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Romeo and Juliet /

A Modern Perspective: Romeo and Juliet

By Gail Kern Paster

Does Romeo and Juliet need an introduction? Of all Shakespeare’s plays, it has been the most continuously popular since its first performance in the mid-1590s. It would seem, then, the most direct of Shakespeare’s plays in its emotional impact. What could be easier to understand and what could be more moving than the story of two adolescents finding in their sudden love for each other a reason to defy their families’ mutual hatred by marrying secretly? The tragic outcome of their blameless love (their “misadventured piteous overthrows”) seems equally easy to understand: it results first from Tybalt’s hotheaded refusal to obey the Prince’s command and second from accidents of timing beyond any human ability to foresee or control. Simple in its story line, clear in its affirmation of the power of love over hate, Romeo and Juliet seems to provide both a timeless theme and universal appeal. Its immediacy stands in welcome contrast to the distance, even estrangement, evoked by other Shakespeare plays. No wonder it is often the first Shakespeare play taught in schools—on the grounds of its obvious relevance to the emotional and social concerns of young people.

Recent work by social historians on the history of private life in western European culture, however, offers a complicating perspective on the timelessness of Romeo and Juliet. At the core of the play’s evident accessibility is the importance and privilege modern Western culture grants to desire, regarding it as deeply expressive of individual identity and central to the personal fulfillment of women no less than men. But, as these historians have argued, such conceptions of desire reflect cultural changes in human consciousness—in ways of imagining and articulating the nature of desire.1 In England until the late sixteenth century, individual identity had been imagined not so much as the result of autonomous, personal growth in consciousness but rather as a function of social station, an individual’s place in a network of social and kinship structures. Furthermore, traditional culture distinguished sharply between the nature of identity for men and women. A woman’s identity was conceived almost exclusively in relation to male authority and marital status. She was less an autonomous, desiring self than any male was; she was a daughter, wife, or widow expected to be chaste, silent, and, above all, obedient. It is a profound and necessary act of historical imagination, then, to recognize innovation in the moment when Juliet impatiently invokes the coming of night and the husband she has disobediently married: “Come, gentle night; come, loving black-browed night, / Give me my Romeo” (3.2.21–23).

Recognizing that the nature of desire and identity is subject to historical change and cultural innovation can provide the basis for rereading Romeo and Juliet. Instead of an uncomplicated, if lyrically beautiful, contest between young love and “ancient grudge,” the play becomes a narrative that expresses an historical conflict between old forms of identity and new modes of desire, between authority and freedom, between parental will and romantic individualism. Furthermore, though the Chorus initially sets the lovers as a pair against the background of familial hatred, the reader attentive to social detail will be struck instead by Shakespeare’s care in distinguishing between the circumstances of male and female lovers: “she as much in love, her means much less / To meet her new belovèd anywhere” (2. Chorus. 11–12, italics added). The story of “Juliet and her Romeo” may be a single narrative, but its clear internal division is drawn along the traditionally unequal lines of gender.

Because of such traditional notions of identity and gender, Elizabethan theatergoers might have recognized a paradox in the play’s lyrical celebration of the beauty of awakened sexual desire in the adolescent boy and girl. By causing us to identify with Romeo and Juliet’s desire for one another, the play affirms their love even while presenting it as a problem in social management. This is true not because Romeo and Juliet fall in love with forbidden or otherwise unavailable sexual partners; such is the usual state of affairs at the beginning of Shakespearean comedy, but those comedies end happily. Rather Romeo and Juliet’s love is a social problem, unresolvable except by their deaths, because they dare to marry secretly in an age when legal, consummated marriage was irreversible. Secret marriage is the narrative device by which Shakespeare brings into conflict the new privilege claimed by individual desire and the traditional authority granted fathers to arrange their daughters’ marriages. Secret marriage is the testing ground, in other words, of the new kind of importance being claimed by individual desire. Shakespeare’s representation of the narrative outcome of this desire as tragic—here, as later in the secret marriage that opens Othello—may suggest something of Elizabethan society’s anxiety about the social cost of romantic individualism.

The conflict between traditional authority and individual desire also provides the framework for Shakespeare’s presentation of the Capulet-Montague feud. The feud, like the lovers’ secret marriage, is another problem in social management, another form of socially problematic desire. We are never told what the families are fighting about or fighting for; in this sense the feud is both causeless and goal-less. The Chorus’s first words insist not on the differences between the two families but on their similarity: they are two households “both alike in dignity.” Later, after Prince Escalus has broken up the street brawl, they are “In penalty alike” (1.2.2). Ironically, then, they are not fighting over differences. Rather it is Shakespeare’s careful insistence on the lack of difference between Montague and Capulet that provides a key to understanding the underlying social dynamic of the feud. Just as desire brings Romeo and Juliet together as lovers, desire in another form brings the Montague and Capulet males out on the street as fighters. The feud perpetuates a close bond of rivalry between these men that even the Prince’s threat of punishment cannot sever: “Montague is bound as well as I,” Capulet tells Paris (1.2.1). Indeed, the feud seems necessary to the structure of male-male relations in Verona. Feuding reinforces male identity—loyalty to one’s male ancestors—at the same time that it clarifies the social structure: servants fight with servants, young noblemen with young noblemen, old men with old men.2

That the feud constitutes a relation of desire between Montague and Capulet is clear from the opening, when the servants Gregory and Sampson use bawdy innuendo to draw a causal link between their virility and their eagerness to fight Montagues: “A dog of that house shall move me to stand,” i.e., to be sexually erect (1.1.12). The Montagues seem essential to Sampson’s masculinity since, by besting Montague men, he can lay claim to Montague women as symbols of conquest. (This, of course, would be a reductive way of describing what Romeo does in secretly marrying a Capulet daughter.) The feud not only establishes a structure of relations between men based on competition and sexual aggression, but it seems to involve a particularly debased attitude toward women. No matter how comic the wordplay of the Capulet servants may be, we should not forget that the sexual triangle they imagine is based on fantasized rape: “I will push Montague’s men from the wall and thrust his maids to the wall” (1.1.18–19). Gregory and Sampson are not interested in the “heads” of the Montague maidens, which might imply awareness of them as individuals. They are interested only in their “maidenheads.” Their coarse view of woman as generic sexual object is reiterated in a wittier vein by Mercutio, who understands Romeo’s experience of awakened desire only as a question of the sexual availability of his mistress: “O Romeo, that she were, O, that she were / An open-arse, thou a pop’rin pear” (2.1.40–41).

Feuding, then, is the form that male bonding takes in Verona, a bonding which seems linked to the derogation of woman. But Romeo, from the very opening of the play, is distanced both physically and emotionally from the feud, not appearing until the combatants and his parents are leaving the stage. His reaction to Benvolio’s news of the fight seems to indicate that he is aware of the mechanisms of desire that are present in the feud: “Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love” (1.1.180). But it also underscores his sense of alienation: “This love feel I, that feel no love in this” (187). He is alienated not only from the feud itself, one feels, but more importantly from the idea of sexuality that underlies it. Romeo subscribes to a different, indeed a competing view of woman—the idealizing view of the Petrarchan lover. In his melancholy, his desire for solitude, and his paradox-strewn language, Romeo identifies himself with the style of feeling and address that Renaissance culture named after the fourteenth-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca or Petrarch, most famous for his sonnets to Laura. By identifying his beloved as perfect and perfectly chaste, the Petrarchan lover opposes the indiscriminate erotic appetite of a Gregory or Sampson. He uses the frustrating experience of intense, unfulfilled, and usually unrequited passion to refine his modes of feeling and to enlarge his experience of self.

It is not coincidental, then, that Shakespeare uses the language and self-involved behaviors of the Petrarchan lover to dramatize Romeo’s experience of love. For Romeo as for Petrarch, love is the formation of an individualistic identity at odds with other kinds of identity: “I have lost myself. I am not here. / This is not Romeo. He’s some other where” (1.1.205–6). Petrarchan desire for solitude explains Romeo’s absence from the opening clash and his lack of interest in the activities of his gang of friends, whom he accompanies only reluctantly to the Capulet feast: “I’ll be a candle holder and look on” (1.4.38). His physical isolation from his parents—with whom he exchanges no words in the course of the play—further suggests his shift from traditional, clan identity to the romantic individualism prefigured by Petrarch.

Shakespeare’s comic irony is that such enlargement of self is itself a mark of conventionality, since Petrarchism in European literature was by the late sixteenth century very widespread. A more cutting irony is that the Petrarchan lover and his sensual opponent (Sampson or Gregory) have more in common than is first apparent. The Petrarchan lover, in emphasizing the often paralyzing intensity of his passion, is less interested in praising the remote mistress who inspires such devotion than he is in displaying his own poetic virtuosity and his capacity for self-denial. Such a love—like Romeo’s for Rosaline—is founded upon frustration and requires rejection. The lover is interested in affirming the uniqueness of his beloved only in theory. On closer look, she too becomes a generic object and he more interested in self-display. Thus the play’s two languages of heterosexual desire—Petrarchan praise and anti-Petrarchan debasement—appear as opposite ends of a single continuum, as complementary discourses of woman, high and low. Even when Paris and old Capulet, discussing Juliet as prospective bride, vary the discourse to include a conception of woman as wife and mother, she remains an object of verbal and actual exchange.

In lyric poetry, the Petrarchan mistress remains a function of language alone, unheard, seen only as a collection of ideal parts, a center whose very absence promotes desire. Drama is a material medium, however. In drama, the Petrarchan mistress takes on embodiment and finds an answering voice, like Juliet’s gently noting her sonneteer-pilgrim’s conventionality: “You kiss by th’ book” (1.5.122). In drama, the mistress may come surrounded by relatives and an inconveniently insistent social milieu. As was noted above, Shakespeare distinguishes sharply between the social circumstances of adolescent males and females. Thus one consequence of setting the play’s domestic action solely within the Capulet household is to set Juliet, the “hopeful lady” of Capulet’s “earth” (1.2.15), firmly into a familial context which, thanks to the Nurse’s fondness for recollection and anecdote, is rich in domestic detail. Juliet’s intense focus upon Romeo’s surname—“What’s Montague? . . . O, be some other name” (2.2.43, 44)—is a projection onto her lover of her own conflicted sense of tribal loyalty. Unlike Romeo, whose deepest emotional ties are to his gang of friends, and unlike the more mobile daughters of Shakespearean comedy who often come in pairs, Juliet lives isolated and confined, emotionally as well as physically, by her status as daughter. Her own passage into sexual maturity comes first by way of parental invitation to “think of marriage now” (1.3.75). Her father invites Paris, the man who wishes to marry Juliet, to attend a banquet and feast his eyes on female beauty: “Hear all, all see, / And like her most whose merit most shall be” (1.2.30–31). Juliet, in contrast, is invited to look only where her parents tell her:

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.


The logic of Juliet’s almost instant disobedience in looking at, and liking, Romeo (rather than Paris) can be understood as the ironic fulfillment of the fears in traditional patriarchal culture about the uncontrollability of female desire, the alleged tendency of the female gaze to wander. Petrarchism managed the vexed question of female desire largely by wishing it out of existence, describing the mistress as one who, like the invisible Rosaline of this play, “will not stay the siege of loving terms, / Nor bide th’ encounter of assailing eyes” (1.1.220–21). Once Romeo, in the Capulet garden, overhears Juliet’s expression of desire, however, Juliet abandons the conventional denial of desire—“Fain would I dwell on form; fain, fain deny / What I have spoke. But farewell compliment” (2.2.93–94). She rejects the “strength” implied by parental sanction and the protection afforded by the Petrarchan celebration of chastity for a risk-taking experiment in desire that Shakespeare affirms by the beauty of the lovers’ language in their four scenes together. Juliet herself asks Romeo the serious questions that Elizabethan society wanted only fathers to ask. She challenges social prescriptions, designed to contain erotic desire in marriage, by taking responsibility for her own marriage:

If that thy bent of love be honorable,

Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow,

By one that I’ll procure to come to thee,

Where and what time thou wilt perform the rite,

And all my fortunes at thy foot I’ll lay

And follow thee my lord throughout the world.


The irony in her pledge—an irony perhaps most obvious to a modern, sexually egalitarian audience—is that Romeo here is following Juliet on an uncharted narrative path to sexual fulfillment in unsanctioned marriage. Allowing her husband access to a bedchamber in her father’s house, Juliet leads him into a sexual territory beyond the reach of dramatic representation. Breaking through the narrow oppositions of the play’s two discourses of woman—as either anonymous sexual object (for Sampson and Gregory) or beloved woman exalted beyond knowing or possessing (for Petrarch)—she affirms her imaginative commitment to the cultural significance of desire as an individualizing force:

                          Come, civil night,

Thou sober-suited matron all in black,

And learn me how to lose a winning match

Played for a pair of stainless maidenhoods.

Hood my unmanned blood, bating in my cheeks,

With thy black mantle till strange love grow bold,

Think true love acted simple modesty.


Romeo, when he is not drawn by desire deeper and deeper into Capulet territory, wanders into the open square where the destinies of the play’s other young men—and in part his own too—are enacted. Because the young man’s deepest loyalty is to his friends, Romeo is not really asked to choose between Juliet and his family but between Juliet and Mercutio, who are opposed in the play’s thematic structure. Thus one function of Mercutio’s anti-Petrarchan skepticism about the idealization of woman is to offer resistance to the adult heterosexuality heralded by Romeo’s union with Juliet, resistance on behalf of the regressive pull of adolescent male bonding—being “one of the guys.” This distinction, as we have seen, is in part a question of speaking different discourses. Romeo easily picks up Mercutio’s banter, even its sly innuendo against women. Mercutio himself regards Romeo’s quickness at repartee as the hopeful sign of a return to a “normal” manly identity incompatible with his ridiculous role as lover:

Why, is not this better now than groaning for love? Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo, now art thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature. For this driveling love is like a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole.


Implicit here is a central tenet of traditional misogyny that excessive desire for a woman is effeminizing. For Mercutio it is the effeminate lover in Romeo who refuses shamefully to answer Tybalt’s challenge: “O calm, dishonorable, vile submission!” he exclaims furiously (3.1.74). Mercutio’s death at Tybalt’s hands causes Romeo temporarily to agree, obeying the regressive emotional pull of grief and guilt over his own part in Mercutio’s defeat. “Why the devil came you between us?” Mercutio asks. “I was hurt under your arm” (3.1.106–8). Why, we might ask instead, should Mercutio have insisted on answering a challenge addressed only to Romeo? Romeo, however, displaces blame onto Juliet: “Thy beauty hath made me effeminate / And in my temper softened valor’s steel” (3.1.119–20).

In terms of narrative structure, the death of Mercutio and Romeo’s slaying of Tybalt interrupt the lovers’ progress from secret marriage to its consummation, suggesting the incompatibility between romantic individualism and adolescent male bonding. The audience experiences this incompatibility as a sudden movement from comedy to tragedy. Suddenly Friar Lawrence must abandon hopes of using the love of Capulet and Montague as a force for social reintegration. Instead, he must desperately stave off Juliet’s marriage to Paris, upon which her father insists, by making her counterfeit death and by subjecting her to entombment. The legal finality of consummated marriage—which was the basis for Friar Lawrence’s hopes “to turn your households’ rancor to pure love” (2.3.99)—becomes the instrument of tragic design. It is only the Nurse who would allow Juliet to accept Paris as husband; we are asked to judge such a prospect so unthinkable that we then agree imaginatively to Friar Lawrence’s ghoulish device.

In terms of the play’s symbolic vocabulary, Juliet’s preparations to imitate death on the very bed where her sexual maturation from girl- to womanhood occurred confirms ironically her earlier premonition about Romeo: “If he be marrièd, / My grave is like to be my wedding bed” (1.5.148–49). Her brief journey contrasts sharply with those of Shakespeare’s comic heroines who move out from the social confinement of daughterhood into a freer, less socially defined space (the woods outside Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Forest of Arden in As You Like It). There they can exercise a sanctioned, limited freedom in the romantic experimentation of courtship. Juliet is punished for such experimentation in part because hers is more radical; secret marriage symbolically is as irreversible as “real” death. Her journey thus becomes an internal journey in which her commitment to union with Romeo must face the imaginative challenge of complete, claustrophobic isolation and finally death in the Capulet tomb.

It is possible to see the lovers’ story, as some critics have done, as Shakespeare’s dramatic realization of the ruling metaphors of Petrarchan love poetry—particularly its fascination with “death-marked love” (Prologue. 9).3 But, in pondering the implications of Shakespeare’s moving his audience to identify with this narrative of initiative, desire, and power, we also do well to remember the psychosocial dynamics of drama. By heightening their powers of identification, drama gives the members of an audience an embodied image of the possible scope and form of their fears and desires. Here we have seen how tragic form operates to contain the complex play of desire/identification. The metaphors of Petrarchan idealization work as part of a complex, ambivalent discourse of woman whose ultimate social function is to encode the felt differences between men and women on which a dominant male power structure is based. Romeo and Juliet find a new discourse of romantic individualism in which Petrarchan idealization conjoins with the mutual avowal of sexual desire. But their union, as we have seen, imperils the traditional relations between males that is founded upon the exchange of women, whether the violent exchange Gregory and Sampson crudely imagine or the normative exchange planned by Capulet and Paris. Juliet, as the daughter whose erotic willfulness activates her father’s transformation from concerned to tyrannical parent, is the greater rebel. Thus the secret marriage in which this new language of feeling is contained cannot here be granted the sanction of a comic outcome. When Romeo and Juliet reunite, it is only to see each other, dead, in the dim confines of the Capulet crypt. In this play the autonomy of romantic individualism remains “star-crossed.”

  1. The story of these massive shifts in European sensibility is told in a five-volume study titled A History of Private Life, gen. eds. Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987–91). The study covers over three millennia in the history of western Europe. For the period most relevant to Romeo and Juliet, see vol. 3, Passions of the Renaissance (1989), ed. Roger Chartier, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, pp. 399–607.
  2. The best extended discussion of the dynamic of the feud is Coppélia Kahn, Man’s Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), pp. 83ff.
  3. Nicholas Brooke, Shakespeare’s Early Tragedies (London: Methuen, 1968), pp. 82ff.