(I wrote this a year ago exactly for my Shakespeare class. February 26, 2012, fancy that!)
Everyone in the literary world is familiar to some extent with the premise of the tragic tale of two star-crossed lovers in William Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet. Their love story doomed by fate and feuding families has since been the inspiration for many works in literature and later cinema through to the present day. What makes this couple memorable enough to be studied in classrooms across the globe? Is it their youth, their steadfast devotion in life and following into death, the tragic events that lead to their demise, or a mixture of possibilities? One aspect of the play that has a profound impact on the reader is the usage and beauty of the language of Shakespeare. It breathes unique life into each character creating distinct personality traits with which many can relate. Through his words, society in Verona, Italy is clearly painted as well as the expectations for beliefs, values, and behaviors in both men and women. The characters of Romeo and Juliet, however, challenge these ideas and incorporate traits of the opposite gender. Shakespeare’s decision for the pair to defy the gender standards of the time brings their love together in an undeniable way, yet their later attempts to re-conform to the societal expectations eventually leads to their ill-fated tragedy.
The world of men in Verona is founded upon violence, sexual domination, and conquest. Every action taken is an expression of comparing oneself to another and the driving need to be proven more powerful. Daily life walking through the streets and passageways is a tense affair particularly due to the feud between the two powerful families of the city, the Capulets and the Montagues. The cause of the enmity between the two houses is never explained, but one can see the dislike transmitted all the way down to the servants who would taunt the opposite side and coerce them into a fight. Quick to respond on impulse, men tend to think of their immediate needs first. Jokes are made at the expense of everyone thought to be inferior. One of the servants of the Capulets, Sampson, boasts to another, “’Tis true, and therefore women, being the / weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall; therefore I / will push Montague’s men from the wall, and thrust / his maids to the wall” (Shakespeare 1.1.15-18). This distinctly shows the enforced concept of dominance. Men from opposite sides are meant to be defeated through fighting duels, and women are objects to conquer and overpower to sate sexual desires. Primal nature and instinct tend to be initiated without second thought of morality and consequence. Anything less than boldness is not considered to be male. Sampson also challenges, “Draw, if you be men” (1.1.62) feeding upon societal standards and teasing his opponent with the idea that he is less than a man if he does not respond and fight. There isn’t any room for ruminations of love and emotional introspection. One of Romeo’s best friends, Mercutio, suggests, “If love be rough with you, be rough with love; / Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down” (1.4.27-28). The thought reinforces the need for men to constantly be above what are considered to be lesser emotions of weakness. Detachment is necessary so as not to allow one to be overpowered by something such as love.
However, Romeo challenges this idea of masculinity and is portrayed with more feminine and submissive traits. He speaks with a poetic melancholy contrary to that of the other men: “Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs, / Being purg’d, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes, / Being vex’d, a sea nourish’d with loving tears” (1.1.190-193). Romance and longing fuel his daily thoughts, giving him the most fulfillment and satisfaction. Romeo is in love with the idea of love, and his way of thinking is teased mercilessly by both his friends and enemies. When paired with Juliet in scenes, his male role is increasingly diminished. He puts himself below her both literally and figuratively in a gesture of submission, especially during the balcony scene. “O, speak again, bright angel, for thou art / As glorious to this night, being o’er my head, / As a winged messenger of heaven” (2.2.26-28). A Veronese male would never dream of considering himself below a woman, nor would he put her on a pedestal to worship and revere. While the pair exchanges vows of love, it is Romeo who revokes his name: “Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptiz’d; / Henceforth I never will be Romeo” (2.2.50-51). This act of giving up his name for his love is non-traditional, even in the standards of today. Yet these qualities that make him uniquely Romeo are what draw Juliet in toward him to shine forth in strength and merge her heart with his.
Women of Verona are considered to be a completely different class in comparison to men. They are thought of as inferior, weaker, and more as objects to possess. Never would they be called equals with opinions that would be heard and understood. Pleasing her parents, marriage, then pleasing their husband, and bearing children are the life goals of which a woman should dream. Juliet’s nurse makes multiple references to a joke her husband made years ago: “Thou wilt fall backward when thou comest to age” (1.3.56). This is an attempt to make light of the sexually subservient lifestyle a woman must become comfortable with when she becomes a fertile age. Lady Capulet, Juliet’s mother, also presses forth the expected honor of women saying, “Here in Verona, ladies of esteem, / Are already made mothers. By my count, / I was your mother much upon these years” (1.3.70-72). A girl is quickly transferred from the house of her parents to the house of her husband without any chance of independent thought, action, or growth.
Shakespeare portrays Juliet in a way that defies these standards for women and gives her an uncommon strength contrary to society. Upon first meeting Romeo at her father’s masked party, she does not shy away from his forward nature as would be proper and typical of an unmarried girl but rather engages him in playful banter and builds upon their flirtation. She even allows him to kiss her. During the balcony scene, Juliet takes on the role of the leader and dominates the conversation, challenging Romeo’s motives while he obligingly acquiesces and replies to her satisfaction. She is very straightforward in her ideas and daringly proposes the idea of marriage first: “If that thy bent of love be honorable, / Thy purpose marriage, send me word to-morrow” (2.2.143-144). She is possessed with very eager and sexual thoughts than would be considered normal for a woman of the time. Upon waiting to consummate their marriage, Juliet sighs in a highly erotic speech, “O, I have bought the mansion of a love, / But not possess’d it, and though I am sold, / Not yet enjoy’d. So tedious is this day” (3.2.26-28). Women are not regarded as sexual beings in Veronese society. She even defies her parents when they try to force her to marry Paris, risking their wrath and dishonor. Romeo gladly makes way for Juliet to be in power and rise with an inner strength.
Yet when the pressures of society begin to weigh down upon them, Romeo and Juliet succumb and attempt to fit back into their traditional gender roles. Romeo accuses Juliet of making him soft and losing his manhood: “O sweet Juliet. / Thy beauty hath made me effeminate, / And in my temper soft’ned valor’s steel!” (3.1.113-115). He involves himself in a fight to the death in order to defend his murdered friend Mercutio as well as his honor as a man, which leads to his banishment and the tragic turn of the play. In succumbing to his male self, he increases in his rash judgments and behavior, causing him to seek out a way to kill himself and others in his way to be with Juliet without realizing she was not yet dead. Juliet, in becoming submissive to Friar Lawrence’s plan and taking a potion that would make her seem dead in order to avoid the conflict of the marriage dispute between her parents, reverts back to a feminine role and surrenders to what others decide for her. In putting her trust and fate in someone’s hand other than herself, she creates an opening for disaster. In surrendering to the standard gender roles, the couple falls into an inescapable tragedy.
During their final moments, however, they revert back to their opposite roles. Romeo becomes very heartfelt and distraught at seeing his beloved lying cold in the tomb and takes his life with poison, a more passive feminine form of suicide. Juliet, upon seeing her husband’s dead body, stabs herself with a dagger in a violent and dominant manner that reflects masculinity. In death, they are reunited together forever successfully within their unconventional roles that defy society.