First published in 1595, Romeo and Juliet has consistently been one of William Shakespeare’s most renowned plays. It is primarily a tragedy, but it tells of one of the most iconic and famed love stories ever written. It tells of the death-marked love between a pair of star-crossed lovers, who must die to bury their parents’ strife and end the ancient grudge between the feuding Capulet and Montague families. It tells the tragic lives of two young lovers, in a heart-gripping story containing light and dark, love and hate, life and death. Essentially, it tells of two young people taking their own lives to forever be joined with love.
During this essay, I will follow the heroine, Juliet Capulet, in her story of how she burst into adulthood, and how she made the final decision to end her life forever. The first instance in which Juliet demonstrates independent thinking, is during Act 1 Scene 3, when she is asked by her mother about the possibility of an engagement between herself and the Prince of Verona. “It is an honour that I dream not of. ” (1:3:66) is Juliet’s reply. For the Elizabethan era, this is an odd response, and the audience are unsure of whether or not she has accepted Paris’ proposal.
Juliet makes her decision clearer however, when she continues speaking to her mother: “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”. (1:3:98-100) Basically, Juliet is saying that she will look at Paris, and no-one else without her mothers permission, but she cannot guarantee that she will accept his proposal. Throughout this small speech, Juliet appears to be a model and dutiful daughter, but is she really as loyal and obedient as first impressions suggest?
On one hand Juliet tells her mother that she will do only what she is told, and promises to look at the Prince, possibly even accept his hand in marriage. Nevertheless, on the other hand, Juliet deliberately disobeys her mothers’ obvious wish by not agreeing to the marriage straight away. She has therefore taken control of the situation, and has not agreed to do anything that she doesn’t want to do. Juliet’s attitude (and her parent’s leniency) towards the proposal, is very uncharacteristic behaviour for the Elizabethan era, when daughters were generally not given much choice about their lives or future husbands.
Not only is Juliet being asked for her opinion, but she also seems comfortable with betraying her parent’s wishes, and saying “no”. This shows huge development in Juliet’s character, as, by not agreeing to the proposal straight away, and by saying she will only marry Paris if she likes him, Juliet is showing the audience – and her parents – that she can make her own decisions in life, and is not completely reliant upon others for help. Later, at the Capulet’s ball, Romeo and Juliet engage in the sophisticated conversation that marks the starting point of their courtship.
The first time these “star-crossed lovers” speak to each other, they do so as a sonnet (1:5:92-105). Shakespeare wrote their first meeting in the style of a sonnet, because this type of writing was a highly dignified and common activity for noblemen during Queen Elizabeth’s rein. By having Romeo and Juliet speak in such intellectual and literate ways, Shakespeare would have made clear that these young lovers were the main characters in the play, and the audience would have felt an instant connection between them, knowing that they are meant to be together.
Throughout the discussion, at no time does Juliet behave like a subdued child; instead she acts like a woman and takes control. She cleverly responds to Romeo’s desire to kiss her by saying: “Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake”. (1:5:104) In other words, “I’m not going to kiss you, but I will kiss you back if you try”. Consequently, she is not breaking the promise to her mother by initiating the kiss either. This conversation is also important because it demonstrates Juliet’s intelligence: she is able to participate in the highly developed wordplay with Romeo, and she seems less childlike as she does this.
Sadly, Juliet learns that Romeo is a Montague and therefore her enemy. Her reaction to this knowledge however, gives us another insight into her character. “My only love sprung from my only hate! / Too early seen unknown, and known too late! / Prodigious birth of love it is to me, / That I must love a loathed enemy. ” (1:5:137-140) Juliet declares her love for Romeo after only a few minutes in his company, and – unlike Romeo, who has recently been infatuated with Rosaline – Juliet admits to only one love.
This is a clear advancement from her earlier attitude about Paris, and her discussion about marriage with her mother. Her ideas and morals have matured since speaking with Lady Capulet, and Juliet now feels that she is in love. During the balcony scene in Act 2 Scene 2, Juliet separates Romeo from his family, by making a skilled distinction between the person: Romeo, and the name: Montague. “‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy; / Thou art thyself, though not a Montague” (2:2:38-39).
During her famous speech, Juliet makes it clear that Romeo is distinct from his family, and only his name is the enemy. This statement from Juliet, totally contradicts the conventions in Medieval Verona (in which the play is set) and it also contradicts with the patriarchal culture of Elizabethan England. Juliet’s feelings and actions very much clash with the customs of her time, and she would have been perceived by the audience as a very modern and dependant young woman.
Also during Act 2 Scene 2, though both vow to love each other, it is Juliet who takes the lead and suggests marriage. If that thy bent of love be honorable, / Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow,” (2:2:143-144) This very much breaks the conventions of the time, but – yet again – Juliet has taken control of the situation and has taken no time in confirming her love for Romeo. Juliet also shows control and domination, by speaking the whole scene in iambic pentameter. During Shakespeare’s time, iambic pentameter was saved for only the grandest characters, and was seen as a sign of authority. Each line is spoken with utmost control and discipline, and has 10 syllables with five stresses.
Shakespeare made Juliet speak with iambic pentameter, because he wanted the audience to know that she was in control, and was doing the right thing by suggesting marriage to Romeo. The audience would have also been impressed, that such dignified and mature words were being spoken by a thirteen year old. Therefore, the audience would also take Juliet seriously when she speaks of marriage with Romeo: they would understand that this is true love – not just infatuation. What’s more, Juliet uses iambic pentameter during Act 4 Scene 3, when she takes the potion from Friar Lawrence.
Shakespeare made her speak with iambic pentameter during this scene, as it shows that even though her life has just been turned upside down, and she is extremely confused and upset, she is still mature and composed enough to use an intelligent writing skill. This shows the audience, that even though she is doing a drastic action, Juliet does actually know what she is doing and that we should trust her. Both characters are fearful of their relationship: Juliet fears the suddenness of their love; Romeo fears because it seems unreal and too good to be true.
Juliet tells Romeo: “It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden, / Too like the lightening” (2:2:118-119). This shows Juliet’s immediate concerns about the relationship, but she is so caught up in the drama, that she follows her stronger feelings of love and still wants to marry Romeo. The referring of love to lightening also appears in some of Shakespeare’s other work. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was written at about the same time as ‘Romeo and Juliet’, and the play shows two other young lovers, Lysander and Hermia, also having problems with love and marriage.
The hero, Lysander, uses the same image as Juliet, when talking to his true love, Hermia. He compares love to the briefness of lightening: “Swift as a shadow, short as any dream, / Brief as the lightening in the collied night” (A Midsummer Nights Dream, 1:1:143-144) I believe that this is an accurate description of Romeo and Juliet’s love, as it all happened so quickly: they married after knowing each other for less than 24 hours, and they had only known each other for five days before they both committed suicide.
Although she wants him, Juliet is slightly aware of the risks involved in her romance with Romeo; infact she seems much more conscious of the danger than he does. Her ability to recognize the hazards in the middle of her passion, demonstrates that she is not just a rash teenager – she is trying to be responsible and use her head. During the balcony scene, she cautions Romeo, and explains the consequences if he is found there: “If they do see thee, they will murder thee. ” (2:2:70).
While Romeo appears caught up in the moment, Juliet has her head on her shoulders: she knows that Romeo’s presence in the Capulet garden is a bad idea. Juliet displays this same maturity and feelings when Romeo is banished to Mantua. She questions whether they will ever meet again: Romeo is certain they will and assures her that “all these woes shall serve / For sweet discourses in our times to come” (3:5:52-53) He’s optimistic they will grow old together but Juliet, however, sees things differently.
Not only can she not see their happy future, but she also has an (accurate) feeling of how things will end up: “Methinks I see thee, now thou art so low, / As one dead in the bottom of a tomb. ” (3:5:55-56) These insights into Juliet’s thoughts, reveal that she is not allowing her passions to guide her and she certainly understands the direness of the circumstances. Therefore, the audience feel sympathy for her, because she is trying so hard to make the situation better, even though she appears to know that it is doomed.
This demonstrates another giant leap in Juliet’s quest to becoming an adult, because a child would see things through rose-tinted glasses and would not fully understand the situation: Juliet on the other hand, definitely understands their position, and is doing everything in her power to let them live happily ever after. Regardless of the dangers, nothing stands in Juliet’s way once she is committed. She marries Romeo without her parents’ knowledge and consent, and she remains consistent in her love to him when he is banished for killing her cousin, Tybalt.
Overnight, she has become an adult and assumes a more traditional role of wife: Juliet chooses to support her husband regardless of the consequences. She even changes her relationship with the Nurse (who has raised her since birth). In defense of her husband, Juliet tells the Nurse off for suggesting that she be disloyal to Romeo: “Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband? / Ah, my poor lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name, / When I, thy three-hours wife, have mangled it? (3:2:97-99) Juliet makes it very clear where her loyalties lie: not with her family, but her husband.
This is a huge decision to make, and Juliet takes no time in deciding who she will support. She is devoted to her husband, and shows the audience this by taking his side over the loyal nurse. This is another massive development for Juliet, as before Romeo, she would have taken the nurse’s word on everything. Now, after knowing Romeo for only three days, Juliet discards the nurses’ opinions, and makes her own decisions, regardless of what her nurse thinks.
During Act 3 Scene 5, when Lady Capulet calls Romeo a “villain”, Juliet uses an aside to tell the audience: “Villain and he be many miles asunder [apart]” (3:5:81) Without her mothers knowledge, Juliet is defending her husband, and reminding the audience of the dire position that she is in. Shakespeare used an aside here, so the audience feel sorry for Juliet, as her entire family hates her husband. Shakespeare also used dramatic irony during this scene. When Juliet refuses to marry Paris, Lady Capulet tells her husband: “I would the fool be married to her [Juliet] grave. (3:5:140)
Little does Lady Capulet know, Juliet does infact die because of the situation her parents put her in. Although Juliet remains loyal to Romeo when he is banished to Mantua, this commitment becomes increasingly difficult for her. When her parents give her permissions to marry Paris, she can no longer hesitate: she has no way out. Her offences are already too great, and she cannot defy her parents – yet she needs to avoid a second wedding. Simply refusing to marry Paris doesn’t seem to be enough, as her father’s response to Juliet’s pleas is: “Hang thee, young baggage, disobedient wretch! I tell thee what: get thee to church a’Thursday, / Or never after look me in the face. ” (3:5:160-162)
In those few lines of speech, Juliet’s life has just come crashing down around her. Her beloved father, who had previously told Paris that Juliet was too young to marry, has ordered her to wed, or never speak to him again. How is this fair? Her luck shows no sign of improving either, when she asks her mother to delay the marriage. Lady Capulet replies: “Talk not to me, for I’ll not speak a word. / Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee. (3:5:202-203) There is no way that she can marry Paris, so essentially Juliet has now been abandoned by both of her parents.
Only the nurse is left. And when she turns to Juliet and says: “I think it’s best you married with the County. / O, he’s a lovely gentleman! / Romeo’s a dishclout to him. ” (3:5:217-219) Juliet really is alone. The people that she loved most in the world have just deserted her. She is now just a thirteen-year-old girl, with no husband, no father, no mother, no nurse and no will to live.
It was the acts during this scene, that finally pushed Juliet over the edge and instantly into adulthood. It is at the end of this scene, that we first see the idea of suicide in Juliet’s thoughts: “If all else fail, myself have power to die” (3:5:242) Her thoughts then get stronger during Act 4 Scene 1 when talking to Friar Lawrence. She says she would rather leap “off the battlements of any tower”, or be chained with “roaring bears” or hide “with a dead man in his shroud” than marry Paris. (4:1:77-85) What can honestly make a child of thirteen years speak about death in such horrifically realistic ways?
She is becoming such a far cry from the obedient, polite and level-headed girl from the start of the play, that it is at this point that the audience starts to take Juliet’s death pledge seriously. It is during Act 4 Scene 3, when Juliet is at her most detached, agitated and isolated state of mind. She is just about to take a potion from Friar Lawrence that will make her seem dead, then she will wake up two days later and live the rest of her life with Romeo. That was the plan anyway! Before she takes the potion, Juliet says a monologue showing how fractured and scared the little girl is of her plan.
She addresses the fact that she must do this on her own: “My dismal scene I needs must act alone. ” (4:3:19) This shows how isolated Juliet has become from her family, and she feels like she has no other choice than to do this on her own. The real horror of Juliet’s mindset becomes clear however, nearer the end of the scene when she tells of her doubts and fears. Shakespeare uses lots of strong imagery to create a sense of fear and foreboding during Juliet’s monologue: words such as strangled, festering and mangled are frequently used.
He also uses personification to show Juliet’s fears of becoming suffocated: “no healthsome air” (4:3:34). He uses the metaphor: “Where bloody Tybalt, yet but green in earth” (4:3:42) to show Juliet’s fear of being in a room full of dead people and Shakespeare also uses the simile: “And shrieks like mandrakes’ torn out of the earth” (4:3:47). This could have multiple meanings: Juliet could be referring to the shrieks of the imaginary spirits previously talked about; or she could indeed be implying that her own screams will sound like mandrakes.
At the very end of the scene, Juliet is so erratic and fractured that she even begins to hallucinate: “O look! Methinks I see my cousin’s ghost” (4:3:55) It is after this statement that she finally decides to take the potion, and become ‘dead’ for the next 42 hours. For a modern audience watching the play, Juliet’s decision to fake her death may seem like a badly planned idea. Within the context of her time, however, she displays great courage. She is not in a position to defy her father’s demands, so she does the only thing she can think of: she plays dead.
This shows the greatest act of maturity so far for Juliet Capulet, as she is finally independent and doing what she believes to be the best course of action. This was not an easy decision for Juliet to make. There were many questions. How can she be certain that Romeo will know she is not really dead? How can she be certain that the potion will not kill her instantly? How can she be certain that she won’t get caught once she awakens? There were so many risks involved with Juliet’s idea. How can she possibly get involved in a plan that seems so poorly conceived?
This choice illustrates Juliet’s desperation. Because the act seems so irrational and different from the clear-thinking young woman who was able to sense danger, and make informed choices about her family, love, and where her loyalty lay, the audience feels even more sympathy for her. Committed to her marriage and dedicated to her love, Juliet takes her own life when she realizes Romeo is gone. Like the rest of her choices, Juliet’s decision to end her life is definitive. Once her mind is made up, there is no talking her out of it.
Though the Friar tries to influence her, Juliet will not be persuaded. Her death scene is short. With a “happy dagger” (5:3:169) and very little ceremony, Juliet Capulet takes her own life. This act of death really is the greatest act of independence any young person could take. Juliet Capulet felt the need to commit suicide, as she had no-one: she had been abandoned by her mother, father and nurse, and her husband lay dead next to her. When she woke up and saw his body, she acted very quickly and independently.
She made the decision that she thought was best, and although she did, in the end, die, she did so in the name of love. At the end of the day, we have to remember that Juliet Capulet was only thirteen years old. She was still a child. And in the space of only a few days this young girl: fell in love; married illicitly; lost her virginity; experienced the death of a close cousin; was threatened and nearly disowned by both of her parents; was betrayed by the nurse who raised her from infancy; spent nearly two days drugged to unconsciousness; was widowed; and woke up next to her dead husband.
That’s a lot of things for a young girl to cope with! Whether, as a dutiful daughter, she handled the situations she was put in, well or not, and whether she did fundamentally make the right decisions in the end, I believe that Juliet Capulet, as a young woman, knowingly made the ultimate sacrifice for love, and this act of independence made her believe that she would forever be joined with her true love Romeo. To be honest, I don’t blame Juliet for committing suicide! She had already lost everything. I think she had more than a good enough reason to take her life.