Feminism in Romeo and Juliet

Introduction

The idea that playwright, William Shakespeare, tends to write within the gender expectations of saintly maidens or widowed hags in esteem of his female characters is not a new concept, as essentially all of his female characters face some sort of grievance either at the will of or by submitting to the strict patriarchal expectations of their time. Many would concur that Juliet Capulet in Romeo and Juliet is not any different. She is particularly childish and fickle, and she falls victim to her teenage desires rather than adhering to the sensitivities of her parents, who expect her to marry within the bounds accepted by society. Most would also insist that her choice to marry a boy she has just met is one that is impossibly irresponsible and deems her naive enough to adhere to whatever the male suitor is tempting. However, when one examines Juliet as an actual human being, rather than just an extension of Romeo’s desires and aspirations, he or she would notice that Juliet essentially holds the most powerful feminist qualities of Shakespeare’s female characters. Her denial to make decisions based exclusively on her parent’s desires and her brazen proposal of marriage to Romeo are only a couple of examples of what make Juliet an extremely feminist character.

Perhaps one of the most pronounced assertions Juliet makes as a feminist character is her refusal to wed the prospective suitor, Paris, that her parents have hand picked for her. Her father decides for her as though she were a mere commodity, telling Paris “She hath not seen the change of fourteen years/Let two more summers wither in their pride/Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 7-9). His word choice suggests that Juliet’s value is similar to that of an unripened fruit that needs to age or “wither,” as if she were a delicacy in need of further fermenting. It is not out of the ordinary during this era for the father of a young woman to arrange her marriage, as is evident in many of Shakespeare’s other plays. And, although the age of sixteen is unbelievably young for marriage, it was not unprecedented. If Juliet was like many other female Shakespearean characters, she would likely bend to her father’s will. But, Juliet does not.
Alternatively, she finds herself with feelings for a boy that is the son of her father’s adversary, and proposes marriage to him, in complete disregard for the chivalrous etiquette of a man vying for the father’s blessing and consent to marry his daughter.

Juliet offers Romeo her hand in marriage, “If that thy bent of love be honourable,/Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow,/By one that I’ll procure to come to thee,/Where and what tie thou wilt perform the right” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 2 Scene 1, Lines 185-188). Even the evidence of their marriage, a ring, is delegated by Juliet. She wills the nurse to “Give this ring to my true knight,/And bid him come to take his last farewell” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 3 Scene 2, Lines 141-142). In any common courteous arrangement, symbols of affection are sent by the gentleman, and received by the woman of his interest. Instead, Juliet is the one sending the token, and goes as far as to refer to the fact that Romeo is her “true knight,” but still she fails to recognize the traditional gender roles of a chivalrous relationship. The fact that she defies her father’s wishes, coupled with her ignorance and refutal of the social norms of her time speaks largely about her situation as a feminist character.

In an equally important instance, Juliet ignores the advice of her nurse when she expresses that she knows herself and her life best. Her nurse eventually sides with Mr. and Mrs. Capulet, and informs Juliet that she should wed Paris, as she would be “happy in this second match,/For it excels your first; or if it did not,/Your first is dead, or ‘twere as good he were/As living hence and you no use of him” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 3 Scene 5, Lines 222-225). Juliet finds this approach to be contradicting of her wishes, which she believes it is her nurse’s duty to honor. Instead, Juliet feels as if she can no longer rely on this “wicked fiend” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 3 Scene 5, Line 235). She nimbly lies and convinces the nurse that she is in accordance, and as such the nurse will not surmise Juliet of anything different than marrying Paris, however Juliet does aim to carry out her own volition anyway.

While these actions can be attributed to defiance, it indeed demonstrates the independence and self-reliance that Juliet feels as an adolescent woman. In this patriarchal society, young women and girls are surrounded by men and women expected to guide them through their life until they are able to find suitable husbands, who would then takeover the responsibility of guiding them from there. Juliet, however, believes that she knows what is indeed best for her, and therefore takes the steps needed to make her own decisions, despite what everyone around her is attempting to persuade her to do.

A final moment in which Juliet exhibits herself as a feminist persona is in her realization that she has the ability to govern her own life. When she recognizes the treachery of the nurse, she develops a plan to get around everyone that is attempting to force her into holy matrimony with Paris. However, Juliet recognizes that this plan may prove unsuccessful, and arrives at a striking conclusion; if she cannot anything take proper control of the events of her life, she can at the very least dictate over whether or not her life shall go on. In a storm of anger, she declares, “If all else fail, myself have power to die” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 5, Line 243). Juliet views the Friar as the last person she can seek help from and even if he cannot aid her, she makes it evident that “if in thy wisdom thou canst give no help,/Do thou but call my resolution wise,/And with this knife I will help it presently” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 4, Scene 1, Lines 52-54). While suicide is an unbelievably extreme reaction to a contrived marriage, and may appear to be the furthest thing from a tenacious feminist reaction, it actually displays her incredibly independent nature.

One of the key aspects of feminism is women having the capability to pick their own path in life, and women throughout this time period were allocated very little free will. Juliet has utterly no choice, as her father warns that she must marry Paris or “I will drag thee on a hurdle thither./Out, you green-sickness carrion! Out, you baggage,/You tallow-face!” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 5, Lines 155-157). In reality, Juliet only has a handful of options she can either lose her free will and essentially her life to her father or forever be wed to Paris, or she can lose her life by holding onto her will and take her own life. However, Juliet makes it unambiguous that the Friar should “bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,/From off the battlements of any tower,” because a marriage to Paris without her approval would be far worse than being confined with “roaring bears,/Or hide me in a charnel house,/O’ercovered quite with dead men/s rattling bones,/With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 4, Scene 1, Lines 77-83). Basically, anything – especially death – is better than marrying Paris. Thus, taking her own life is Juliet’s last resort and only way to utilize what very little agency she has left. It is not the dramatic and cowardly exaggeration of a thirteen year-old girl, but instead the calculated response of a young woman trying to keep what little control she has left over her own fate.

While the popular opinion is that William Shakespeare’s female characters are often times obedient women that eventually fall in line with their roles as wives and mothers that are submissive to their husbands as expected by society, Juliet Capulet follows a differing path. Her story is frequently diminished to nothing but a disgruntled child who fails to listen to the adults in her life, gets swept away by a boy she is hardly familiar with, and therefore, as a result, suffers greatly because of her inability to take direction. But, if one were to look at Juliet a little closer, it is tough to keep her limited to this assumption. In reality, Juliet is perhaps the Shakespearean woman that most exudes a feminist trait, and that takes control over her own life.

Conclusion

Of course, as the story continues to unfold, her plan goes horribly wrong. That does not delegitimize the independence, self-discovery, and personal sacrifice that Juliet bears in an effort to keep her autonomy. On the most basic level, she disobeys her father, who is meant to be the chief decision maker in a young woman’s life until he has formally given responsibility over her, and her herself, to a husband. She also entirely reverses societally expected gender roles through her interactions with Romeo, as Juliet is the one to propose marriage, and even takes on knightly chivalry by sending him a token of her love. Not only that, but Juliet refuses to trust what she believes to be hypocritical counsel from the women surrounding her life, and chooses to take her own life if she proves unsuccessful at obtaining control of it. The struggle for personal integrity and independence that Juliet faces cannot be undercut by the fickleness of adolescent love, and she must be revered as a legitimate and undervalued feminist character.

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