Having taken you all through a list of what I consider feminist moments in Romeo and Juliet, I must undertake the difficult task of justifying the entire enterprise. This is where I lay all my cards on the table and explain why I believe it makes sense to treat R&J as a work of feminist fiction.
I am not arguing that Shakespeare was as a person, particularly feminist. Indeed, although he has written some gratifyingly strong women, his plays are often rife with blatant sexism. I do not believe that he consciously aimed for a feminist sensibility when writing R&J. He was, however, reacting to basically feminist changes in society—changes that make Romeo & Juliet the most modern-seeming of all Shakespeare plays.
Many of his works reveal attitudes toward love and marriage that seem starkly anachronistic. In Much Ado About Nothing and King Lear, marriage is portrayed as a business deal and a political alliance. In Much Ado, when Claudio has settled on Hero for his bride, it is to her father, not to her, that he must make his case—a clear case of woman-as-property.
R&J is different in that Juliet affirmatively chooses her husband, but it’s not only Juliet’s agency that is extraordinary. Romeo, too, is censured for daring to marry whom he loves. Thus we see marriage as institution whereby patriarchs buy and sell their children (of both genders) for financial and political gain to an institution about the individual choices of the married. It is of course imperfect-- men still have far more freedom and agency than women-- but it is a step forward.
If I had to guess at authorial intent, I would guess that Shakespeare was not consciously pro-feminist when he wrote R&J. Rather, he was pro-freedom, which turns out, in practice, to be essentially the same thing. Individual freedom must include freedom to defy gender roles and gender norms, freedom to escape the hierarchy and thwart the patriarchs, or it is no freedom at all. By including Juliet in his implied moral, that society should respect the romantic choices of humans, he automatically takes what we, today, would call a feminist stance.
One could challenge my assertion that Shakespeare is so radically pro-freedom. After all, many of his plays look back nostalgically to the time of absolute monarchs. But if you consider the structure of a Shakespearian tragedy, I believe my assertion can be defended. Shakespeare’s tragedies generally concern themselves with not merely the destruction, but the self-destruction of one or more families. Othello is done in by jealousy, Lear by vanity, Macbeth by ambition. What fatal flaw is the source of Romeo and Juliet’s undoing? I believe it is complicity. Throughout the play, whenever anyone compromises their ideals and does what is expected of them, bad things happen.
Romeo begins the play alienated from his place in society. And yet, He meets Juliet, is married, all seems well. His downfall comes not from his rebelliousness; on the contrary, disaster strikes when he does what is expected of him, murdering Tybalt to avenge his friend and defend his honor. In that moment, when his self-control lapses and he allows himself to do what he is told, things begin to go bad.
There’s a lot of fatalistic language in R&J – form the priest’s lectures to Romeo’s premonitions to the Chorus and more, the end is heavily foreshadowed. Undefeatable forces sweep us inexorably toward death and disaster, they say, and nothing can be done about it.
They’re wrong. If Romeo hadn’t killed Tybalt, he and Juliet would have survived. In fact, there are countless opportunities by which someone could have prevented the disaster. Tybalt could have accepted Romeo’s apology, the priest could have insisted on a public marriage, the nurse could have revealed the secret marriage rather than allow the betrothal to Tybalt, Lord Capulet could have accepted his daughter’s refusal to marry Paris, Juliet herself could have confessed she was already married. Any of the conspirators could have revealed the secret marriage, ended the charade, and tried to put things right.
What all these things have in common is that someone would have been required to think outside the box, to make waves, to do the unexpected. Instead every character chooses to go with the flow, even when that flow leaves them dashed on the rocks.
If I were to summarize the message of R&J as I see it, it would be “Find out what you truly want and fight for it. Don’t surrender your life by going along with what is expected.”
In the end, it doesn’t get much more feminist than that.