Shakespeare Got It Right

by
Carolyn Gage

Editor’s Note: In February two missing Maryland teens, Rachel Crites and Rachel Smith, were found to have committed suicide together,
their bodies discovered in Crites’ car.  According to an entry in Crites’ diary, she wished not to be separated from her girlfriend even in death:
“Wherever I end up laying, whether buried or cremated, I want to stay with my true love, buried next to her. This is my choice. I’m sorry.”  The
teen’s last wishes, however, were not respected.   

Shakespeare knew how to end a tragedy.  He knew you don’t just send the audience home without
some closure, without some lesson learned, without some sense that “this must never happen again.”

At the end of his play Romeo and Juliet, where the two lovers commit double suicide as a result of
their families’ disapproval, Shakespeare brings on the Prince of Verona as well as Juliet’s parents and
Romeo’s father.   In front of the citizens of Verona , in the early morning light, the Prince publicly
unravels the details of the entire tragedy.  He does not blame the friar who hatched the dangerous
plot, the druggist who sold the poison, or the messenger who came too late.  Notably, he does not
blame the lovers.

No, Shakespeare’s figure of civic and moral authority lays the blame squarely on the shoulders of the
feuding families:  “Capulet, Montague,/ See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,/ That heaven finds
means to kill your joys with love!”

And then, we have the catharsis:  Juliet’s father offers his hand to Romeo’s father.  Romeo’s father
declares that he will erect a statue of Juliet in pure gold.  Juliet’s father is quick to add that Romeo’s
body will be buried with that of Juliet.  And the Prince sums up poetically:  “ A glooming peace this
morning with it brings.”

There is no “glooming peace” in Washington today.  The two teenaged lovers who took their lives will
have no statues erected in their honor.  And even though one of them wrote a last request in her diary
to be buried next to her “true love,” it is doubtful whether that request will be honored.

There is no Prince of Georgetown who will step forward and demand a full and public accounting
from all parties of what they know.  In fact, the authorities have declared their intention to suppress
the details of the two deaths, consistent with their “policy” surrounding suicides.

And the families? They are requesting respect for their privacy.  There are no gestures of
reconciliation.  The blame is being laid on the victims:  One of the girls was, according to her father,
depressed.

I daresay that Romeo and Juliet were depressed also.  Romeo was facing exile and Juliet was looking
at an arranged marriage with its attendant marital rape.  But the wise Prince of Verona knew that his
people deserved better than a facile blaming of the children.  He knew the root of the tragedy lay in
the families’ refusal to accept the love between these two young people, their determination to place
obstacles in their path and to accuse them of betraying their families’ values, of dishonoring the
family, with their passionate liaison.  He knew that the only possible closure to the story would be the
healing of this bigotry.

In the tragedy this week, there were two warring factions.  One family was Catholic and the other
Jewish.  Traditionally Catholicism and Judaism are not religions that accept intermarriage between
members.  More than that, these are religions that have traditionally rejected homosexuality as
morally wrong – a perversion or a sin.

No doubt the girls were depressed.  They may have even felt as if they were carrying the weight of the
world, because they were.  These children were shouldering the disapproval and censure of two major
world religions, backed by centuries of history and culture.  These children were defying the moral
precepts of millennia.  Possibly, they were also dealing with the disapproval of their families.   These
burdens would be crushing to an adult with a fully-developed support system.  For an eighteen-year-
old and a sixteen-year-old, it was more than they could bear.

As a witness to the playing out of this tragedy in the media, I am restless.  I lack the kind of closure
that Shakespeare offered to the citizens of his imagined world and the audiences of his real one.  I am
missing the respect for my investment in the story, in the culture that produced the tragedy.  I need
for the families to come together with mutual acknowledgement of the prejudices that drove their
daughters to desperation.  I want them to clasp hands publicly, to own and repudiate the historic
“feud” between their faiths as well as the traditional homophobia of both religions.

I want them to bury these girls together, as the girls had wished, and I want them to establish a living
memorial to honor their courage and their pain, a memorial that will bear witness to the fact that the
homophobia taught and practiced by the major religions of the world is criminal, that the victims of
this homophobia die every day in every country, and that young people are among those who suffer
the most.  I want a pledge from the media and from the police that there will never again be a
conspiracy of silence, of suppressing suicide notes and details of deaths, of disappearing or
downplaying the evidence of sexual orientation in the name of “respect for the families.”  I want every
death counted, noted, commemorated, remembered annually, until we all live in a world where
homophobia is no longer tolerated or protected as a religious, ethnic, cultural, or personal
prerogative.