A couple of years ago, when I heard someone had translated Romeo and Juliet into emoji, my instinctual response was sort of a curmudgeonly, “Some people have too much time on their hands.” The practice of translating various texts into emoji hasn’t exactly taken off, but the concept of emoji-as-language has been tumbling around in my head ever since, and I have to admit, I’ve become significantly less curmudgeonly about it.
Now, many emoji you find on the internet these days are, to put it lightly, not my preferred aesthetic. The imitation shininess and the over-bright colors, as well as the ridiculous facial expressions that some of the more dramatic emoji artists have chosen are well beyond the muted, earthen palette I try to foster in the rest of my life. But aesthetics aside, the use of emoji fascinates me.
If texting is the silent movie in the cinema of conversation, emoji are the pianist in the corner instructing us each how to feel about what we’re seeing. In my phone, my most used emoji are those that convey simple emotions, the kind that can easily be stuck on the end of a sentence and inform the reader about my state of mind in the moment. I’ve got the grinning face, since if you’re going to town you might as well go in a Lincoln, and a simple smiley face barely even registers with people anymore. I’ve got the grimacing face, for showing remorse or regret, usually over missing someone’s text or email and not responding for an uncomfortable number of days. I’ve also got the sunglasses face, which I use liberally, but most often to reassure my recipient that, “Hey, bud, ‘sall good.”
Now that so much of my social interaction is happening on emoji’s home turf, I’ve started to branch out in the way I use them. They no longer just spice up or clarify the words I write; they sometimes fill a language niche that words simply cannot. I use Discord with a few different friend groups, and with most messages there, any reader is able to add a “reaction,” which consists of one emoji, or, if you’re creative, a few separate emoji that might convey a broader concept. On Discord, my most-used emoji are those that express emphasis, agreement, or solidarity. The stylized “100” has become my go-to way to respond when someone complains about having panic attacks at the grocery store. The modest thumbs up is helpful for when someone gives me advice, and I don’t feel the need to respond, but I want them to know that I read it and may use it if I get the chance. The laugh-cry face is my new way of saying “lol,” because, in all my twenty-nine years, I never really picked up saying “lol,” and if I did, I wanted to drop it quickly. When it comes to these text-based, online conversations, more text isn’t always a good use of space or time, and emoji can be an emotion-laden shorthand more suited to a back-and-forth discourse among groups of people.
But the true beauty of emoji is the timeless beauty of symbols generally, and it is their symbolic nature that draws me back to Romeo and Juliet as told by blond-yellow-woman-with-smile and black-haired-yellow-man-with-straight-face. Emoji, like hieroglyphics, like tarot cards, like Kanji, and, I suspect, like many runes, have more meaning than a single character, and change the meaning of the other emoji around them. They force the author to think more abstractly, and they convey more feeling than strict narrative.
In the end, someone who reads emoji Shakespere won’t know much about Benvolio, Tybalt, or Mercutio, if they can tell them apart at all. They might not even know how the two lovers met, that their marriage was a secret, or that it was a priest who helped Juliet fake her own death. In fact, all the reader might understand is that two people who weren’t supposed to love each other did, and they went all in, forsaking a lot of what made their lives comfortable and wonderful, and in the end, passion and foolishness, both theirs and others’, killed them.
Strictly speaking, that version of the story isn’t everything that Romeo and Juliet is meant to be, just like understanding the hero’s journey doesn’t absolve you from reading any coming-of-age novel ever again. That doesn’t mean it’s not interesting in its own right, that it doesn’t accomplish something unique, or that it isn’t worth reading. And besides, most of us have a bit of extra time on our hands these days. Would it be a bad thing for the world if we used some of it to distill some great texts down to small sets of simple pictures, easily digestible even for children?
Mary Margaret is a 2013 English, history, and secondary education grad who went rogue and became a Social Worker in Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare system. Specifically, she works as a caseworker in the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network finding families for children and educating the masses about foster care, adoption, and permanency planning. She made it over the grad-school hurdle with gold stars and warm fuzzies and is on to the next big adventure: the unknown of adulthood. Her major writing dream right now is to finish her science fiction novel that explores the concurrent futures of child welfare and artificial intelligence.