JULIET IS AN EARLY EXAMPLE OF SHAKESPEARE GIVING WOMEN THE SHARPEST MINDS AND THE WITTIEST ONE-LINERS. IN FACT, BY THE END OF ROMEO AND JULIET, EVERYTHING REVOLVES AROUND HER.
By Andy McLean
As heroes go, it’s hard to think of a less likely one than Juliet Capulet: A giggly thirteen year old. Born into privilege. Living a sheltered life. Indulged by her own personal nurse. At first sight, it’s hard to believe that we are looking at one of theatre’s greatest romantic heroes.
But looks can be deceiving.
When we meet her, Juliet appears to be quite the goodie-two-shoes. She seems eager to please Lady Capulet, her mother (‘Madam, I am here, what is your will?’) and patiently listens while the Nurse and her mum have a lengthy discussion about Juliet’s past, present and future.
For most of this scene, the two older women are really talking about Juliet; not talking with her. They infantilise her, objectify her, and quickly agree that an arranged marriage to Count Paris is for the best. Juliet’s response is quietly submissive:
‘I’ll look to like if looking liking move,
But no more deep will I endart mine eye
Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.’
BREAKING THE RULES
That early exchange is, in fact, a rather nifty manoeuvre from Shakespeare. It sets everyone’s expectations of Juliet very low, making sure that she is underestimated at every turn thereafter. Who would ever suspect that this meek young creature could smash the rules of society and family so spectacularly?
“Juliet goes on such a journey,” says Kelly Paterniti, who is playing the part in Bell Shakespeare’s 2016 production. “She transforms in front of our eyes from this very young dutiful daughter to this mature young woman who disobeys her parents and goes for what she wants. She’s very headstrong and incredibly imaginative.”
Harvard scholar Marjorie Garber agrees: “She begins as a very obedient daughter. Then the second she catches sight of Romeo she becomes wonderfully, cleverly deceptive.”
By way of example, Garber points out that, seconds after Juliet’s first encounter with Romeo at the Capulet ball, she is desperate to know who he is. To conceal her interest, Juliet begins asking the Nurse who various other revellers are before casually pointing out Romeo.
This is the first of many occasions where Juliet chooses language to cloak her true intentions: “She is very honest,” says Paterniti. “There are a number of times where she’s talking with her father and she’s just incredibly clever at manipulating words to say one thing that isn’t a lie but has a double meaning. So she remains true to herself even though she’s saying what she thinks someone else wants to hear. If you really listen, she’s talking about something else entirely.”
Having fallen in love, Juliet’s language shifts markedly. She is capable of breathtaking rhyme and passionate blank verse or iambic pentameter. Author and feminist Germaine Greer explained the significance of this in an interview for the UK’s Hay Festival: “Juliet is a kid and what’s extraordinary about the play is that Shakespeare has put his first great heroic blank verse in the mouth of a 13-year-old girl. That’s an extraordinarily subversive thing to do. She’s not any kind of a conventional hero.”
SEIZING THE INITIATIVE
Later in Shakespeare’s career, he regularly created female characters who took control and ran rings around their male counterparts. Juliet was a precursor to those characters. “She’s every bit Romeo’s equal – in fact she is more than his equal,” says Peter Evans, who is directing the 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of the play. “She’s so bright. She has to teach Romeo how to love and how to be real.”
In the ITV documentary Shakespeare Uncovered, Oxford scholar Sir Jonathan Bate emphasised that Juliet has the initiative during the famous balcony scene: “She’s in control even to the point of planning the wedding. She’s discovering her sexuality. She’s not passive. She’s out there at her window, willing Romeo to come to her. She’s ready to give her body to him.”
Juliet’s love for Romeo can be viewed as a reaction against the establishment, according to Greer: “One thing is clear to me: Romeo is a dork, but she loves him. Why does she love him? Because she’s exercising her own right to choose under duress.”
DARING AND DEFIANCE
Greer’s assessment of Romeo might be a touch harsh, but it is his rash behaviour that ultimately dooms the two lovers. He lets the red mist descend, avenging the death of Mercutio by slaying Tybalt and, from that moment on, Juliet’s fate is sealed just as surely as Romeo’s.
Juliet responds by asserting herself even further. In an act of daring and defiance, she consummates the marriage with Romeo and pledges her allegiance to him. Then, when Romeo flees, Juliet stays behind to pick up the pieces.
“If you look at the structure of the play, when Romeo is banished, Juliet is left to orchestrate the plot,” says Garber. “Juliet says ‘My dismal scene I needs must act alone’. She’s on her own here. She abandons her mother, she abandons the Nurse, she will no longer have any of this female support group and she makes her own plans with Friar Laurence.
“Juliet’s direction of the play comes rapidly,” continues Garber. “Shakespeare puts her in the driving seat very effectively.”
By the time she fakes her own death, Juliet has developed far beyond the passive young girl we met at the beginning. Now it is her actions that propel us towards the play’s heartbreaking conclusion.
“Make no mistake: this is Juliet’s play,” says Garber. “There is no question this is Juliet’s play; both in terms of the staging, and in terms of the language. Her maturing is very rapid. The centre of the play has been hollowed out as a space for Juliet’s maturation.”
Peter Evans agrees: “Absolutely, I think it’s her play. Juliet is there with Rosalind, Cleopatra, Viola and Lady Macbeth as one of Shakespeare’s female characters with a real engine and with real agency. I think Shakespeare says it himself in the last words of the play when he actually refers to ‘…Juliet and her Romeo’. He clearly says that this has ended up being a story about Juliet.”
The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Romeo And Juliet is being staged at Canberra Theatre Centre (1 – 9 April) and the Arts Centre Melbourne (14 April – 1 May). Details at Bellshakespeare.com.au
Andy McLean is a magazine publisher and freelance writer. He tweets from @1andymclean