Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is the quintessential romantic tragedy. The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562), a narrative poem by Arthur Brooke had a heavy influence on Shakespeare when writing Romeo and Juliet. There were significant differences, particularly in the outcome for both Juliet’s Nurse and Friar Lawrence but when Brooke says about Romeus and Juliet being ‘a couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends’ Brooke gives Shakespeare a template for the plot and narrative (Brooke & Shaaber, 1967: 404). The spine for the story of Romeo and Juliet (1597) and its subsequent unfolding tragedy is the patriarchal society. In this particular instance, the antagonists are Juliet’s father, Capulet and Romeo’s father Montague, who are at war. Romeo and Juliet fall deeply in love and Capulet wants Juliet to marry Paris, a boy he feels is of suitable calibre for his daughter’s hand. Defining the cause of the play’s tragedy is complex. During the play, the finger is pointed at individuals such as Friar Lawrence, Tybalt and even the self-realisation of Capulet at the end of the narrative. When considering the cause in a less emotive and accusatory fashion, the themes often explored are fate and even love itself. However, an area which seems particularly pertinent for exploration in relation to the play’s tragedy is the contextual issue of patriarchal structures and ideologies and the consequences of their imposing influences on the events in the narrative.
In act 1, scene 2, Capulet says ‘But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart, my will to her consent is but a part, And she agreed, within her scope of choice, Lies my consent and fair according voice’ (1.2.17-20: 17). In this instance, Capulet infers that Juliet has some choice or say as to whom her husband will be. The truth of the reality of Juliet’s choice and the paradox in Capulet’s character is spelt out in more forthright terms in act 3, scene 4 where Capulet tells his daughter ‘But fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday next, To go with Paris to St Peter’s Church, Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither’ (3.5.153-155: 86). The subtext being, ‘get to the church, marry Paris or I will disown you’. Another telling feature of Capulet’s scant respect for his daughters status is when he addresses her as ‘Mistress minion you’ (3.5.151: 86), immediately prior to his decree for Juliet to go to the church.
Juliet, a strong willed and free spirited young lady only has eyes for Romeo. Capulet is completely oblivious to Juliet’s feelings to Romeo. When Friar Lawrence presides over the marriage of Romeo and Juliet (2.6.35-37: 59), Capulet still has designs on Juliet marrying Paris. To a father like Capulet, the esteem in which Juliet holds her potential suitor is not of a high priority to him. Whilst in most cases, the daughter is cherished and loved by the father, she is still viewed as a beautiful asset and not as an intelligent human being with the capability of independent thought. In the Patriarchal society, the daughter’s role is little more than bargaining leverage or a goodwill gesture in a potential business deal. Juliet was thirteen when she married Romeo whom himself, was only sixteen. Whilst Juliet was at an extremely tender age, she had the strongly held belief that Romeo was the man for her. In act 1, scene 3 in a discussion between Juliet, her mother Lady Capulet and her nurse, the possibility of marriage to Paris is repeatedly broached. Juliet says ‘I’ll look to like, if looking liking move, but no more deep will I endart mine eye, Than your consent gives strength to make it fly’ (1,3,98-100: 23). In other words Juliet is effectively saying “I will have a look but I am not promising anything”. This attitude from a daughter to a parent is almost unheard of in the patriarchal society.
The crux of the tragedy in Romeo and Juliet is centred on the patriarchal control exemplified by Capulet and to a lesser extent, Tybald. This is a phenomenon which is generally thought not to exist anymore but it is still common practice within certain faiths, particularly in some denominations of Islam. Whilst the male is at liberty to court whom he is happy to court and be reciprocated, ‘in the sight of Allah, it is only lawful for a Muslim woman to marry a Muslim man’ (Beg, 2009: 49). The idea of the Patriarchal society is of the father’s word being law. Relationships that are now frowned upon in contemporary Christian Caucasian society such as familial marriages with first cousin’s, were common place, indeed encouraged, in the Patriarchal society.
The first real sign of forthcoming tragedy occurs when the ‘bristling, easily provoked and dangerous’ cousin of Juliet, Tybalt, encounters Romeo in act 1, scene 5 (McLeish 1985: 248). Tybalt is immediately hostile to Romeo after he overhears Romeo’s voice at a masquerade ball. Tybalt is affronted by the presence of a Montague at a Capulet party. Tybalt views Romeo as a social inferior as well as being a Montague and he says ‘Now by the honour of my kin, To strike him dead I hold it not a sin’ (1.5.58-59: 30). This encounter is the forerunner for what happens in act 3, scene 1 when Romeo’s best friend, the universally popular Mercutio is killed by Tybalt. Romeo, distraught by the death of Mercutio, duels with Tybalt and subsequently kills him. Benvolio implores ‘Romeo, away, be gone!’ (3.1.133: 64). With Romeo banished from fair Verona after the slaying of Tybalt (3.1.132: 64), Juliet discovers from the Nurse that it was Romeo who had killed her cousin (3.2.71: 69). The love between Romeo and Juliet is so powerful that they pine for each other and question the point of being alive if they are to be apart.
Shakespeare’s use of contradictory speech and characterisation for Capulet is echoed in other characters and themes throughout the play. Romeo may be seen as the ultimate lover but ironically, he’s also the greatest fighter. Including himself, Romeo kills three people during the play. These binary opposites underpin Shakespeare’s exploration of the social and human condition. Capulet loves Juliet but he loves her in a controlling and stifling way, his love for her is conditional. This isn’t necessarily through manipulative malice, more than being through the custom and practice of convention and of what is expected of the patriarch in the society he lives in. The love is based on her acquiescence to his unquestioned rule. Capulet sees his role as to provide for and protect his family, in return, unquestioning complicity to his word is his right. The love is based on as much the patriarch’s pride, ego and the subservience of his wife and daughter’s as it is about their natural instinct to protect. His masculinity and authority must never be questioned. As Sasha Roberts said in study of Romeo and Juliet in 1998 ‘Masculinity is multifaceted in Romeo and Juliet. First, the play investigates the performance of manhood in different social contexts – the feud, the household, marital relations, filial relations, the church, male friendship’. (Roberts, 1998: 58)
With the statement ‘If all else fail, myself have power to die’ (3.5.243: 89) Juliet realises that with Romeo banished and her forthcoming nuptials to Paris, the only power she has over any of her destiny is the power to end her own life. Furthermore, Juliet is incentivised to end her own life by the fear of her father finding out that she is already married to Romeo, an outcome that is inevitable when she arrives for her wedding ceremony to Paris. Through drinking a potion that makes her appear to be dead, Juliet manages to have the wedding postponed to Paris (4.3.59: 98).
At the end of act 4, scene 5, Shakespeare uses the lower status characters of Peter and the musicians as they seemingly discuss music with their repeated use of the word silver (4.5.104/105: 127-140). As well as the word silver, there was an abundance of words with letter S in them, creating sibilance and a subconscious whispering effect. Shakespeare is once again using dramatic irony to let the audience know of the secrets we keep with the titular characters. This is a timely reminder of Capulet’s love of money, status and power. It is confirmation that Juliet is essentially a commodity despite his apparent grief earlier in the scene when he said ‘Our bridal flowers serve for a buried corpse; And all things change then to the contrary’ (4.5.89/90: 103). Capulet is not necessarily an evil man but, to quote St Paul’s frequently misquoted letter to Timothy in the New Testament, ‘the love of money is a root to all kinds of evil’ (St Paul, 1989: 208). Capulet’s fierce pride and intransigence to his daughter wishes have tragic consequences which conclude with the death of Paris at the hands of Romeo (5.3.73: 112), Romeo (5.3.120: 114) and Juliet at the hands of themselves (5.3.170: 116) and Romeo’s mother who dies of a broken heart on the discovery of his exile (5.3.210:118)
Shakespeare, William, Romeo and Juliet (London: Penguin Group, 2005)
Brooke, Tucker & Shaaber, Matthias Adam, Renaissance, The: (1500-1660) (London: Meredith Publishing Company, 1967)
McLeish, Kenneth, Longman guide to Shakespeare’s characters (London: Longman Group, 1985)
Beg, Kamran A, Islamic Marriage Model, The (Manchester: Kamran A Beg Events, 2009)
Paul, New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989)
Roberts, Sasha, William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (London: Northcote House, 1998)