Shakespeare’s best known tragedy is the story of two star-crossed lovers, who, in death, end their families’ conflict. Despite being hailed as a great romance, Romeo and Juliet is, in no way, a love story, but very much about individual responsibility and the consequences of making decisions in the heat of passion. Romeo is very impulsive in his actions, never thinking about the harm he may be causing and bringing about much needless strife for himself and those around him. Juliet emerges as a tragic figure, unwittingly caught up in the increasingly violent tensions between the families which leads to her demise.
I have taken to referring to the play as the comedy of Romeo and the tragedy of Juliet. Most who’ve studied the play will note the humorous tone of the first half of the play, with the forlorn Romeo first pining away for Rosaline, then quickly forgetting her when he spies Juliet at the Capulets’ party. The play initially has the wistful feel of one of Shakespeare’s comedies, all of which is cast aside with the death of Mercutio at Tybalt’s hands, which leads Romeo to avenge Mercutio’s death by taking Tybalt’s life. From that point on, the play becomes darkly tragic as the focus shifts from Romeo to Juliet.
The play is laced with violence, both actual and implied. The fight between Mercutio and Tybalt which leads to first Mercutio’s then Tybalt’s death is an example of the overt violence in the play, but there’s also a lot of subtle violence, in how the characters interact with one another. In the scene where Juliet balks at marrying Paris, Lord Capulet’s reaction shows exactly how daughters were regarded in Shakespeare’s time. Capulet implies that she’s his property, and he may dispose of her as he chooses, a sentiment echoed in other works by Shakespeare, including the beginning of the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
We’ve already seen a demonstration of Capulet’s temper early in the play, when ordering Tybalt not to take action after finding Romeo has crashed the Capulets’ party. At first, Capulet seems reasonable, lauding the favorable reports he’s heard of Romeo’s behavior, but as Tybalt presses the issue, he provokes the anger of Lord Capulet, who quickly abandons his festive appearance to let his kinsman know who’s in charge. The hot-headed Tybalt can’t let the issue drop, though, leading to his confrontation with Romeo, which Mercutio takes up on Romeo’s behalf when Romeo tries to walk away.
Pretty much every bad thing that happens in the play happens as a consequence of something Romeo does and at each turn, he has alternatives he never takes the time to consider. He pines over Rosaline, so his friends take him to the Capulets’ feast, where he meets Juliet, then immediately forgets Rosaline. He woos Juliet, and hastily marries her, without considering the consequences of secretly marrying into the family of his family’s sworn enemy. When confronted by Tybalt, he chooses to say nothing of his union to Juliet, first allowing the situation to escalate between Tybalt and Mercutio, then coming between them, which allows Tybalt to deliver the fatal wound. Up to this point in the play, Romeo hasn’t done anything, other than hastily marry Juliet, to cause him any lasting problems. He soon changes all that, setting in motion the series of events which leads the play to its devastating finale.
After killing Tybalt, Romeo runs away, declaring, “I am fortune’s fool” but in reality, fortune had nothing to do with it, as Romeo had many options which did not include fighting Tybalt. When Romeo is first provoked and chooses to walk away, and Mercutio takes up the fight on Romeo’s behalf, Romeo’s best option was to do nothing, and just let Mercutio handle it, since, as a kinsman of the Duke, Mercutio is in a better position to deal with the fall out. Once Tybalt kills Mercutio, Romeo again needs to do nothing. Following the Duke’s decree, anyone guilty of dueling in the streets is automatically sentenced to death, and Tybalt has not only violated this decree, but he’s killed a relative of the Duke in the process. From the moment Mercutio falls, Tybalt has signed his own death warrant. Romeo would best be served to walk away and let Tybalt face his punishment. Even if his family connections are enough to save him from death, Tybalt would, at the very least, be banished, which would also solve Romeo’s problems without getting his hands dirty. Once again Romeo acts impulsively, this time costing Tybalt his life, and Romeo his freedom of movement within Verona and his actions have devastating consequences for the woman Romeo claims to love.
Romeo’s irresponsible actions leave Juliet in a terrible position, first having to reconcile her love for Romeo against her devotion to her cousin Tybalt, then, finding herself offered as a bride to Paris, which puts her at odds with her short tempered father. Her nurse counsels Juliet to simply yield to the will of her father and marry Paris, but Juliet knows that it’s not that simple. While it’s not explicitly spelled out in the context of the play, the reality is that once Juliet has spent the night with Romeo, she’s no longer a virgin. Capulet has been promising Paris the hand of his virginal daughter and once Paris has sex with her, he’ll know she’s not and will undoubtedly raise the issue with Capulet. Judging by his response to her reluctance to marry Paris, there is little doubt how Capulet would respond to the embarrassment such a revelation would cause him, and Juliet is well aware of this. Her only real hope is for Romeo to return and claim her hand, and given his situation, that’s not likely to happen. Under these circumstances, suicide or cloister are her only viable options and she has Romeo to thank for that.
Technically, under Shakespeare’s definition of the term, Romeo has committed rape. In Elizabethan England, rape was not defined as a sexual offense against a woman, but as a legal offense against her father or family. While Juliet may have consented to having sex with Romeo, who she viewed as her husband, in Shakespeare’s time, young, unmarried women did not have the legal capacity to consent to marriage, which was the only pretense under which sexual activity was considered acceptable, particularly for a woman. In order for the union to be legal in the eyes of their society, Juliet’s father or family would have had to consent to the marriage, and that was never going to happen. From the way the word is used in other plays by Shakespeare, one of the definitions of rape was that of a man who marries a woman simply to have sex with her, which, one could argue, Romeo has done. While he does claim to love Juliet, he also claimed to love Rosaline before meeting Juliet, and hardly a day has passed in between. When he speaks to the friar about performing the marriage, Friar Laurence is skeptical about how much Romeo truly cares for Juliet, but foolishly agrees to perform the union, hoping to end the conflict between the families.
There is a definite pattern to Romeo’s behavior which calls into question how much he truly cares for Juliet. This is evident from the beginning of the play, when it’s revealed that the Rosaline Romeo claims to love is Capulet’s niece. This suggests that Romeo’s trouble with Rosaline isn’t that she’s rejected him but that she is off-limits to him because of her family connections. He’s pining for her because the situation between their families makes it impossible for him to pursue her. In this context, his motives must come under scrutiny, since all accounts are that he’s as much an active participant in his family’s feud with the Capulets as the rest of his kinsmen. Lady Montague expresses relief that Romeo was not party to the fight which starts off the play. Why then would Romeo choose a relative of the Capulets as the object of his affection, knowing full well that it would only lead to more conflict? Meeting Juliet at the party and learning of her parentage presents Romeo with a new opportunity to needle his family’s sworn enemy, and he immediately puts his life at risk to pursue it by sneaking back onto the grounds of the Capulets’ home that night to see Juliet. Romeo shows his true colors when he allows Tybalt to goad him into a fight once Mercutio is dead. Not even his professed love for Juliet, Tybalt’s cousin, is enough to prevent him from striking out at his sworn enemy when provoked.
Every production I’ve seen has cast actresses playing Juliet who are in their late-teens to mid-twenties. However, the text makes it fairly clear that Juliet is thirteen. Lord Capulet, questions whether Juliet is old enough to marry when the subject of her betrothal to Paris comes up. We’re not specifically told Romeo’s age, but given his companions, it’s safe to assume that he, Benvolio, Mercutio, and Tybalt are close in age, probably early- to mid-twenties at the oldest. Paris is a count, that is, landed gentry, meaning he was “of age” or no younger than twenty-one to twenty-five. The life expectancy of people in this era was early- to mid-forties, and under English common law, boys of fourteen and girls as young as twelve could act as witnesses to wills and executors of estates. While men tended to forestall marriage until they had some means of subsistence, usually a plot of land on their families’ property or the guarantee of a substantial inheritance, women could be betrothed as soon as they reached sexual maturity so long as their families were in agreement, and given the hazards of childbirth, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for men to marry several times, leading to very young women being wedded to much older men, particularly if there were young children who needed care. While we may find it scandalous that a man in his twenties is pressing for a marriage to a thirteen year old girl, as Paris does in the play, in that day and age, it was fairly commonplace. For one thing, it got the woman out of her father’s house and made her the responsibility of someone else. Daughters in this era weren’t held in very high esteem, and were generally prized more for the powerful men they could attract than for their own personal attributes.
Juliet is the only character in the play who does not have an overt agenda. The Capulets and Montagues are consumed with their feud, which may or may not influence Romeo’s decision to pursue women related to his family’s sworn enemy. Paris wants Juliet as his wife and Capulet wants the prestige that comes with joining his daughter to a kinsman of the Duke. Friar Laurence is largely motivated by his desire to end the bloodshed caused by the feud, agreeing to sanction a union which he should know neither side will accept. Juliet’s nurse at first helps Juliet in her pursuit of Romeo, but shows her reliance on the established order when she counsels Juliet to marry Paris when Romeo is sent away. Juliet finds herself caught between her obedience to her father and her love for her father’s enemy, yet remains focused on what she believes to be the right course of action, remaining faithful to the vow she made to Romeo. In doing so, she becomes the only character who consistently grows throughout the play.
Romeo’s behavior does not change significantly, and in fact he becomes more reckless and impulsive as the action progresses, whereas Juliet becomes more mature and assured of her actions. Romeo’s decision to kill himself after hearing erroneous reports of Juliet’s death is yet another rash and foolish act which could have been avoided if only he had checked in with Friar Laurence when he arrived back in Verona. Juliet, on the other hand, looks for any opportunity to rectify the situation without further bloodshed. When she realizes her family views her as little more than a token to be offered to the influential Paris, she resolves to chart her own course, even if it means ending her life, and while she is fully prepared to die rather than violate her vow to Romeo, she allows Friar Laurence to counsel her and gratefully accepts his remedy for her situation. Once again, she falls victim to Romeo’s impulsiveness, and seeing her last chance at happiness on her own terms taken from her, she exercises the only option she feels she has left and ends her life.