Romeo & Juliet is sometimes perceived as ‘just too silly’. I disagree. In my experience teenage students relate to R&J and enjoy it. Why? Because the themes are themes they understand. Because the characters are people they can to some extent relate to. Because although it’s a tragedy (and I must admit I find the ending rather hard to teach!), it is also a musing on some of the most commonplace feelings and reactions we – and especially ‘young people’ – have. It offers romance and bromance, wild parties, fights, first sex and family rows. It also offers some fantastic opportunities to explore female characters like Juliet who is much more complex than we are sometimes given to believe. Commonplace interpretations portray Juliet as a simpering, infatuated girl, a victim, a stereotype. I think there’s a lot more to our Jools.
Juliet is born on Lammas eve (31st July) which makes her a Leo. Now I’m not big on astrology but Leos are supposedly confident and extrovert. Juliet fits the bill. Asked by her mother if she can ‘like of Paris’ love’, she doesn’t say yes. Instead she says, ‘I’ll look to like and if looking liking move…’ – that’s a big ‘if’ for a young woman to proffer at the time. When she tells Romeo that he kisses ‘by th’book’, she could well be urging him to be less formal and more passionate. Already she is no stereotypical maid.
In Act 2, Scene 2, when Romeo asks for ‘love’s faithful vow’, she freely and forwardly admits, ‘I gave thee mine before thou did’st request it’. We also see a young woman who understands the difference between love and infatuation when she tells Romeo ‘swear not by the moon, th’inconstant moon….Lest thy love prove likewise variable.’ She is all too aware that their emotions could be ‘too rash, too unadvised, too sudden’. There is a maturity to Juliet which contrasts with some of her more petulant and attention seeking behaviour. Towards the end of Act 2, Sc 2 it is Juliet who calls Romeo back. And then Juliet longs for a ‘falc’cner’s voice’ and claims she wants him to go no further from her than a ‘wanton’s bird’ / That lets it hop a little from his hand/ Like a poor prisoner in his twisted gyves, / And with a silken thread plucks it back again.’ There may be an irony in her words ‘wanton’s bird’ as she is certainly seen by her father as something of a spoilt child. But, this is powerfully assertive imagery for a feeble, love-struck maiden. She follows through by sending the Nurse to find Romeo and to arrange their future. Shakespeare seems to be presenting a young woman who can certainly take the initiative.
It is perhaps Juliet’s argument with her father over the marriage to Paris which shows just how feisty she can be. In Act 3 Sc 5, we see a young woman who stands up to her parents in a daring bid to defy their ‘decree’. Admittedly she is forced into this position by her actions but at least she tries to hold her own in her clear statement, ‘He shall not make me there a joyful bride.’ Again, her maturity is evident when tells her father she is ‘thankful even for hate that is meant love’: she tries to acknowledge that his intentions are good even if she can’t agree with them.
Much is made of the crazy, herb-induced, comatose state which Juliet voluntarily enters into. Shakespeare seems to present us with a somewhat far-fetched scenario here but we do witness Juliet’s terror about what she is planning to do and we do realise that, within the context of the play, she would have had little choice – she has to take radical action because she has no other viable options. Juliet is bold for a girl of her time. And I think that is Shakespeare’s intention especially when she is presented alongside ‘Fortune’s fool’. But for convention, he might well have called his play Juliet and Romeo.