So we all read Romeo and Juliet at High School, right? Shakespeare’s classic love story. Except it wasn’t, it was a tragedy. So knowing what we know about Tudor/Jacobean history, how accurate was the Bard in his portrayal of love gone awry? Does this story really reflect what we know or surmise about the period? Or is old Bill guilty of a bit of poetic licence in an attempt to convey his message? Let’s have a look. But before we get into it, let me just remind you, that these musings are purely my own interpretation of the play. You may think differently.
So, Romeo is the only child of one noble family – the Montagues of Verona, Italy in late 16th/ early 17thC. Juliet is the only child of a rival noble family – the Capulets. The two families have been in conflict for many generations, so much so that the original cause of the rivalry has been lost to time. Well done Shakespeare for setting a background so vague as to be easy to move on without second thought.
Romeo is persuaded to gate-crash a party held at the Capulet residence, during which time the notion of shopping for a suitable marriage partner for young Juliet has been introduced despite her tender age of just thirteen. The proposed suitor being a cousin of the Prince of Verona, the Count Paris. Now Paris is allegedly quite a tasty and well-positioned catch, according to all concerned. But at the party, Juliet sets eyes instead on young Romeo, and it’s love at first sight. Despite the fact that three hours earlier Romeo was pining for the lovely Roseline in a sad case of unrequited love. All thoughts of past and future matches are out of the window as the pair share a stolen kiss.
Romeo and his pals are unmasked and fiery Capulet cousin Tybalt loses the plot, not for the first time, but is prevented from action – not to mention being somewhat humiliated – by Uncle Juliet’s dad, who tells Tybalt to pipe down, not in front of the guests and so on. It is then revealed by the Nurse to Juliet that Romeo is one of them there Montagues and best avoided like the plague. It is at this point that Romeo also realizes who his young love is. After their discovery the band of merry Montagues make their escape, but Romeo ditches his buddies and heads back to climb over the wall of the Capulet residence, and lurks in the shadows under the balcony of his new love, where he is stunned to hear Juliet talking away to herself like a mad thing, about her love for him, and asking the Gods and the stars and anyone else who isn’t really listening, if it really matters whether the sexy young man is in fact a Montague. What’s in a name, indeed? Is a rose by any other name….
So they have another secret game of tonsil-tennis and then when in danger once again of discovery, Romeo promises to call her in the morning, and takes off. Nursey is on the ball and gets the low-down from Juliet and agrees to help them out. To cut a long story short, they get married, only Nursey and the Friar know, and agree to meet later to seal the deal at Chez Juliet. On his way through town, Romeo catches up with his buddies. Tybalt shows up, and whilst Romeo is pleading with Tybalt that there is in fact a bloody good reason why he won’t fight back, and he only wants Tybalt to wait a short while and all will become crystal, Tybalt goes all thrusty with a sword and Mercutio rather unwillingly takes one for team Montague. Tybalt does one, as Mercutio dies in Romeo’s arms, cursing both of them. Romeo is now a bit bent up about the death of his friend, and forgetting his recent nuptials, goes off after Tybalt, killing him in revenge before taking off to the Friar’s cell to seek his advice. Prince Verona shows up and banishes Romeo permanently from Verona. An arrangement is made whereby Romeo gets to spend his wedding night with his new wife before going off to Mantua for the rest of his natural. This happens according to plan.
Juliet had one or two moments of grief over her cousin’s death and her husband’s involvement, but knowing what an idiot Tybalt was, chooses her love over his stupidity. Nursey meanwhile is giving it max grief in the corner over what a great man Tybalt was. Knowing her bond with Juliet is in danger of being severed, she agrees to help out with the rumpy-pumpy plans.
The next day, her parents not knowing about the secret marriage demand Juliet marries Paris in the next few days. A row kicks off, and the parents threaten to disown her, nursey advises her to take the deal, feeling Romeo will never come back, nobody knows and Paris is the best of a bad situation. She reluctantly agrees. The friar however organizes for Juliet to take a draft before the second wedding which will make her look a bit dead, for just long enough to get Romeo back and take her body away after the funeral so they can live happily ever after with nobody being the wiser. He writes to Romeo about the plan, but Romeo doesn’t get the letter. Meanwhile he hears that Juliet is dead and races back to the city, not knowing of the ruse, and goes to a shady apothecary where he gets some poison, then finds Paris grief-stricken outside the mausoleum and bumps him off. He then goes in and barricades himself in, and drinks the poison as Juliet awakens. She opens her eyes to find Romeo dead beside her, and taking his dagger, kills herself.
The family are all heartbroken and learn their lesson.
So now we know the pertinent points of Romeo and Juliet, lets investigate further. I always got the feeling that the play was set in the late medieval rather than 16/17th Century. Or at least that was what I felt when I read it the first 600 times. Now my knowledge of the comparison between Tudor/Jacobean England and its Italian Counterpart is rather sketchy and Anglo-orientated. So if I get any of this a bit wrong, that’s on me. Feel free to read further and debunk me, I challenge you! But I’m going to follow in Shakepeare’s train of thought, as he was never known to have left England, and although he moved in fringe court circles, being specifically designated King James I’s favourite playwright, his knowledge of Verona would have been as limited as mine and relegated to second hand information. As he wrote this play arguably before receiving the official patronage of the King, we can surmise that he based much of what he wrote on the English equivalency, using the earlier work by Arthur Brooke in 1562, ‘The tragic tale of Romeus and Juliet’, which was in turn based on a previous Italian story.
So… Let’s quickly explore a few of the relationships and work our way in from there.
So Romeo and Juliet both appear to be only children. Not unheard of, but definitely unusual. Particularly as we know from the text that having been married at a young age herself, and becoming a mother by the time she was fourteen, Juliet’s mother at most is in her late twenties, not an old lady and quite able to bear more children, problems aside. Particularly as Juliet is the only Capulet heir, this seems unusual. There is no mention of an education, or ladies in waiting, which one would presume a young noble lady would have. The mere fact that she remains at home with her parents is fairly odd too. But most importantly that her Nurse has been with her since her birth, being her wet-nurse – whilst her own child died shortly after birth on the same day. This again is odd, for two reasons. The first and most obvious being it wasn’t Tudor practice for noble ladies to nurse their own children, instead a wet-nurse would be engaged, but only for the initial year or two of the child’s life until they were weaned. Then it would be considered no longer necessary and the position would be replaced with other nursery staff, and maids, and perhaps a guardian.
The second oddness of this situation with Juliet and her nurse is that again, Nursey claims to have had her child young and again this puts her in the age range similar to that of Juliet’s mother. So why no further children there either. There appears to be a lot of secondary infertility in Verona! We must either presume that Shakespeare was either trying to portray a situation of Margaret Beaufort syndrome OR that he deliberately left out subsequent children in an attempt to 1) create that later dreadful sense of loss for both Capulet and Montague at the loss of their only children, and 2) to encourage the reasoning behind the bond between Nurse and Juliet. On this latter note, this is probably why he chose to disregard the standard Nobility operating policy of the Period. To propagate the story, he needed that lifelong mother-daughter replacement bond between Juliet and Nurse, and that wouldn’t have happened if he stuck to the facts.
The next bizarre characterization error is the idea that Nurse would have married so young. Not a situation that happened a great deal between the working classes who tended to wait until at least late teens/twenties to marry. Tied in with this is the Nurse’s stereotypical dirty mind, versus Juliet’s ideological impression of pure love. This was a notion that started possibly as an attempt for upper classes to set themselves apart from those beneath them in terms of sexuality. However, in reality, for servant classes there was far more scope to marry for love, although combination of assets through good marriages were still a factor. For nobles, love was for the most part irrelevant. The onus was on making a powerful alliance, with a view to producing heirs so attraction could acceptably play a role in that, at least from a male point of view. Let’s face it, although not a priority, if one is expected to bed one’s wife regularly, it helps if there is something pretty to look at. Liking them is a bonus. Peasants were a lot less likely to have affairs, whereas nobles, particularly men, would often take a mistress, particularly as it was frowned upon for a man to have sex with his wife when she was pregnant. Verona was a strongly Catholic area, the idea of sinning by having sex with your “unclean” wife was probably a driving factor. Abstaining wasn’t however given the same level of consideration. And having a mistress was better than masturbation one would presume on the sin scale of one to Hell.
I also found it a little strange that Nurse would try and instill a sense of fear into Juliet in regards to the act of sex itself, as though quite often it was a painful chore to be met with compliance. As Tudor/Jacobean Physicians were under the impression that men produced the baby within their sperm in miniature, whilst the woman’s role was to receive the offspring and then grow it with blood from her liver, and also believed that a man could not impregnate his wife without her achieving orgasm, it was considered a priority if he wanted heirs to ensure she enjoyed the act as much as possible. All over the world, men were trying hard to satisfy their wives in the bedroom, pain and chore were not then an issue, logically.
Im going to move on now to my thoughts regarding the murders of Mercutio and Tybalt. All through the play, Romeo is presented as a dreamer, a lover, a peace-keeper. Yet witnessing the death of his friend at the hand of his wife’s kin is enough to send him over the edge. Okay, I can let that slide. But the rest of the main players are aware of Romeo’s nature, and that Tybalt was the temperamental one of the two; the one more likely to cause aggravation or instigate violence. Juliet voices this later on, on hearing of his death. Although initially pointing the finger at Romeo, her love for him and her knowledge of the characters of the two, she is aware that it was more likely to be an act of revenge on Romeo’s part rather than his fault. She knows her cousin, and she knows he isn’t an innocent man. There were witnesses to the murder of Mercutio by Tybalt, how was this not reported immediately?
The Prince steps in to banish Romeo. Rightly so, he did after all kill Tybalt, in an act of cold blood. But in the days of instant justice, when nobility was involved, revenge was often dismissed as an understandable if not acceptable outcome. Where were the calls from the Prince for all sides of the story before passing his verdict? Why did Shakespeare choose to make Romeo the perpetrator? Simply put, it was to further the plot. In order to execute the perfect tragedy, there has to be a tragedy. The separation of Romeo and Juliet was a tragic thing. Shakespeare did not choose to follow the path of true love conquers all, it would have been a lot easier of course, and the plot would have made more sense to be written thus. Logic however was not an option for the Bard.
He furthers this illogical almost painful plot twisting with the banishment, the ultimatum by Lord and Lady Capulet to Juliet – Marry Paris or you’re cut off, and kicked out… even then normal human behaviour would have suggested Juliet would have chosen to follow Romeo at that point had she not done so in the first instance. Religion plays a small but significant part in the themes of the play, yet the Nurse urges Juliet to consider bigamy as a fair exchange to exile. Juliet however isn’t prepared to carry out the plan and seeks an alternative. Again, Shakespeare is driven to illogical reasoning to effect the tragedy. Otherwise, the Friar could have arranged for Juliet again to join Romeo. Instead we have the whole charade of a fake bigamous wedding that never happened, followed by a fake death with fake poison, and Romeo missing his cue, and ending up dead. Finally, we have Juliet also committing suicide. Obviously at this point, sinning is completely disregarded, as suicide was one of the biggies to a Catholic. Again sense out of the window for the sake of the tragedy theme.
Why would Shakespeare go to such lengths then to continue on his path to turning out a tragic tale? Well let’s examine that “true love conquers all”. In basic terms I think this moral was disregarded by Shakespeare simply because he knew it didn’t. I base my theory on Shakespeare’s own life. Although we don’t know a lot about the man, we do know he came from a comfortable enough background, and that he married an older woman when he was quite young by male standards of the time – eighteen. And we know that he married her quickly because she was pregnant; A situation that was shameful to most. We know that his father and priest played a large part in arranging his marriage so quickly because the standard requirement of Banns being posted was dispensed with. We know that his wife had a daughter, and that later gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. It was possibly around this time that Shakespeare left to pursue his stage/playwright career in London. We can’t know his whereabouts for certain as the trail has been erased. However, there is thought to be mention of him in a local court dispute in London in 1588, by which time his plays were starting to gain recognition. Whether or not this mention is our Shakespeare is unconfirmed.
We know that he divided his time between London and Stratford until after his retirement in 1613, and that following his son’s early unexpected death from unknown causes in 1596 aged 11, Shakespeare was financially solvent enough to buy land on which to build a rather good house in Stratford. Surviving plans of the house reveal a gateway around an arch onto a courtyard with guest accommodation and servants’ quarters over two levels, flanking all four sides of the yard, and a well laid out garden to the rear. Anne, his wife, did not have any more children following the birth of the twins, whether there was a physical issue is unknown, however Shakespeare certainly doesn’t seem to have been home a great deal in those 25 years. Could we argue that his initial attraction for Anne had waned by this point? Possibly he was forced to marry after a brief fling left his lover pregnant? This could all add to the possible reasons why Shakespeare would choose write such a tragedy which in some small ways reflects glimpses of his own life. So is it possible then to back this up and say instead that Shakespeare chose a tragedy because that’s what happens in life? He certainly went the long road around to achieve the moral of the story, whatever you decide.
Several historians make the claim that Shakespeare’s lack of bequest in his will for his wife shows his lack of love for her. She is designated to receive his second best bed. This is argued by others that the second best bed would be the marital bed and therefore a sign of his sincere devotion to her. The best bed of course would be the one reserved for important guests. She would have received an automatic third of his not insubstantial estate on his death, leaving her quite comfortable financially. The remainder of his estate was left to his eldest daughter, to be passed down in its entirety to her firstborn son, neither of his daughters received anything substantial from their father’s will. As it was there wasn’t a male heir and the line died with Susanna’s childless daughter. And that…. was probably the biggest tragedy.