Close Up: Romeo and Juliet and Inter-generation Injustice, A Play for Our Times
By Dr April Gallwey
References to the text are from The Norton Shakespeare (1997)
When I was sixteen, studying Romeo and Juliet for what were then, GCSEs, I was told by my English Literature teacher that the play was about two silly, infatuated teenagers, on a mutual path of self-destruction, the least appealing of the tragedies. My secondary school teachers were amazing, I owe a lot to them. They inspired me and imparted a life-long love of the arts and literature specifically. This particular teacher succeeded in getting us to read Chaucer’s A Miller’s Tale aloud in class, an awkward task for a group of sixteen year olds, but one which really helped us all understand the meaning of the old English tale. But her view of Romeo and Juliet was wrong. It felt wrong hearing her slighting of the play when I was sixteen and looking back now, over twenty years later, it feels even more misguided a remark, and one which I would like to rebuke in the following discussion. My teacher’s view is one which goes straight to the matter I wish to focus on in this article – the relationship between the generations, the theme which underlies the significance of the play. At the core of my teacher’s comment was the very dynamic which makes the play so great and so relevant to audiences across time and place – the way that societies are partly shaped by the conflict and co-operation of young and old. It is ironic that in rejecting the play on the basis of it capturing the pertinence of youthful love, and her dismissal of teenage passion (she didn’t gain any kudos amongst her class of adolescents with this view!) my teacher reaffirmed the relevance of the play’s depiction of inter-generational conflict.
Alongside Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s most performed play, which certainly says something about the play’s appeal to audiences both in the past and present. In an interview with The Times in 1960, the film director Franco Zeffirelli said the play’s ‘twin themes of love and the total breakdown of understanding between two generations’ had contemporary relevance. Zeffirelli’s film version of the play was released in 1968 and portrays a dignified Romeo and Juliet battling with the oppressive conditions which young women were faced with in the middle ages and early modern world, whereby parents, and in particular fathers, had absolute rule over their daughters futures. Act 3 Scene 5, which goes straight to the heart of the play’s key message about generational conflict and the rule of patriarchal law, is particularly terrifying in Zeffirelli’s production:
Here we have a young woman fighting off the commands and physical attacks of a father who has promised her to his friend’s son. Juliet has no say, she has no capacity to refuse, and her mother is also part of the bargain. Dressed in excessive white robes, which drown the heroine and make it difficult for her to move (symbolic of her literal imprisonment and lack of autonomy), she hides from the verbal and physical lashes of patriarchal authority with no way out. Her parents and the nurse are dressed in black, contrasting with the whiteness of Juliet’s appearance and emphasizing the darkness of the adult figures who make up the authority figures of the House of Capulet. Of course the nurse is an exception to the tyranny of old over young, she assists Juliet in her bid for freedom (as does Friar Laurence, the other adult who recognizes the plight of youth) and is a source of maternal love, but she is still an elder, and therefore dressed in clothing which defines her difference from Juliet in terms of age. Throughout this scene, Juliet’s long, dark hair is very prominent, it is a reminder of her sensuality, something which is of allure to prospective husbands such as young Paris, but is fundamentally something which Juliet herself possesses in her person. It is this sensuality, her own sexuality and body, which Juliet attempts to reclaim throughout the play, by refusing her parents choices and following her own desires in her relationship with Romeo. I find this scene difficult to read, never mind difficult to watch in productions such as Zefferelli’s where the violence done to the young by those possessing power is made so dreadfully clear. Zefferelli’s film was made in the 1960s when women’s rights and the rights of the young were being fought for across Europe and America, changing the world in the process. Therefore when the director spoke of the play’s relevance to audiences in the 1960s, he knew it mirrored the inter-generational battles being fought in his own time. Let’s look at some of the specifics of this generational conflict, namely how it is transmitted between parents and daughters, for it is commonly women’s bodies which are the battlefield upon which social conflict is acted out.
Early on in the play, in Act 1, Scene 1, we learn that women are born into lives of submission in the society of Verona:
‘Tis true, and therefore women, being the weaker vessels,
are ever thrust to the wall; therefore I will push Montague’s
men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall. (1. 1. 14-16).
The description of women as vessels here is suggestive of their reproductive role and sexual servitude to men, and the image of women being thrust to the wall reveals an acceptance of violence against women in order to maintain control. Juliet’s mother and her nurse also inform her of the lack of control she will have over her own body and destiny as a young woman in Veronese society. Lady Capulet says to her daughter:
Well, think of marriage now. Younger than you
Here in Verona, ladies of esteem,
Are made already mothers. By my count
I was your mother much upon these years
That you are now a maid.’ (1. 3. 71-75)
It is Juliet’s destiny to reproduce and to become a mother at a very young age; there can be no breaking out of this cycle which is handed down between generations. Her mother speaks with a sense of bitterness about her own fate and yet remains passive and accepting of her daughter’s, for she also lacks any agency, being described in the ‘Persons of the Play’ as ‘Capulet’s Wife.’ Juliet’s nurse also refers to a joke made by her husband which illustrates women’s sexual subordination and lack of consent: ‘Thou wilt fall backward when thou com’st to age’ (1.3.56). The coming of enforced marriage therefore hangs over Juliet, as it did so many women across social classes in the medieval and early modern period. When the deal is made to exchange Juliet in marriage to Paris, it is worth looking in detail at the words which Juliet’s father utters when his daughter rejects his order. After calling Juliet a ‘Mistress Minion’ (spoilt child) and ‘young baggage’ he states:
An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend.
Ann you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets,
For, by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee,
Nor what is mine shall never do thee good.
Trust to’t. Bethink you. I’ll not be forsworn. (3. 5. 191-195).
These words make clear how Capulet see’s his daughter as his possession to be exchanged as he sees fit. In rejecting her father’s authority, Juliet is cast out by her father in the most brutal of terms when he states that he would rather she die than disobey him. Shakespeare had a keen eye for observing the tyranny of fathers over their children, as is the case also in King Lear and in Hamlet, to some extent, with Hamlet’s ghostly father returning to persecute his son’s thoughts from the grave. Given the brutal picture of patriarchal authority in Romeo and Juliet, the rebellious love of the two protagonists and Juliet’s fight for self-determination in particular, are remarkable demonstrations of defiance and the human will, to which we will now turn.
From early on in the play we understand that as a young man, there are different rules for Romeo in Veronese society. He too is tied to certain codes of behavior, particularly in terms of honour and masculinity and deference towards parents and elders, but he has a degree of freedom that Juliet does not possess and more control over his bodily integrity (nobody speaks of him as a ‘vessel’). We learn that before meeting Juliet, Romeo was infatuated with Rosaline, a young woman who did not reciprocate his affections. He is presented to us from the outset as having greater liberty than the play’s heroine, who in contrast appears incarcerated in her parents' home. Juliet’s rebellion in the play is therefore all the more impressive given the greater barriers facing her as a young woman. Romeo is daring in entering the house of Capulet to attend the masked ball where the lovers first meet, but Juliet’s behavior is even more revealing of an independent spirit. She flirts with Romeo and engages him in intelligent and witty banter, she is not interested in playing the demure female. In the famous balcony scene Juliet appears commanding, she shortcuts the language of courtship and gets right to the point of their relationship, demanding to know where they are heading: ‘If that thy bent of love be honourable, thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow’ (2. 2. 185-186). Juliet is sexually assertive and impatient in wanting to consummate their relationship, ironically using the language of property used by her father in the following statement to assert her desires: ‘O, I have bought the mansion of a love but not possessed it, and though I am sold, not yet enjoyed. So tedious is this day’ (3. 2. 26-28). In the often quoted lines spoken by the two lovers which follow, we see them both defying the language of patriarchal culture which hides their true and common selves:
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name,
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet […]
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
By a name
I know not how to tell thee who I am
My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself
Because it is an enemy to thee.
Had I it written, I would tear the word.
(2. 1. 74-81; 95-99)
Here Juliet promotes rebellion against the father and rids herself of tribal allegiance in order to be a free agent. Romeo mirrors her spirit, literally tearing any words which might halt their union. There are of course points in the play when the two protagonists have to revert to the codes of their society and assume accepted gender roles. Romeo fights in response to the death of Mercutio as one bound to a masculine code of honour, but it is an act of chivalry which puts his relationship with Juliet further out of reach, ending in his exile to Mantua. Juliet agrees to consent to marry Paris and then play dead at the suggestion of the Friar in order to be reunited with the outcast Romeo, but this plan and her assumption of female passivity for the first time in the play, ends horribly, as we all know. The final suicidal actions of Romeo and Juliet underscore the theme of youthful defiance in the play – in death the two lovers cannot be parted by their parents. In this ghastly scene we see gender roles reversed again, a final rejection of those codes which curtailed autonomy for the young in Verona. Romeo chooses the gentler option of poison to end his life, whilst Juliet uses a dagger to end hers, a weapon usually held by men and taken up boldly here to possess her own body in death: ‘Oh Happy Dagger! This is they sheath! There rust, and let me die’ (5. 3. 69).
Romeo and Juliet is nothing less than a powerful warning against the oppression of the young by the old. It takes the death of the two young lovers at the end to reveal the true devastation of parental tyranny, the realization of which brings a divided community together, signaling hope for the future. It is a play which has relevance for audiences across time and place. Sadly there are all too many countries in the world today where adults rule over the young, where girls and young women are forced into marriage and treated as vessels. A girl, Yeonmi Park, speaking at the ‘One Young World’ conference in 2014 courageously told of her life story living under one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world. During her speech she said: ‘I never saw anything of love stories between men and women, no books…no movies about love stories – there is no Romeo and Juliet.’ This statement is the best I have ever heard in terms of defining what it means to be free as a human – to read, to imagine – as one wishes, and it places the spirit of Shakespeare’s play, the freedom to love who one chooses at the heart of such a definition. In contemporary Britain, although women have gained rights and liberties which Juliet could only have dreamed of, gender inequalities persist and the election of 2017 revealed the principle dynamic of politics was one of inter-generation injustice, with young people voting in unprecedented numbers to halt decisions being made about their future which they could not accept. June 2017 brought hope in the figure of youth – Romeo and Juliet is a play for our times.
1- Yeonmi Park, ‘One Young World Conference’, October 18th 2014: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufhKWfPSQOw