Romeo and Juliet
She’s thirteen years old with hypocritical, manipulative parents, a nurse who dotes but also has a mean streak, and a society that cheerfully imprisons girls her age in marriage.
Juliet has everything against her. But is she a pushover? Indeed she is not.
Almost the first thing we hear her say is in answer in Act 1.3 to her mother’s question – though the answer is supposed to be given – ‘How stands your disposition to be married?’ Juliet says: ‘It is an honour I dream not of.’ Not terribly radical, you might say. No, not at all. But not the enthusiasm her mother no doubt expected and when she asks Julia if she can ‘like of Paris’ love?’ Juliet gives such a garbled answer that one could interpret it as, ‘Not really.’ And this before she has met Romeo and knows what love feels like.
She then has no hesitation in falling for Romeo but even then in the first throes of romance she protests its suddenness and Romeo’s passion, as well as her own. In Act 2.1 she rejects his vow – ‘O, swear not by the moon’ - and has
...no joy of this contract tonight:
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
Too like the lightning...
As they are about to part Romeo, wanting more, demands, ‘O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?’
Juliet retorts, ‘What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?’
Still, she is quick enough to demand marriage and while waiting impatiently in Act 2.4 for the nurse to return from meeting with Romeo she is far from docile. She complains about how slow the nurse is:
...old folks, many feign as they were dead,
Unwieldy, slow, heavy and pale as lead.
When the nurse finally comes and demands patience because she is out of breath, Juliet says tartly and logically,
How art thou out of breath, when thou hast breath
To say to me that thou art out of breath?
Well, the marriage happens and in that Juliet is as rebellious as she could probably imagine. How they were planning on dealing with breaking that news to the feuding parents we will never know. Double manslaughter and banishment get in the way.
Fast forward to the scene where she is informed that she is to marry Paris on Thursday. Juliet rebels:
‘He shall not make me there a joyful bride.
...I will not marry yet, and, when I do, I swear
It shall be Romeo, whom you know I hate,
Rather than Paris (Act 3.5).
Clever, devious girl!
When the nurse tells her it’s just as well she marries Paris after all for all kinds of reasons, Juliet’s rebellion is upped a notch. Her beloved nurse has betrayed her:
Ancient damnation! O most wicked fiend!
Is it more sin to wish me thus forsworn,
Or to dispraise my lord with that same tongue
Which she hath praised him with above compare
So many thousand times? Go, counsellor,
Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain.
I’ll to the friar, to know his remedy;
If all else fail, myself have power to die (Act 4.1)
Juliet sees through the betrayal and hypocrisy and cuts right to the core of the matter.
Her skilful wordplay as she spars with Paris about the supposed coming marriage shows that she’s still in control but later, alone with the friar’s remedy, panic sets in. Her monologue in Act 4.3 before taking the potion is the strongest of the play and sadly it is cut from many productions, even the best.
She is afraid: ‘I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins...’
She is alone: ‘My dismal scene I needs must act alone.
She is doubtful: ‘What if this mixture do not work at all? / Shall I be married then tomorrow morning?’
She is suspicious: ‘What if it be a poison, which the friar / Subtly hath ministered to have me dead / Lest in this marriage he should be dishonoured?
She is terrified of waking too early in the tomb, a vault filled with death and horror, stifled, foul, many hundred years of bones, blood, Tybalt festering, loathsome smells, shrieks:
O, if I wake, shall I not be distraught,
Environèd with all these hideous fears?
And madly play with my forefather’s joints?
And pluck the mangled Tybalt from his shroud?
And in this rage, with some great kinsman’s bone,
As with a club, dash out my desp’rate brain?
Oh, poor, poor Juliet! Poor terrified abandoned girl! She could so easily have given in to her parents’ demands, to Paris’ wooing, and escaped these dreadful horrors!
But not Juliet, brave rebellious Juliet.
She swallows the potion.
The more I see and read this play the more I admire it. The more I admire Juliet. This thirteen-year-old girl, sheltered and pampered and imprisoned, defies everything her oppressive society throws at her.
She dies, yes, but she goes out in rebellious glory, even defying the church’s condemnation of suicide, and thereby changes the course of Verona’s fictional history.
And, if we would but see it, lives on in our hearts and minds, as a Rebel Girl.
Films seen this time:
- Zeffirelli's version with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in the leads. Lovely to watch but too sweet for my taste. http://rubyjandsmovieblog.blogspot.se/2018/03/romeo-and-juliet-1968.html
- Luhrmann's version with Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in the leads. Not without flaws but the best version I’ve seen. http://rubyjandsmovieblog.blogspot.se/2018/03/romeo-and-juliet-1996.html