In “Coming of Age in Verona” written in 1978 by Coppélia Kahn – one of the first scholars to focus on feminism and gender studies within Shakespeare – Kahn argues that the driving force of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is not simply fate, but rather the pressures of a patriarchal society imposed upon both Romeo and Juliet. Within this patriarchal societal structure, each young lover is experiencing the rites of passage that lead them into adulthood.
For Romeo and men generally in Verona, becoming a man and proving your honor could be accomplished in two ways. The first and most common way to establish manhood was through violence. Calling out insults to other men and starting duels was a way to earn power, respect and honor. We see this violent aspect played out in Tybalt’s character who is very angry, confrontational, and not afraid to unsheath his sword to prove a point. Romeo and Benvolio on the other hand represent the other avenue as to establish one’s manhood: love. By romancing women, marrying, and creating a household to lead, man could display his power and name. Benvolio is always wanting to keep the peace when insults start flying and fights ensue. Romeo is a dreamy poet who is completely enthralled by Juliet and consumed by his love for her. Mercutio lies in the middle ground between violence and love, which is appropriate as he is also between families, neither a Capulet or a Montague. Throughout the play and opera he uses wit, charm, and clever word play to either seduce or insult someone, such as in his aria about the Fairy Queen Mab “Mab, la reine des mensonges/Mab, the queen of lies”.
Contrary to his natural inclinations, Romeo is expected to be violent and fight in order to prove his manhood – most of these fights being against the Capulet men. At the same time, he is also pursuing his manhood through the means of love and marriage to Juliet. Romeo’s choice of love also means he will ultimately have to abandon his family name because of the Montague and Capulet familial rivalry. In the balcony scene, Juliette requests: “Renounce that fatal name that separates us, or I’ll renounce mine” and Romeo responds: “If that detested name separates me from you, to love you, let me be reborn in someone other than me!”
Ultimately Romeo ends up fulfilling both courses of violence and love. Even though he begs Tybalt and Mercutio not to duel, when Mercutio is killed Romeo rebels against his own words, fighting and killing Tybalt. In the Shakespeare play he also kills Paris when they meet at the Capulet tomb. Even though in these moments, he has seemingly chosen the path of violence, Romeo’s ultimate act is of love; to reunite with Juliet in the afterlife for eternity. He takes the poison and kills himself. This final act is clearly driven by his love for Juliet, but it also becomes an act of violence in itself and against himself. Throughout the entire story, Romeo teeters between these two choices and ultimately is consumed by both.
Kahn also discusses the woman’s rite of passage in Verona at the time, specifically looking at Juliet’s prescribed journey. In this time, in order to establish womanhood and maturity, a young girl would become married and bear a child. She is the perfect and pure symbol of youth, beauty, fertility, and ultimately life. Although Juliet quickly falls in love with Romeo, her father has arranged for her to marry Paris. This was a common political and economical decision made by Capulet and according to societal rules, Juliet has no other choice but to obey and fulfill the wishes of her father. However, Juliet quickly establishes a resistance to these expectations.
Even within Juliette’s aria “Je veux vivre” we see her revolutionary behaviors, feelings and thoughts. She doesn’t want to be in love (this is before she officially meets Romeo) and she definitely does not want to be married. She wants to “live in the dream of youth” for as long as possible and avoid all the pains of love. By the end of the story, Juliet has totally rebelled against any patriarchal societal pressures and has totally fulfilled the complete opposite of what is expected from her. Like Romeo she also renounces her name, she marries Romeo (a clear betrayal of her father’s wishes), and she dies. She does not follow her father’s prescriptions for her life, she does not marry (Romeo and her are married secretly, so not even the family knows), and she does not bear a child. The young woman is expected to symbolize youth, beauty, and birth or new life – and Juliet ultimately embodies death.
Another interesting aspect that Kahn discusses is how Romeo and Juliet’s deaths occur in the Capulet tomb. This goes against all the societal norms that a woman would take her husband’s name and eventually be buried in his family tomb.
“Romeo’s death in the Capulets’ (not his own fathers’) tomb reverses the traditional passage of the female over to the male house in the marriage and betokens his refusal to follow the code of his fathers, while it is Juliet, not Romeo, who boldly uses his dagger, against herself.”
This final quote of the article perfectly encapsulates how both Romeo and Juliet defied the patriarchal societal pressures as a way to rise above the familial feud and be united in death. Romeo dies as a woman would, in his spouses’ family tomb, and Juliet takes the masculine violent course of suicide to establish her independence and usherance into a new life of eternity with her husband, Romeo.
It’s very interesting to dissect the expectations of both Romeo and Juliet in their patriarchal society and the pressures imposed upon them. By the end of their story and lives, they have revolted against these pressures, in a way willing their own deaths. This creates a much more multi-dimensional story of cultural experience, expectations, and self-determination rather than the typical “star-crossed lovers” who are driven to their death simply by “fate”.
Furthermore, it could be argued that Romeo and Juliet reverse the typical gender roles and expectations of their society. Romeo is the more romantic, dreamy and “weak” individual, while Juliet is very strong-willed, methodical, and logical when it comes to navigating the secrecy of their love and marriage. For instance, in the balcony scene, Juliette says “Sweet Romeo, tell me honestly: ‘I love you.’” She isn’t interested in all the niceties and poetic, charming words that Romeo offers. She wants to know clearly and simply if he loves her or not, and she even almost scolds him by saying “If your tenderness only wants mad love from me… Don’t see me anymore! And leave me in pain to the grief that will fill my days.” Juliette is the one who proposes and decides that they will be married by the Friar. She is the one who begs the Friar for help in avoiding the marriage to Paris. Juliet chooses risky and violent action when she takes the sleeping potion, and finally when she stabs herself after she awakes in the tomb to find Romeo, already dead.
Romeo is driven more by his emotions and feelings; what would be expected culturally from a woman. In the first act, he is worried about the potentially dangerous consequences of being found out at the Capulet ball. Later he tries to stop Tybalt and Mercutio from fighting, but then is taken over by his emotions at the loss of his friend which pushes him to violence.
Of course, none of these observations are absolute and neither Romeo or Juliette can be fully defined by the roles imposed upon them or their behaviors. In my next post, I’ll discuss some musical examples from several of Romeo and Juliette’s duets. In their intimate interactions with each other, Romeo and Juliette both display and resist these societal requirements of the masculine versus the feminine, violence versus love, logic versus emotion. There are several moments in the libretto and score that also reveal how Romeo and Juliette reverse the gender roles and expectations within their relationship.