Diversity Aboveground: Shakespeare’s Forgotten Feminist Icon?

Aug 1, 2015

Claire Danes as Juliet

In school, a large number of people on this planet are required to read the works of William Shakespeare. One of the playwright’s most popular writings is Romeo and Juliet. It seems to be the typical story of forbidden romance among rival families with tragic consequences, but have we been too hard on Juliet Capulet? Is Juliet one of the first women to be master of her own fate?

Women in the 1300s when the play takes place had no rights. They were their father’s property until he decided that she was worth more as a prize to someone else for marriage. Then, she became her husband’s property. She had no say in this and was not allowed to marry without her father’s permission. The wealthier the family, the younger their daughters were married off.

Women in the 1500s when the play was written were even worse off. Popular culture dictated that women not be educated and those that were often found themselves being accused of witchcraft. Girls were suitable for marriage once they turned fourteen. Their husbands were entitled to beat them to death without repercussions if the male saw fit.

Juliet is the product of two loving adults. Her father describes her as “She is the hopeful lady of my earth” and contrary to what’s expected of him as a wealthy male, asks Paris to delay the wedding for two years so that his daughter can be wooed and fall in love with her suitor. Juliet’s nurse was also her wet nurse and gushes about her charms. Juliet’s mother is more aloof but she’s also quick to mention Juliet’s deceased siblings so her distance from getting to really know her daughter have been a form of self-protection. Then, again, even under the best of terms, her daughter could still be taken from her at any time and married to a stranger. The higher level of affection from her father and nurse maid has kept Juliet happy, sheltered and with the ability to read. Marriage “is an honour that I dream not of.” says Juliet, probably hoping that she would have had more time. Her mother informs her that they’ve already picked out a gentleman named Paris. Juliet agrees to maybe like him that night at the party.

Juliet’s mother told her nothing of a plan for courtship or a time-line of events. For all Juliet knows, she might be married off in two weeks once she turns fourteen. The girl only promised to possibly like Paris so she wants to keep her options open. This sounds more like a modern thirteen year old than one that lived four or six hundred years ago. Back then, she would have to accept that she had no control over her own love life. Was her father’s desire for Paris to woo her evidence of his being a deep romantic? Would his modern equivalent watch The Notebook and Penelope? Did her nurse’s love for her dead husband also push her to want a marriage based more on love than power? Or was it the books that mention kissing? Whatever it was, she enters into her parents’ party already biased against Paris and looking for a love of her own. She is the play’s true protagonist who drives all the action forward.  Juliet and Romeo

“Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.

When Juliet meets Romeo at the party, he’s a good-looking smooth talker who’s far more experienced. However, Juliet has been emboldened by the fact that she’s being married regardless of her feelings and marriage leads to childbirth which often leads to death. She and Romeo kiss more than once; a scandalous affair for a couple not even betrothed. Juliet also complains to her nurse maid that her wedding bed is like a grave; either because she’ll die early from pregnancy or because her life will officially be over and subject to her husbands desires. However, Romeo does offer an exciting alternative. What better way of deciding her fate than deciding she’s in love with a member of the family her father quarrels with?

Juliet professes her love for Romeo aloud which draws him out of the shadows. When she complains about men lying to women, he argues that he does love her and agrees to marry her. It’s Juliet that first mentions marriage as opposed to a simple vow without legal standing. It’s illegal for women to marry without their father’s permission and for a woman to ask the male is unthinkable. Juliet has found her own husband.

Yes, Juliet is enjoying some white, rich privilege. If she’d been another color, there’s no question that she would have been poor. If she’d been poor, she wouldn’t have time for going to church to pray and she definitely wouldn’t have a nursemaid.

Juliet Capulet

“But old folks, many feign as they were dead;
Unwieldy, slow, heavy and pale as lead.”

Can you just imagine Juliet’s Tumblr as she complains about old people being so incredibly slow? Juliet forces her nurse to help her, making plans with Romeo and helping him sneak into her bedroom. Despite her love, Juliet can have her not consummated marriage annulled especially since only four people know about it. However, Juliet is stubborn and taught that her husband is her everything. This is the moment that she first thinks that she will have Romeo or no one.

“come, nurse; I’ll to my wedding-bed;
And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead!”

Juliet wants ultimate control of not just her life but also her physical body. She would be expected to remain a virgin for her father’s choice: Paris but she has married Romeo and slept with him. Furthermore, if Paris believed them to be married, he could legally rape her because it wasn’t rape between spouses during that time. Death is preferable to Juliet and she almost kills herself in Friar Laurence’s presence before he comes up with the alternative plan. When it ends in failure, she impales herself on a sword. While it’s tragic that she died, Juliet exited the world’s stage on her own terms and with control of her own body. A woman having full control of her own body is a subject still so controversial that there are pending lawsuits, murders and bombings over it.

Shakespeare

Such a feminist statement can make it surprising that it was written in the 16th century by a playwright most assume to be male. However, many of Shakespeare’s males are made to look foolish compared with the women. More than once, even a good father like Capulet is turned into an insane rage monster incapable of reason to their own daughter. It works out okay in A Midsummer Night’s Dream but to horrible results in Romeo and Juliet, Merchant of Venice and King Lear or even Othello to his wife. The strongest of Shakespeare’s women often end up too much for this world: dead or married when they’re too tired to fight anymore. It’s this insight into the plight of women that lead some to believe that Shakespeare was a cover for a female author to hide behind.

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Who’s coming to the Tampa Bay Comic-Con this weekend?

There are fifteen special guests and nine of them are women and/or people of color, including Carrie Fisher, Freema Agyeman and Keisha Castle-Hughes.

Next week will be another Flashback Friday with The Life and Times of Juniper Lee and The American Dragon Jake Long!

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