Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Romeo and Juliet 2: Female Agency

Thus far I've been talking about Romeo, but of course the title of the play is Romeo and Juliet, so it's time to introduce the leading lady.

Fortunately, Juliet is a heroine modern feminists can be proud of.

In setting up the title characters' relationship, Shakespeare pulls something of a bait and switch. They first meet at the masked ball in 1.5 -- an exchange which is ludicrously overgendered.

ROMEO
[To JULIET] If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
JULIET
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
100
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
ROMEO
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
JULIET
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
105
ROMEO
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
JULIET
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
ROMEO
Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.
110
JULIET
Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
ROMEO
Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.
JULIET
You kiss by the book.

This exchange casts Juliet firmly in the feminine-passive role, and it seems we are in for a straightforward courtly romance.

Not at all! Consider their next meeting, in scene 2.2

This is the infamous balcony scene. romeo overhears Juliet speaking of him from her balcony. He comes out to greet her, and, after a brief confirmation of their identities and their mutual attraction, they get down to business. Juliet says this:


JULIET
[...]O gentle Romeo,
If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully:
Or if thou think'st I am too quickly won,
I'll frown and be perverse an say thee nay,
So thou wilt woo; but else, not for the world.
100
In truth, fair Montague, I am too fond,
And therefore thou mayst think my 'havior light:
But trust me, gentleman, I'll prove more true
Than those that have more cunning to be strange.
I should have been more strange, I must confess,
105
But that thou overheard'st, ere I was ware,
My true love's passion: therefore pardon me,
And not impute this yielding to light love,
Which the dark night hath so discovered.

In short, Juliet has figured out that traditional courtship and passivity give women a raw deal. She's not ashamed to have expressed her desires, though she knows some may find it improper. This is very significant, since, as I will argue later, the central struggle in this play is the efforts by both Romeo and Juliet to cats off societal expectations. Just as romeo is told true manhood requires violence, Juliet has apparently been taught that true womanhood demands passivity. Like romeo, Juliet wants to escape the role she has been assigned.

Juliet continues to surprise and gratify the feminist reader throughout the play. A few lines later, she gives an excellent example of negotiation and boundary-setting:

JULIET
Well, do not swear: although I joy in thee,
I have no joy of this contract to-night:
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say 'It lightens.' Sweet, good night!
125
This bud of love, by summer's ripening breath,
May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.
Good night, good night! as sweet repose and rest
Come to thy heart as that within my breast!

In scene 3.2 she expresses explicitly sexual desire, a rarity among Shakespeare's heroines. She also chooses her loyalties (it's a rare Shakespearean heroine who truly rejects parental authority. they may temporarily be at odds with parents, but in the end, the father almost always approves of the husband.) In act 4, she actively seeks out the Friar's help. And, of course, at the end, it is she who chooses to die.

Her decisions aren't numerous, nor are they especially effectual-- she doesn't get what she wants or, ultimately, have much control over her fate. But she tries to live her own life, and tries pretty admirably, too. She is a clear victim of the patriarchy, spending the last half of the play being bought sold, and fought for by a group of powerful men-- a fate she eventually decides is literally worse than death.

The specific blend of patriarchal forces that drives her to suicide will be the subject of part three.
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