely. Romeo and Juliet claim their lives as their own because they actualize their separateness for themselves, through one another. Their love affair is not the story of two individuals whose desire to be together is thwarted by “a greater power than we can contradict” (5.3.153). It is the story of two individuals who actively claim their individuation in the only way that they can—through one another. Their separateness is not an imposed, external necessity, but the operation of their freedom and self-realization. On this, they will stake their lives.



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