The Depiction of Gender Roles and Social Constructs in Romeo and Juliet
The social construct of gender has been challenged more than ever in the recent century, but long before this age of partial freedom, Shakespeare was placing ideas of rebellion from it into the minds of his consumers. The rigid ideas of the time were continually challenged by Shakespeare and his companions, and his audience loved the raunchy ideas that appeared in his comedies and even in some of his tragedies. The two main characters in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet challenge their gender roles during their romance, but due to the constraints placed on them by the patriarchal feud, they are not able to fully escape the rigid rules, leading to the tragic outcome.
Romeo, as the son of the family leader and potential heir to his position, is expected to be passionate and violent, characteristics of an ideal man of this era. As the article states, men would “call on a woman simply for their sexual pleasure” (Pettit p.1), and Romeo’s usual comments on Juliet are referencing her looks in a way that characterizes her as a beautiful sun and everyone else as the moon (Shakespeare 2.2.5). Although these words appear to be referencing her beauty, it could also be seen as more of a reference to her inner beauty or character, because generally the comparison between light and dark is referencing good and evil, the polar opposites frequently used in literature. He is not simply using her as a sexual plaything, he enjoys his time with her and deeply believes that she is the most pure and good thing on the face of this earth. Another influence she has on him is that when he is courting her he claims he is willing to have her “call [him] but love, and [he’ll] be new baptized” (Shakespeare 2.2.54-55), even though men were “expected to engage in public affairs in the way of… leaders” (Pettit 2). It was very strange at the time for a man with so much power in his future to effectively give it all away to win the love of a woman, especially since the women had such limited freedom of opinion. This still doesn’t usually happen in our time, as wives usually take the legal name of their husbands, and even if they don’t it is very rare for a man to take his wife’s last name.
And yet, although it seems Romeo is now less invested in the feud, it all turns around in scene three. As a wild act of revenge and vigilante justice, Romeo slays Tybalt to avenge the death of his friend Mercutio (Shakespeare 3.1.137), a move that fulfills the belief that “their lives were duty bound to the state and were aggressive and self satisfying.” (Pettit, 2). Even though he seemed as if he was going to avoid the fight because he felt as if Tybalt was now part of his family, which of course Tybalt had no way of knowing, he ended up succumbing to his hotheaded masculine side which led him to kill Tybalt and get his revenge. This move ended up costing him his chance at a life with Juliet, through a series of misfortunes. Romeo’s eventual switch to the stereotype of his time made it so that he was banished, and therefore kept from Juliet.
Juliet starts the story following the gender roles strongly, but soon it begins to change. When her parents originally introduce the idea of her marriage to Paris, she is very eager to please her parents and willing to marry if it will make them happy (Shakespeare 1.4.103-104), which follows the gender roles that “the recipe for a good woman included… obedience” (Bantam 71). Juliet submits to her mother and father, agreeing that marriage would be a good choice as long as they believed it to be. She exhibits no real signs of her own opinion, simply acting indifferent to the idea, the only thing she seemed to feel strongly about was the idea that she needed to obey her mother.
On the same subject, Juliet’s opinion on the marriage to Paris after marrying Romeo is that she will “not marry yet” (Shakespeare 3.5.125-126). The idea of a daughter disobeying her mother and father is an idea that would appall the people of Shakespeare’s time. It also shows the clear change in her independence and views between then and the beginning of the play, as she had completely flipped her view on marrying Paris, and actually gotten married without their knowledge. Juliette even goes so far as to propose to Romeo through her nurse after a few days of their romance (Shakespeare 2.4.165-167), which he didn’t find made her “unattractive” (Bantam, 72). She did not only marry without the consent or knowledge of her parents, but she actually proposed the idea of marriage to Romeo. This idea is still frequently frowned upon today, and so it is very forward for Juliet to do this in the drama.
If Juliet were not rebellious enough to go through with the marriage, she would have lived her life with Paris, alongside her family, and the fight would have continued forever. There would be no tragic ending, there would be no Romeo and Juliet. Throughout their ill-fated fling, Romeo seems to become more submissive and has more respect for women, but ends up fulfilling his role as a man by being violent and lacking calculation before making decisions. Juliet, on the other hand, makes a more complete transformation, going from a wholly submissive daughter to a woman who stands up for her wants and needs and betrays her family, something almost unheard of at the time. By contradicting the gender roles, Romeo and Juliet were abandoning their obligations, and subsequently disobeying their families, causing their deaths and creating a story that would make people tear up for years to come.
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