On Saturday, Mill Mountain Theatre opens a production of “Romeo and Juliet” — an adaptation, technically, intended for middle school audiences and up.
Whether William Shakespeare’s original or this version, you know the basic story even if you haven’t actually seen it before: Boy meets girl; girl meets boy. They fall in love. Parents disapprove. Drama ensues, and, a whole bunch of people wind up dead, including the two title characters. As the play concludes: “For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
But there could be. Shakespeare wrote his play in the 1590s — adapted (some might say stolen) from an existing tale first printed about 1562 that in turn was adapted (there were no copyright laws in those days) from an Italian novella. But the “ancient grudge” between the Capulets and the Montagues that drive the plot of “Romeo and Juliet” still exists today —they’re just between Democrats and Republicans.
A survey this year commissioned by The Atlantic magazine turned up this curious statistic: 35% of Republicans say they’d be unhappy if their son or daughter married a Democrat while 45% of Democrats say they’d be unhappy if their son or daughter married a Republican.
We’re not sure which party the Capulets and Montagues belong to — Shakespeare doesn’t delve into exactly why they dislike each other — but these fictional Italian families from the 16th century would clearly fit right into our world today.
This would appear to be yet another case of how Shakespeare told a timeless tale, except for this: Our modern-day approval of intra-party marriage is quite new.
Let’s go back in time, not to the 16th century but to 1960. There was a presidential election that year — a rather closely-contested one, at that. As you might imagine, feelings that year were pretty strong. Pollsters for the American National Election Survey, an academic poll, asked Americans how they’d feel about their son or daughter marrying someone from the other party.
Republicans and Democrats felt equally as strong on the subject — about 4% on each side objected. Now it’s 35% and 45%. What changed? And when?
The “when” is easier to answer: It appears to be within the past decade. The question doesn’t appear to have been asked again until 2008. That year 20% of Democrats said they’d object to their child marrying a Republican, while 26% of Republicans said they’d object to their child marrying a Democrat. What happened between 1960 and 2008 to produce such a negative reaction? Well, a lot, we suppose.
Since the question apparently wasn’t asked in between, we don’t know if this was a steady increase over the years, or represented a sudden spike.
What we do know is this: When the question was asked again in 2010, the numbers went up markedly in just two years. In 2010, 33% of Democrats said they’d object to their child marrying a Republican and 49% of Republicans said they’d object to their child marrying a Democrat. The first years of the Obama administration seem to have been quite polarizing. We’ll let you speculate why.
When pollsters asked again late last year, they got a different set of numbers (because, well, that’s how polls work — people change their minds).
This time, Democratic opposition to a Republican son-in-law or daughter-in-law was even higher — from 4% in 1960 to 20% in 2008 to 33% in 2010 to 45% now. Meanwhile, Republican opposition to a Democratic son-in-law or daughter-in-law was down somewhat — from 4% in 1960 to 26% in 2008 to 49% in 2010 to 35% now. Democrats are definitely becoming more closed-minded on the subject; Republicans might be becoming more open-minded, but that’s a relative term — since they’re still more close-minded than they were in 2008. Have the Trump years tempered them a bit after feeling on the outs during the Obama years? Whatever the numbers today, this remains: Americans are a lot more polarized on the subject today than they were in 1960. A student studying “Romeo and Juliet” then might not have been able to relate very well to the story. Now, all you have to do is substitute “Democrat” and “Republican” for Caputlet and Montague (or the other way around) and suddenly it all feels very relevant. Society has come a long way since the 16th century: We’ve become a lot more open about, well, just about everything. But somehow we’re reverting to 16th century values in one way. Surely this can’t be a good thing.
In some ways, we shouldn’t be surprised: We’re a lot more polarized in general, to the extent that a lot of Americans simply don’t know anyone from the other party and aren’t particularly keen to meet someone who is. Not only that, we increasingly don’t like people who don’t think the way we do. A survey last year found that 21% of Democrats think Republicans are “evil” and 23% of Republicans feel the same way about Democrats. It’s one thing to think the other party is wrong on the issues, but to say the other side is “evil” is — well, that can’t be good for the country, either. But if that’s really how you think, you definitely wouldn’t want your child to marry into that evil.
So just how many actually do? That’s harder to say. Virginia doesn’t register voters by party, unlike 30 other states. The website FiveThirtyEight.com crunched some numbers and found that 55% of marriages are either all-Democratic or all-Republican but only 9% involve a truly “mixed” marriage of a Democrat and a Republican. The others involve a partisan and someone registered as an independent. Two-thirds of those Democratic-Republican marriages involve a Republican man and a Democratic woman. That means the odds are good that Romeo Montague is a Republican and Juliet Capulet is a Democrat. (That assumes, of course, both protagonists follow the politics of their parents — always a dicey proposition). Their pairing might be unusual since not many Democrats and Republicans really marry each other, after all, but the negative reaction of their parents to their love affair is quite contemporary. Shakespeare, it seems, was both a man of his times, and also one of ours, which is why we’re still studying him.