Shakespeare, the Supreme Court and Child Pornography
by Joseph Pearce
I've been sent an e-mail which highlights the ultimate "abuse" (no pun intended) of the "innocent theme" in Romeo and Juliet.
The Shakespeare abuse occurred in a significant Supreme Court case from 2002 (I think) in which Justice Kennedy and the majority struck down a Child Pornography Prevention Act, ruling it overly broad. Essentially, digital child pornography, or, a young looking actor, in which an actual minor is not used, has been ruled to potentially have artistic value protected by the First Amendment. Reference is made to Romeo and Juliet on page 4 of the Supreme Court ruling, which reads in part:
"Both themes-teenage sexual activity and the sexualabuse of children-have inspired countless literaryworks. William Shakespeare created the most famouspair of teenage lovers, one of whom is just 13 years ofage. See Romeo and Juliet, act I, sc. 2, l. 9 (“She hathnot seen the change of fourteen years”). In the drama,Shakespeare portrays the relationship as somethingsplendid and innocent, but not juvenile. The work hasinspired no less than 40 motion pictures, some ofwhich suggest that the teenagers consummated theirrelationship. E.g., Romeo and Juliet (B. Luhrmanndirector, 1996). Shakespeare may not have writtensexually explicit scenes for the Elizabethan audience,but were modern directors to adopt a less conventionalapproach, that fact alone would not compel the conclusion that the work was obscene." (emphasis added)
There we have it: Supreme Court Justices displaying a woeful ignorance of the cautionary nature of Shakespeare's tragedy, misreading its clear Christian morality, and using the critical misreading to protect digitally created child pornography.
When Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet his own daughter was about Juliet's age. The play is written from the perspective of a Christian father. It expresses a parent's concern about the destructive consequences of naive adolescent passion. The very suggestion that it in some way glorifies underage sexual activity is patently absurd, though to be fair to the ignorant Supreme Court Justices it is an absurd misreading that is all too common in the modern academy. Those wishing to know more about the traditional Christian morality of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet should check out my course on "Shakespeare's Catholicism" in the Catholic Courses (www.catholiccourses.com) in which two of the lectures are on this particular play. Also, my new book, Shakespeare on Love: The Catholic Presence in Romeo and Juliet is published soon by Ignatius Press.