Society's Role in the Death of Romeo and Juliet

The Impact of Gender Stereotypes, Patriarchal Family Structure and Forced Obedience on the Star-Crossed Lovers

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2018

16 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Society’s Fatal Role: The Impact of a Strict Value System
2.1 Resisting Society’s Gender Stereotypes: The Lovers’ Unconventionality
2.2 Restricting an Independent Spirit: The Impact of the Patriarchal Family Structure on Juliet
2.3 Destroying the Lovers’ Hope: The Consequences of Forcing Romeo and Juliet into Obedience

3. Conclusion

4. Works cited

1. Introduction

William Shakespeare lived in a patriarchal environment, dominated and controlled by men, be they husbands or fathers, with women serving as commodities to be traded in matrimonial business transactions between men. The poet is well known for making use of the Elizabethan gender stereotypes in his plays, at times supporting them, but frequently choosing to bend and challenge them with his characters, as he does with Romeo and Juliet. Theirs is a story of two adolescents falling in love on first sight “when they have no names to go by, and the names, when they learn them, are fraught with disaster” (Leggatt 31), as both come from long quarrelling families, the Capulets and the Montagues. Whilst this feud is often identified as the reason for the two lovers’ cataclysmic end, other critical factors might be considered. Verona’s society imposes strict gender expectations on both sexes: women are ideally moulded into well-behaved, pretty items of possession, never disagreeing with a man, whereas men are raised to exercise violence and dominance. Not only the stereotypes, but also, and in particular, Verona’s family structure pressures the star-crossed lovers to obey their place in society, illustrated even more clearly for Juliet within the play. Romeo and Juliet constantly switch between challenging the rigorous expectations and questioning their own unconventionality. When their struggle seems increasingly hopeless, and they must bow to society’s pressure, the tragedy unfolds. This paper will shed light on the fatal role the Veronese society plays in the deaths of Romeo and Juliet: it imposes strict gender expectations on them, provides a framework for the patriarchal family structure, and forces the star-crossed loveres into obedience.

2. Society’s Fatal Role: The Impact of a Strict Value System

Veronese society has a significant influence on Romeo and Juliet. This analysis will focus on their struggle with gender stereotypes, as well as on patriarchy’s impact on Juliet, and finally examine the consequences of forcing the lovers into obedience, and; hence, reveal society’s causative role for their death.

2.1 Resisting Society’s Gender Stereotypes: The Lovers’ Unconventionality

Women in Verona are considered the inferior sex, “being the weaker vessels” (Shakespeare 1.1.19) and, especially young maidens, are objects of possession and something men have at their command rather than being autonomous subjects (Roberts 313). This relationship of subordination and dependency renders women objects attached to their male subject (Scholz 87). Thus, married women are only referred to as their husband’s wives, like Lady Capulet or Lady Montague, whereas working women, such as the Nurse, are named after their profession and; hence, their usefulness for men. Furthermore, women are restricted in their freedom of movement. Young, unmarried women are generally not supposed to leave the house, going to confession seemingly providing the only reason to apply for permission to visit the outside world (Shakespeare 2.4.68). Even married women are restrained to the house, only allowed to leave it accompanied by their husbands. Throughout the play, it becomes clear that women are to obey the other sex, to whom they are no equals, being expected to please their superiors, a role, at a young age, assumed by their parents and, after marriage, by their husbands. In Verona, it appears appropriate that women become wives and mothers at a young age, like Lady Capulet, explaining to her daughter that “Here in Verona, ladies of esteem, / Are made already mothers; by my count, / I was your mother much upon these years” (1.3.74-76). Women are, furthermore, even “reduced to their reproductive functions” (Roberts 313) repeatedly, an assessment; for instance, supported by Paris, claiming that younger women than Juliet are already mothers when discussing their future marriage with Capulet (1.2.12).

Juliet; however, defies this role. According to Nancy Compton Warmbrod, she sees “herself as an independent person”, wishing to establish “an identity apart from family and nurse” (Brown 333f.). Critical estimations view Juliet not as a reticent virgin but “a multifaceted character who transcends Romeo in maturity, complexity, insight, and rhetorical dexterity” (333).

When first meeting Romeo, she displays no sign of shyness but instead frankly reciprocates Romeo’s interest in her:

JULIET: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,

Which mannerly devotion shows in this;

For saints have hands that pilgrim’s hands do touch,

And palm to palm is holy palmers kiss.

ROMEO: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

JULIET: Ay pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

ROMEO: Oh then, dear saint, let lips do hat hands do:

They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

JULIET: Saints do not move, though grant for prayer’s sake.

ROMEO: Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.

[He kisses her.]

Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purged.

JULIET: Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

ROMEO: Sin from my lips? Oh, trespass sweetly urged!

Give me my sin again.

[He kisses her.]

JULIET: You kiss by th’ book. (Shakespeare 1.4.212-225)

Utterly atypical for a girl in her cultural environment, she commits to the vivid banter; thus, “setting in motion a game of wit”, and; finally, she “adds a teasing note […] that gives her an edge of control” (Leggatt 30). As Alexander Leggatt states, in this scene, Juliet uses language in a playful way, in order to “participate in a love-game in which she wins the last round” (ibid), quite apart from the fact that she returns the kiss of a man she just met, taking a liberty unheard of from an honourable young Veronese woman at the time and; thus, again, defies the status assigned to her by society.

Another crucial part of the play shedding light on Juliet’s character is the so-called balcony scene: Here, she has evolved her position to clearly dominating the conversation and is; therefore, even more in control. Carolyn E. Brown calles this scene “Juliet’s Taming of Romeo” (Brown 333). When finding out that he is the son of her father’s archenemy, she urges Romeo to give up his name and deny his family (Shakespeare 2.1.76); hence, reversing the male and female role dictated by society and demanding Romeo to relinquish his identity, a requirement conventionally only to be met by women. In the course of their conversation, Juliet tantalises Romeo by making a romantic overture and then withdraws under the pretext of being too straightforward (Brown 343):

If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully,

Or if thou thinkest I am too quickly won,

I’ll frown and be perverse and say thee nay

So thou wilt woo – but else not for the world.

In truth, fair Montague, I am fond,

And there thou mayest think my behaviour

light (Shakespeare 2.1.136-142).

Furthermore, “in defiance of all convention” (Leggatt 36), Juliet shows her progressive and independent mind by proposing marriage to Romeo (Shakespeare 2.1.184-186), feeling entitled to speak her mind and take her fate into her own hands, again claiming the dominant stereotypically male part of their relationship for herself.

In Shakespeare’s setting, men’s main impetus is the pursuit of power. They glorify violence and, being inconsiderate and hot-blooded, tend to overlook the potential consequences following their actions. Furthermore, men are portrayed as being very cunning. All these traits are demonstrated when, in the first scene, Samson and Gregory attempt to manipulate two men associated with the Montagues into picking a quarrel. According to Robert Appelbaum, especially the young men of Verona “are not, as men, in control of themselves; they are not in control of the project of masculine autonomy to which they understand themselves to be pledged” (Appelbaum 256). Already in the first scene, Shakespeare constitutes a world where men in society focus on dominance, be it martial or sexual, and where being a man means to push and to thrust: Samson claims that he will not only “push Montague’s men from the wall”, committing a major act of violence but that he will; furthermore, “thrust his maids to the wall” (Shakespeare 1.1.20-22), using a euphemism for deflowering and sexually assaulting them. The maids doubly qualify as object of his aggression for two reasons: They are objectified as the pretty items of Montague’s possession and, as they are the weaker sex, targets of male superiority (1.1.19). Apart from physical violence and sexual domination, men; furthermore, use insults to establish their supremacy over others (Roberts 324). A Veronese not willing to draw his sword in a fight is considered to be less of a man or, even worse, compared to a woman (Shakespeare 1.1.71). When standing by his romantic feelings, he is considered to have “womanish” characteristics (3.3.110), whereas Tybalt’s or Capulet’s emotional outbursts, being accompanied by violence, are not considered “womanish” (ibid). As stated by Appelbaum, men “struggle toward a condition of masculine fulfilment as if their masculinity were a single, stable, normative goal” (Appelbaum 255). Therefore, it can be concluded that Veronese society forces the active execution of dominance upon its male citizens. Furthermore, as the feud between the two families reveals, loyalty and the honour of one’s kin (Shakespeare 1.4.173) rank equally high in the value system Veronese men live by.

Just like Juliet, Romeo withstands this stereotypical role. Being known as a very lyrical, solitary, and private person, keeping distance to his parents (1.1.159), Romeo defies his family ties, too. According to David Tennant, Romeo is much more concerned with his inner turmoil than with the families’ feud (Tennant 347). As his poetic speeches illustrate, he is in love with the idea of love and being in love (Shakespeare 1.1.174). The Nurse describes Romeo as honest, courteous, kind, handsome (2.4.57-58), and “as gentle as a lamb” (2.4.45). Even Capulet calls him a “portly gentleman” (1.4.181) and a “virtuous and well-governed youth” (1.4.183). However, because Romeo, in Roberts’ words, “departs from contemporary ideals of masterful manhood” (Roberts 320), he is teased by friends and enemies throughout the play. For instance, when Romeo wishes to avoid a conflict with Tybalt by trying to calm him down, Mercutio shames him, calling out “Oh, calm, dishonourable, vile submission!” (Shakespeare 3.1.81). Romeo’s manhood is being questioned numerous times in the play: To name but just a few examples, Mercutio states that Romeo’s romantic feelings render him less of a man than Tybalt (2.3.14-19). Furthermore, the Nurse compares the crying Romeo to Juliet and urges him to stand up if he is a man (3.3.85-89). Even Friar Lawrence, a religious figure, standing “apart from violence of the male world of Verona” (Dillon 45), applies society’s gender roles: He considers his tears “womanish” and Romeo an “Unseemly woman in a seeming man” (Shakespeare 3.3.110-112). By asking Romeo “Art thou a man?” (3.3.109), Friar Lawrence questions his manhood.

During the so-called balcony scene, Romeo’s volatile Petrarchism constitutes a contrast to Juliet’s practicality, especially in language (Brown 339). By depicting her as an angel in the sky (Shakespeare 2.1.68), Romeo increases rather than decreases the distance between the lovers and puts himself below her (Leggatt 32), literally as well as figuratively. When Romeo promises to refuse his name for Juliet, he relinquishes the male traditional dominance in the relationship, too. Carolyn E. Brown aptly compares the lovers’ balance of power in this scene with that of a falconer and his falcon, Juliet being the first and Romeo the latter (Brown 340).

In essence, both lovers try to overcome the gender stereotypes society imposes on them. Whereas Juliet embraces male characteristics of domination and control, though without the violent streak, Romeo, throughout most of the play, adopts the more gentle and romantic model of behaviour, commonly associated with women. Consequently, Juliet holds the predominant role in their relationship, while Romeo willingly submits to her.

2.2 Restricting an Independent Spirit: The Impact of the Patriarchal Family Structure on Juliet

The family structure and the parent/child dynamic within the Montague household are barely shown throughout the play, as men are granted more freedom, both in movement and choice. According to Tennant, the dynamic of a father/son relationship is rather represented by the interaction between Friar Lawrence and Romeo, the former being Romeo’s “base point” (Tennant 358), in whom he can confide in completely. However, the structure and relations of the Capulet household are depicted precisely.

Capulet rules over his family as “a legalized petty tyrant within the home” (Dreher 40). Juliet, moving beyond the household only for an authorized confession and, apart from that, being closely kept within her family, is subject to “the orthodox model of feminine behaviour put forward by contemporary moralists that women should stay within the confines of the home” (Roberts 305). A key moment for the Capulet’s family structure is depicted in act three, scene five, when the patriarch tries to force his daughter into marriage with Paris. In the previous scene, he promises Paris that Juliet will become his wife, being sure that “she will [easily] be ruled” (Shakespeare 3.4.13). Therefore, Capulet’s bearing in this scene already evinces that parents consider their children as the object of their domination. Whereas boys grow into autonomous individuals, girls are supposed to stay docile and obedient objects of a man’s control, the virtues of the good child being almost synonymous with the virtues of the good woman (Dreher 100).


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Society's Role in the Death of Romeo and Juliet
The Impact of Gender Stereotypes, Patriarchal Family Structure and Forced Obedience on the Star-Crossed Lovers
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für England und Amerikastudien)
Romeo and Juliet
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Romeo, Juliet, star-crossed lovers, gender, family, patriarchy, obedience, william, shakespeare, Julia
Quote paper
Mona Baumann (Author), 2018, Society's Role in the Death of Romeo and Juliet, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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