Want a break from politics? Let’s take a look at that 1965 song “Back in My Arms Again,” one of my favorites by the Supremes. Note how subtle and classy the sexuality of their performance is compared to today’s pop singers*:
One line from the song has always puzzled me. It occurs at minute 2:23, “And Flo, she don’t know, cause the boy she loves is a Romeo.”
What did that phrase mean? By the time I first heard the song, I’d already studied Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in depth (in junior high, I might add). And so I knew that, at the beginning of the play, Romeo thinks he’s in love with Rosaline, and seems to be pining away for her. But then he spies Juliet at the dance, and declares, “”Did my heart love ’til now? Forswear it, sight / For I ne’er saw true beauty ’til this night.”
Once Romeo loves Juliet, that’s it for him. Although we don’t know if he would have remained faithful had they lived out their normal lifespans, in the context of the play Romeo’s love for Roseline versus his love for Juliet contrasts a love that’s superficial with a love that’s deep and true.
So Romeo is an exemplar of both kinds of love: superficial versus lasting. And when a person is called a “Romeo,” which is being referred to? Does the expression mean a dilettante with the ladies, a casual charmer who can’t be trusted? Or does it mean a true and faithful lover who cleaves to one person only?
Now, you might think I’m somewhat crazy to even give a moment’s thought to what the phrase might mean in the context of this song. All I can say is that I’ve been puzzled about it for well-nigh fifty years, and so I throw out the question to you.
Also, it gives me a chance to put a Supremes video up there.
I’m not making up the dilemma, though. The term “Romeo” when used to refer to a guy has an inherent double meaning, and the choice of which meaning applies can only be determined by the context:
You can describe a man as a Romeo if you want to indicate that he is very much in love with a woman, or that he frequently has sexual relationships with different women.
In Shakespeare’s play, Friar Laurence isn’t sure at first, either. He says it exceedingly well:
Romeo. Then plainly know my heart’s dear love is set
On the fair daughter of rich Capulet:
As mine on hers, so hers is set on mine;
And all combined, save what thou must combine
By holy marriage: when and where and how
We met, we woo’d and made exchange of vow,
I’ll tell thee as we pass; but this I pray,
That thou consent to marry us to-day.
Friar Laurence. Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!
Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken? young men’s love then lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.
Jesu Maria, what a deal of brine
Hath wash’d thy sallow cheeks for Rosaline!
How much salt water thrown away in waste,
To season love, that of it doth not taste!
The sun not yet thy sighs from heaven clears,
Thy old groans ring yet in my ancient ears;
Lo, here upon thy cheek the stain doth sit
Of an old tear that is not wash’d off yet:
If e’er thou wast thyself and these woes thine,
Thou and these woes were all for Rosaline:
And art thou changed? pronounce this sentence then,
Women may fall, when there’s no strength in men.
Later in the scene Romeo convinces him (the “she” in the first line of the following exchange refers to Juliet; “the other” in the third line refers to Rosaline, as does Friar Laurence’s use of the word “she”):
Romeo. I pray thee, chide not; she whom I love now
Doth grace for grace and love for love allow;
The other did not so.
Friar Laurence. O, she knew well
Thy love did read by rote and could not spell.
In other words, Laurence recognizes that Romeo’s love for Rosaline wasn’t the real thing, and Rosaline recognized it too.
And every time I take a look at virtually any part of “Romeo and Juliet,” I am struck anew by what an extraordinary masterpiece it is.
[NOTE *: The classiness of the Supremes was no accident. It was a conscious plan:
The Supremes became the first black female performers of the rock era to embrace a more feminine image. Much of this was accomplished at the behest of Motown chief Berry Gordy and Maxine Powell, who ran Motown's in-house finishing school and Artist Development department. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Ross sang in a thin, calm voice, and her vocal styling was matched by having all three women embellish their femininity instead of imitate the qualities of male groups. Eschewing plain appearances and basic dance routines, The Supremes appeared onstage in detailed make-up and high-fashion gowns and wigs, and performed graceful choreography created by Motown choreographer Cholly Atkins. Powell told the group to "be prepared to perform before kings and queens." Gordy wanted the Supremes, like all of his performers, to be equally appealing to black and white audiences, and he sought to erase the image of black performers as being unrefined or lacking class.
It worked; the Supremes became the "the most commercially successful of Motown's acts and are, to date, America's most successful vocal group." Not bad for three girls from the public housing projects of Detroit.]
[NOTE II: I think this post may have set a record for being indexed under the highest number of categories ever on the sidebar.]