While Romeo is busy pining in Mantua, Juliet is going about trying to save herself. Her cousin is dead at her husband’s hand, and her husband is now staying the night to consummate their marriage. Act 3 Scene 5 opens with the famous lines “Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day”, but it is very much day, and one Romeo must flee from before Juliet is left to face whatever her parents throw at her.
Which, as it happens, is marriage to Paris, despite her father telling us only in Act 1 Scene 2 “let two summers wither in their pride, / Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride”. And so Juliet, confined as she is by the governing of her parents and the expectation of her time, still chooses to rebel when she declares “Now by Saint Peter’s Church, and Peter too, / He shall not make me there a joyful bride… I will not marry yet. And when I do, I swear / It shall be Romeo, whom you know I hate, / Rather than Paris.”
This act of defiance shows us how Juliet is far more active in her world than Romeo. Romeo has disappeared to Mantua, full of mourning for what has happened; Juliet, on the other hand, refuses to marry Paris while also supporting Romeo – not that her parents would notice it – in the ten minutes after Romeo has disappeared out her window from their night of wedded bliss. And while refusing her father ultimately comes to nothing, she is fighting against the strict expectation of her age to obey her father and mother in everything, without question.
After all, this is a protagonist who, aged fourteen, has married the son of her family’s enemy in secret, consummated the marriage, and told her father she will not follow his direct instruction. And, when her father tells her she can “hang, beg, starve, die in the streets”, she goes to the Friar to come up with a plan to help her escape the fates others have decided for her. Juliet’s strength is Romeo’s weakness; she is a woman of action, of certainty. Romeo declares her beauty having “made [him] effeminate”, but is that not more evidence that Romeo is one throwing his lot to the stars, compared with his wife who is being as practical as she can to gain the outcome she most wishes for – her union with Romeo?
Given that Juliet has been brought up by the Nurse, not her parents, one could argue it “is a miracle, in view of her background, that Juliet remains so honourable, so loyal, capable of such delicacy” (Women Making Shakespeare, Arden). So not only is Juliet rebuffing the expectations of her time, she is acting in spite of her upbringing. Which, given the overpowering hatred of Capulet’s words to her, must take a certain inner strength.
“Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither.
Out, you green-sickness carrion! Out, you baggage!
… Hang thee young baggage, disobedient wretch!
I tell thee what – get thee to church a Thursday
Or never after look me in the face.
Speak not, reply not, do not answer me.
My fingers itch.”
And there it is – the threat of disowning, of being kicked out on to the streets, and of physical violence to boot. It’s a wonder that Juliet managed the resistance she did in this play. And it gives us greater perspective from which to appreciate the commitment she shows to her marriage that she is willing to fake her own death and never see her family again if it means she can live safely with Romeo. To be a woman in Shakespeare’s time was to be a hero in of yourself; if you wanted something, and all your help had evaporated, you had to go and do it yourself. It’s something Shakespeare was familiar with in his romantic comedies: just look at Viola in Twelfth Night, and Rosalind in As You Like It.
Yet somehow Juliet’s power seems even more surprising given the tragic, rather than comic, narrative her story belongs to. But then again, tragedy hinges on us hoping for the best. Romeo cannot give the audience that hope; he is sat in Mantua waiting for the Friar to tell him what to do. The Nurse has abandoned Juliet, as have her parents. Juliet taking action is the only hope the young couple have of survival, and therefore it is necessary that Juliet should do something.
So her plan is hatched. She will fake her own death, escape her arranged marriage, leave her family, disappear to Mantua, and live with Romeo. Some might have called it impulsive. Some might even have called it rashness, the same flaw that so ruined Romeo’s chances.
But for the audience Juliet’s plans resemble hope – before the final, tragic, descent…
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What do you think about Juliet in this scene? How well do you think she deals with Lord Capulet’s behaviour?
See you next time for The End…