With tweens and extended adolescence now a part of our vocabulary, it's easy to forget that adolescence didn't always exist. It's only been acknowledged in Western culture for the last 50 or so years. You were a child until you weren't. One defining birthday —13, 16, or 18 — changed everything from clothes to the quotidian details of daily life. It wasn't until the '50s and '60s that youth culture became a beat too loud to ignore, and adolescence finally gained acceptance outside psychology.
American psychologist Stanley Hall is credited with defining adolescence in 1904, but it was popularized by psychologist Erik Erickson's stages of psychosocial development in the mid-20th century. Erickson pinpointed the stage's crisis, calling identity vs. role confusion, and argued why it should be seen as a unique period in life. "It is human to have a long childhood; it is civilized to have an even longer childhood," he famously wrote. "Long childhood makes a technical and mental virtuoso out of man, but it also leaves a life-long residue of emotional immaturity in him."
But this week's New York Times Magazine posits a new theory: Shakespeare was the first person to characterize adolescent absurdity, particularly in Romeo and Juliet. Whether anyone acknowledged it our not, Shakespeare created a whole new category of life out of the star-crossed lovers, filled with wonder, exaggeration, and despair — great melodrama.
He captured the tension Erickson would later categorize by illuminating the choice every human has between childhood and adulthood. Go down senselessly but in a tragic blaze of glory like Romeo and Juliet, or grow up and develop a sense of humor, much like Shakespeare did.