Significance of Gender in Romeo and Juliet
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the Montagues and the Capulets have very different relationships with their children. A major reason for this, as well as much of the conflict in the tale, comes from the gender roles that Romeo and Juliet are expected to play into. Adding to that conflict is the fact that both Romeo and Juliet push the boundaries of these roles and struggle to fit into them.
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Romeo plays the over emotional lover, while Juliet is clever and dominant. Throughout the play we can see that both Romeo and Juliet have to struggle with the people around them because they are not acting within their respective gender roles.
One of the first moments in the play where Romeo’s non-normative attitude towards love is addressed directly is when Mercutio, in Act 2 Scene 4, reflects on Romeo and Rosaline. “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” (2. 4. 20). Mercutio is excited to have his friend ‘back’. In the the last two lines of this quote, Mercutio implies that not worrying over love is normal. That, in hanging with the boys and not following his wild emotions, Romeo is being what Romeo ought to be,“art as well as by nature”.
The implication here is that the way he was reacting before to Rosaline is not natural. This lovelorn that overpowers all else Romeo feels comes back much harder with Juliet. Mercutio’s comment about Rosaline infers the abnormality of Romeo. This seed that is planted in the mind of the audience can then take root and be even more noticeable without Mercutio commenting on it directly with Juliet. In the first scene of Act 3, Romeo struggles with his masculinity versus his love. When he chooses not to fight Tybalt with Juliet in mind, Romeo open questions his own masculinity.
He is after all, a part of this society and surely recognizes, to a certain extent, the unusualness of his feelings. “…O sweet Juliet, / Thy beauty hath made me effeminate / And in my temper soften’d valour’s steel! ” (3. 1. 7) To Romeo, it is as if Juliet’s beauty has him bewitched. He doesn’t put the blame on himself or even her, but her beauty. He is giving life to it, admitting that it subdues him. By attributing Juliet’s beauty with such a powerful presence, Romeo is only underlining his romantic nature. Several other characters make note of Romeo’s feminine/emotional nature.
The Nurse and The Friar are two of the more observant characters in the play. In Act 3, Scene 3, when talking of Romeo, The Nurse says, “Stand up, stand up; stand, and you be a man: / For Juliet’s sake, for her sake, rise and stand” (3. 3. 3). She is saying that Romeo needs to be less emotional, that it is taking away from his manhood. Later on in the same scene, the Friar tells Romeo to stop crying, that it makes him look like a girl. “Hold thy desperate hand: / Art thou a man? thy form cries out thou art: / Thy tears are womanish…” (3. 3. 4). Throughout the whole play, Romeo is picked on for his emotional way of life. His unusually demeanor could also be his fatal flaw. Early on in the play, when Romeo and his friends sneak into the Capulet party, Capulet speaks highly of Romeo, and tells Tybalt not to cause trouble. There is a kindness in his tone that cannot help to make one think that perhaps if Romeo approached Capulet and asked to marry Juliet, that Capulet might have said yes. But he doesn’t do this, and there is no way of really knowing what Capulet would have said.
Romeo’s struggle with people not accepting how he doesn’t really fit the mold is not as definitively consequential as Juliet’s. No one is telling Romeo what to do, Lady Montague doesn’t want him to be involved in fighting, but no one is trying to determine the rest of his life for him. Juliet’s struggle isn’t a social conflict. She isn’t being made fun of by her friends, or criticized casually by the people around her. She is being controlled and pushed towards life commitments that she wants no part of. Romeo has a lot at stake, emotionally, but the rest of Juliet’s life is at stake.
In one of her first moments with her mother, this conflict is explicitly shown, “LADY CAPULET: Marry, that ‘marry’ is the very theme /I came to talk of. Tell me, daughter Juliet, / How stands your disposition to be married? JULIET: It is an honour that I dream not of. ” (1. 3. 4) Lady Capulet reflects the societal expectations. And although Juliet’s line has no huge impact on Lady Capulet, it does foreshadow her relationship with the world. And inevitably, one side will have to give in. There is a distinct change we see in how Juliet’s father treats her during the play.
In Act 1, Scene 2, when Paris asks for Juliet’s hand in marriage, Capulet says that in the end the decision is hers to make, ““But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart, / My will to her consent is but a part; / An she agree, within her scope of choice / Lies my consent and fair according voice. ” (1. 2. 2) He is telling Paris that he has his blessing, but he must woo Juliet because her consent is important to him. This gives the impression that Capulet is a kind, non-restrictive, even liberal parent. But later on in the play, when Juliet refuses to marry Paris, Capulet really loses his temper at her, “How now, how now, chop-logic!
What is this? / ‘Proud,’ and ‘I thank you,’ and ‘I thank you not;’ / And yet ‘not proud,’ mistress minion, you, / Thank me no thankings, nor, proud me no prouds, / But fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday next, / To go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church, / Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither. / Out, you green-sickness carrion! out, you baggage! / You tallow-face! ” (3. 5. 3) What happened to his earlier attitude? One could argue that Capulet is, in fact, not a very thoughtful liberal father, but sees himself as one because his daughter, Juliet, is for the most part a good kid. And she has never really disobeyed him before.
This sign of independence and disrespect is too much for him and his true controlling nature is revealed. The parts of Juliet’s home life that seem supportive and loving only remain as such while she is doing what others want her to do. As soon as she makes a decision for herself, all of that support is taken away. Capulet commands her to marry Paris or be kicked out of his house. If Juliet was a boy, or if she wasn’t pushed into the role of the girl than these problems would not come up. Romeo and Juliet defy their families. They put aside the quarrel that takes up so much energy and violence.
Romeo ignores his friends in chasing after Juliet, and Juliet battles with her parents. Their marriage is a rebellion against both Houses. Both characters do not fit into the gender roles that other characters expect of them. It is this shared defiance that holds them together, but also that ruins them. If neither one had expectations put on them, then Juliet wouldn’t have had to marry Paris. But the shared deviance and secretive nature to their relationship is a large part of what gave them such passion. Shakespeare is examining the roles men and women are asked to play in society, asking us to think about the consequences.