Gender and Class in Romeo and Juliet

The poster for Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 production of Romeo + Juliet.

The poster for Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 production of Romeo + Juliet.

Though Hamlet and King Lear are often regarded by scholars as the best of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare (for the record, I have Titus Andronicus at the top of my list, with Macbeth and Othello close behind), there are none that have as far a cultural reach as Romeo and Juliet.  Though a big fan of the tragedies attributed to Shakespeare, I have often found Romeo and Juliet to be one of the least compelling narratives among those works, in part because the love that blossoms between the title characters is ignited after so short a time that their passion frankly comes across as unbelievable. But, as is the case with the comedies, which I am loath to read for the most part (though they are much more digestible when performed), Romeo and Juliet is not without its merits, most notably the way in which the female and working class characters are presented.

 

William Shakespeare; alleged author of "Romeo and Juliet".

William Shakespeare; alleged author of “Romeo and Juliet”.

It is the Arden edition which I have most recently read, and the introduction, while interesting, did not provide as much analysis as I would have liked.  Instead, Rene Weis offers much commentary on the history of the text and its various incarnations, as well as a an overview of the stagings of the play through the ages.  Weis does a thorough job of outlining both for those who are interested in such things.  The history of the staging, for me, is the more interesting of the two.  As to the history of the text, it is impossible to know for sure what the author intended to include, and so simply being aware of the potential for corruption is sufficient for me.  When it comes to analysis, the author’s intent is often usurped by the reader’s interpretation.  So, too, has the author’s intent been usurped by editors and printers in the case of works such as Romeo and Juliet.  What we have is the best guess.  So long as any conclusions drawn are done so with the recognition that the text may be corrupt, I’m not sure what else one need do before reading the work, though I understand that the editor of the piece no doubt wishes to extol their experience on the project and their reasoning for including or excluding certain elements of the play.

 

 

Olivia Hussey as Juliet in Franko Zeffirelli’s 1968 production "Romeo and Juliet".

Olivia Hussey as Juliet in Franko Zeffirelli’s 1968 production “Romeo and Juliet“.

One of the most interesting aspects of the play is its presentation of rape culture.  Samson, one of the Capulets, has some troubling dialogue early in the play.  He states what “women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall” (1.1.14-15) and goes on to suggest that he will eagerly thrust “maids to the wall” (17).  When Gregory questions this, Samson goes on to say: “I will show myself to be a tyrant… I will be civil with the maids, I will cut off their heads” (20-22) and proceeds to clarify that he is speaking of their maidenheads (24-25).  The patriarch of the Capulet family seems to initially be more progressive in his thinking, suggesting that his daughter has autonomy over herself and that he will respect that, telling Paris, Juliet’s would-be suitor, that his “will to her consent is but a part,/ And, she agreed, within her scope of choice/ Lies my consent and fair according voice” (1.2.16-18).  This is indeed progressive, but we see Capulet regressing later in the play.  When Juliet displays reluctance to marry Paris, Capulet, her father, orders her to “go with Paris to Saint Peter’s church,/ Or [he] will drag [her] on a hurdle” (3.5.154-155) there and force her to marry Paris. In forcing his daughter to participate in a marriage against her will, Capulet is essentially complacent in the premeditated rape of his own daughter.  When this threat does not convince her, Capulet then equates his daughter with a sex trade worker, telling her that he will exclude her from his will unless she agrees to marry Paris (195-196).  Tempting her with financial gain to encourage her to engage in non-consensual sex seems like the role of a pimp or panderer and not a patriarch, though in patriarchal society I suppose one is the same as the other.

 

Claire Danes and Leonard DiCaprio as Juliet and Romeo respectively.

Claire Danes and Leonard DiCaprio as Juliet and Romeo respectively.

There are also, as is often the case with the works attributed to Shakespeare, some interesting homosexual undertones to the play.  Benvolio has an interesting scene with Romeo in which Romeo confesses his love for Rosaline.  Benvolio instructs Romeo to be “ruled by [him, and to] forget to think of her” (1.1.223), suggesting that Romeo replace his thoughts of Rosaline with thoughts of Benvolio.  Benvolio then suggests that Romeo give “liberty unto [his] eyes” and examine “other beauties” (1.2.224-225).  It is important to note that Benvolio doesn’t encourage Romeo to examine other ‘women’, but rather other ‘beauties’, after suggesting that Romeo should liberate his eyes.  Benvolio uses word selections that are gender neutral and so allows for potential homosexual love.  It is important to note that most scholars have concluded that Benvolio shares a love for Rosaline and so wishes to dissuade Romeo’s affections for her that he might have her exclusively, but the language, I believe, is more ambiguous than that and lends itself to other readings.

 

Hailee Steinfeld may be the youngest woman to play Juliet on screen.  She was 15 years old during the film's production.

Hailee Steinfeld may be the youngest woman to play Juliet on screen. She was 15 years old during the film’s production.

The value in the play may be the way in which the women speak.  The men, when speaking to their friends often revert to prose, whereas the women of the play, even the Nurse who would have been considered of working-class stature, speaks in poetry throughout the play, never falling into prose.  The prose is employed, perhaps most notably, when Samson boasts that he will rape women.  He uses crude and barbaric form to speak of this matter and so his thoughts can be attributed to a mentality that is inferior to the poetry spoken by the women of the play.  Juliet is perhaps the finest example of womanhood in the play.  In the final scene she commits suicide with a knife, which, as Weis notes, is a far more courageous suicide, a “’Roman’ suicide” that is unlike Romeo’s “gentler poisoning” (61).  Romeo, for the most part, is consumed with Juliet’s physical appearance. He compares her to “the sun” (2.2.3), and speaks to how fair she is (2.2.6, 15) and speaks to the beauty of her cheeks (19) and her eyes (16).  Romeo speaks strictly to the physical attributes and so his love is presented as far more shallow than that of Juliet.  Conversely, Juliet speaks to “substance, not of ornament” (2.6.31), and expresses concern as to the conflict that exists between their two families; a conflict with Romeo seems to have forgotten.  Juliet’s language, as Weis notes, is also far more poetic than is Romeo’s.  Romeo also wishes that he were the “glove upon [her] hand” (24), an interesting metaphor considering that in this analogy it is Romeo that would be penetrated by Juliet and not the other way around.  As the play goes on, Romeo suggests that Juliet’s “beauty hath made [him] effeminate” (3.1.116).  This becomes more manifest when Romeo is crying later in the play and the Nurse challenges him, telling him to “stand up… [and] be a man” (3.3.88) and chastising him for “weeping and blubbering” (87).  Coupled with this, it is the men of the play who maintain the feud between the two families, a feud that is the cause of all the tragedy, and not one man in the play can explain the cause of the feud.  The men adhere blindly to tradition without reason, whilst the women are far more considerate and thoughtful.

 

Natascha McElhone may be the most age appropriate Lady Capulet ever cast as she is only 16 years older than Hailee Steinfelf who will be playing Juliet in the 2013 film adaptation of the play.

Natascha McElhone may be the most age appropriate Lady Capulet ever cast as she is only 16 years older than Hailee Steinfelf who will be playing Juliet in the 2013 film adaptation of the play.

Romeo is not the only person the Nurse stands up to; she asserts herself several times throughout the play.  In the first act, Capulet’s Wife (who is given no name, but rather is defined strictly by her marriage to Capulet), asks the Nurse to “leave awhile” (1.3.8), but the Nurse stays and then asserts herself in a private family conversation, refusing to allow herself to be excluded from such conversations and relegated to lower standing because of her class standing.  She challenges Romeo as well, and Capulet, telling him that he is “to blame” (3.5.169) for belittling Juliet.  The most interesting working-class character from the play may be one with close to the fewest lines.  Upon hearing that Juliet has died, Romeo seeks to obtain some poison and asks Apothecary for some.  Apothecary is reluctant to give such poison to Romeo because of the law, but Romeo notes that there is “[f]amine in [his] cheeks… and oppression in [his] eyes” (5.1.69-70) before going on to inform Apothecary that “The world is not thy friend, nor the world’s law;/ The world affords no law to make thee rich” (72-74).  Apothecary responds with what is perhaps the most potent line of the play, agreeing to give Romeo the poison, but noting: “My poverty but not my will consents” (75).  Here we see how the ruling class employs its economic authority over the destitute to encourage them to abandon their morals.  The ruling class is without morals or values and, through exploiting their poverty, forces the working class and the destitute to facilitate corruption.

 

 

 

Leonard DiCaprio, who played perhaps the most popular Romeo in recent memory.

Leonard DiCaprio, who played perhaps the most popular Romeo in recent memory.

There is more to the play, obviously.  Volumes of books could and have been written on this work alone.  Its influence is unsurpassed in literature, aside from perhaps the Bible, which I would venture to guess most people are less familiar with than they are with Romeo and Juliet.  It is a work well worth reading, if not for its own merits, at least so that one might better understand it social and cultural impact.  And if one is too lazy to read, then one can always watch one of two brilliant film adaptations: Franko Zeffirelli’s 1968 production Romeo and Juliet, or Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 production Romeo + Juliet, which to date is the highest grossing film based on any of the works attributed to Shakespeare.

 

If you enjoyed this post and would like updates on my latest ramblings, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler, on Facebook, and add me to your RSS feed.

 

 

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Speak Your Mind

*

css.php