Romeo and Juliet
Season 08-09 Season
A Man's World
The role of Juliet is often cited as one of the greatest parts ever written for a woman. But like all of Shakespeare’s female roles, Juliet was actually written for a boy. Women were prohibited from acting on stage in England until the 1660s, and so all of Shakespeare’s plays were originally all-male productions. It should come as no surprise, then, that Shakespeare often directly addresses the question of what it means to be a man. Romeo and Juliet famously tells the story of young people in love, but it frames that story by placing those young people into a society dangerously obsessed with manliness.
When the play begins, a bitter feud divides Capulet from Montague. But this “ancient grudge” lives so far in the past that no one seems to remember its original cause. It reignites not over a dispute between members of the families, but between their house servants. “To be valiant is to stand,” say the Capulet servants, so determined to prove themselves as valiant men that they pick an unprovoked fight with the Montague servants. “I will push Montague’s men from the wall,” they boast crudely, “and thrust his maids to the wall.” When the masters arrive, they fare no better than their brash young servants, brandishing their weapons despite their wives’ pleas for reason. Lady Capulet tells her husband that a crutch will better suit his age than a sword, but he protests that he has to match Montague’s perceived challenge.
This atmosphere of manly posturing in the name of supposed honor hits the Montague and Capulet teenagers at the worst possible time in their lives. They are in the throes of what modern psychologists call “separation-individuation,” the painful process by which adolescents distinguish themselves from their parents’ identity and form an identity of their own. The boys are struggling to prove themselves as men, and, in their families and society, being a man means being ready to fight. When the young Capulet Tybalt sees Montagues crashing his family’s party, he declares the harmless act an insult against the “honor of my kin,” and calls for his sword. His uncle Capulet quickly tries to calm Tybalt’s bluster, mocking him as a silly “boy”; but for a teenager eager to prove his manhood, this word makes him only more eager. In Verona, the word “boy” is a cape waved at a bull.
The thinkers of Shakespeare’s time were beginning to recognize the dangers of this reckless drive to prove manliness. In 1578, the French diplomat Hubert Languet warned his bold friend Philip Sidney that “most men of high rank think it more honorable to do the work of a soldier than of a leader, and would rather earn a name for boldness than for judgment.” Eight years later, the nobleman and poet Sidney died in battle in the Netherlands. In 1598, Queen Elizabeth’s one-time favorite the Earl of Essex vehemently opposed making peace with Spain, arguing instead for renewed aggression. According to legend, Elizabeth’s aged advisor Lord Burghley silently opened his prayer-book and pointed to a verse from the Psalms: “Men of blood shall not live out half their days.” Three years later, having pushed the Queen too far, Essex was executed for treason at age 34.
In Romeo and Juliet, manly bravado and violence becomes even more deadly for the teenagers when love enters the mix. For while Romeo and Juliet’s love may have the potential to “bury their parents’ strife,” it blossoms in a world that sees love as the enemy of manliness. Romeo’s friend Mercutio urges him to “beat love down” and to “be rough with love.” When his refusal to fight Tybalt leads to his friend’s death, Romeo laments that Juliet’s “beauty hath made me effeminate.” To regain his manhood, Romeo rashly attacks Tybalt, leading directly to the destruction of everything he values.
Again, the parents who should protect their children only make things worse. Romeo barely speaks to his own father, but his “spiritual father” Lawrence tells a despondent Romeo that “thy tears are womanish” and calls him an “unseemly woman in a seeming man.” Trying to make Romeo stronger, he instead encourages the very reckless behavior he should be discouraging. On the cusp of manhood in a city and a family that equates manhood with rashness and violence, Romeo can receive this advice only as a call to arms. It calms him temporarily but ultimately leads to a far worse fate than a few tears.
Juliet alone calls for an alternative to the unending spiral of proving manliness. “Deny thy father,” she begs of Romeo, “and refuse thy name.” Be more than your father’s son, more than the person the name Montague dictates you should be. And for a time, her love wins him over. “Call me but ‘love,’” Romeo promises Juliet, “and I’ll be new-baptized.” But their world will not allow renaming; the pressure to be a man and a Montague conquers all.
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