Question and Conformity: a Controversial Juliet’s Womanhood
In Act 4 Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet, Friar Lawrence, Paris, and Juliet converse about the upcoming marriage of Juliet and Paris. In the scene, Juliet’s new identity of an independent woman is forged through her vigor in dealing with Paris and the Friar proving her strengths in men’s domains. However in both conversations her strength as a woman comes into question. The Friar places her into a category, while her conversation with Paris reveals her newfound dynamism springs not from her own dissatisfaction with her place in the familial structure, but from the love of Romeo. He, a man, generates her questioning of her dutiful daughter persona. So as she exits her role in the Capulets, she simultaneously enters another as a doting wife willing to enter any circumstance for her husband. Although a strong woman, Juliet’s interactions with men throughout this scene demonstrate that she remains uncertain in her place in society.
This scene cements Juliet’s transformation from doting daughter into a formidable woman. Before an acquiescent character, now she becomes bold and fiery. After Paris has exited, she begins to list circumstances that are more desirable than a marriage to him: a leap from a tower, being chained with roaring bears, having to lie with a fresh corpse in a grave. Friar Lawrence offers her a potion to give the appearance of death to escape the impending marriage, but mentions, “If no inconstant tot womanish fear, Abate thy valor in the acting it” (4.1.121-122). After Juliet’s listing of the acts she would partake, she is still defined by her gender, which in spite of her acts of “masculine” bravery defines her; the Friar simply cannot believe that a woman could actually engage in such activities. The Friar’s gendering of Juliet appears to be further out of context considering that she has already pursued a secret marriage and threatened suicide (And with this knife I’ll help it presently” (4.1.55)). The Friar’s stereotype eventually punishes him, however, as he gives Juliet the potion that eventually results in her death. His underestimation of Juliet and women results in tragedy, which could be Shakespeare’s commentary on the plight of women. However, like Shakespeare’s, the Friar’s position on women’s societal ranking varies; when Paris tells him of his marriage to Juliet, the Friar responds, “You say you do not know the lady’s mind? Uneven is the course. I like it not” (4.1.4-5). Here he favors for a woman’s right to choose her husband, a notion outside the norm at the time. Nevertheless, he resides more within the patriarchal view despite Juliet’s grabbing the potion and yelling, “O tell me not of fear” (4.1.123). Despite her protests, her motivations parallel the Friar’s limits on women, for it is not her own strength that allows her to perform the challenge, but the strength she derives from Romeo.
After separating herself from her family in the previous scene, Juliet now completely diverges from the ideals that her family has set forth for her, mainly the forced marriage to Paris. Just as she deceived her parents with her control of language and use in the form of double speak, she now implements it against Paris. This occurs when she convinces Paris she loves him while actually referring to Friar Lawrence, “I will confess to you that I love him” (4.1.26). She eliminates the final connection to her parents’ way of life by deceiving Paris. However, in separation there remains a connection to the familial structure through her lover Romeo. This evidences itself in how completely out of tune Juliet and Paris are in their conversation, in which Shakespeare contrasts the sarcasm of this encounter with the loving language of the Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting. Shakespeare uses the stichomythia in the first time Paris and Juliet engage on stage to display their incompatibility; their sentences are choppy and Paris misinterprets Juliet’s language throughout the section. In the “star-crossed” lovers’ first meeting their lines in stichomythia align perfectly to form a sonnet, which emphasizes their oneness. Therefore Romeo has brought about Juliet’s affinity for language and self-sufficiency, which is furthered by the dialogue.
In their double conversation Paris mentions that Juliet’s face has been slandered with tears, to which she replies, “this may be so for it is not mine own” (4.1.37). While keeping one man, Paris, aloof and unaware, she also keeps one man’s (Romeo’s) hold over her and accepts the controlling male nature of the marriage. Juliet has broken away from her parents, the nurse, and the familial structure, but opts for another familial structure with Romeo. There is no liminal stage where she remains solitary; she always remains connected to a male figure. Her exploration into her own feelings and desires are tied to Romeo, so in essence her strong womanhood’s source lies within a man. She displays individuality in choosing her own lover over what her parents had decreed, but at the same time falls into the category of subjugation to patriarchy.
The question becomes whether Juliet can even exist without Romeo. At one point she states she intends to “Live an unstained wife to my sweet love.” The key to this phrase is that she is not living a life, but a wife. Her world will revolve around Romeo as it already does. Her acts are done purely for him and his affection. She threatens suicide because of Romeo’s banishment, furthering the idea that without Romeo she is nothing. It must be noted that Romeo also threatens suicide when the Prince banishes him, leading to a hypothesis that perhaps the marriage would be of equality. Shakespeare does not reveal whether this would be the case by killing the lovers at the end of the play, leaving another ambiguity in his stance on womanhood.
Juliet is the strongest female figure in the play; however, she remains under the control of men and the family. Despite her escape from them at one point, she willing reenters the structure of oppression, giving her character and the play a paradoxical nature that both questions and conforms to the status quo of womanhood.
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