For those of you that don’t know, Juliet is the leading lady of William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Set in 16th-century Verona, the story centres around two young lovers whose families hate each other, and as you can imagine, it really doesn’t end well. Drawing on countless tales of young lovers cruelly torn apart by fate (which actually date all the way back to antiquity), the play was so successful that it was printed twice before the famous Folio of Shakespeare’s plays was drawn up – which would have been a huge deal considering the scarcity of paper and the primitive printing press. The play has been made into an opera, a musical, several films, a ballet, as well as providing the inspiration for many more books, films, songs, TV shows and pieces of art. It’s arguably one of Shakespeare’s most successful plays – and Juliet herself is certainly one of Shakespeare’s most popular female characters.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Juliet is a young woman born into a noble family – as such, she’s not really allowed to do a lot. She has to rely on other people to deliver her messages, her family would have chosen who she could and couldn’t see, and her parents are ultimately the ones who arrange a marriage for her. You’d think that this would mean she doesn’t get a lot of say in where her life ends up going.
However, despite all of this Juliet is actually a very active character. She’s the one who first confesses her love for Romeo (even though he wasn’t supposed to overhear it). She gets her nurse to smuggle messages to him, persuades Friar Laurence to marry them, and ends up getting both of them to cover for her when her parents start getting suspicious. When this doesn’t work, she finds a way around them – lying to her nurse when she tries to get her to marry Paris instead, and convincing both her parents that she intends to go along with their matchmaking plans. She’s also the one who comes up with the plan to fake her own death and run away with Romeo – although admittedly, she does get quite a lot of help from Friar Laurence on this front – and at the very end of the play, she chooses to kill herself instead of returning to her family.
But it’s also worth considering the role of Fate within the play. In the prologue, we’re told that the fate of both Romeo and Juliet has already been decided: they’re going to die tragically. Throughout the play there are constant references to the idea of Fate as an unseen force controlling the characters’ destinies, whether these take the form of characters discussing fortune-telling or Juliet seeing an omen of Romeo’s death.
This is nothing new for a Shakespearean play. At the time of writing, a belief in Fate as a larger outside force was very common. Belief in the supernatural wasn’t seen as silly, as modern society might deem it – it was a fact of life. After all, this was a time when people were still being tried for witchcraft, and kings and queens appointed court astrologers to help them plan everything from their coronation date to their military campaigns.
But where does this leave Juliet? Ultimately, it comes down to opinion. Personally, I’d be inclined to say Juliet is in control of her own destiny. While there are a number of massive coincidences that end up putting her on her path – such as a random servant inviting Romeo to the posh Capulet do, and the plague which stops him from receiving Juliet’s message about her plan – we constantly see her making conscious decisions to act the way she does. We see her reasoning through her decisions, discussing her thoughts and feelings before she acts, and actively putting her plans together. Ultimately, she isn’t acting to prevent her fate – it is her actions which directly bring her to it. I’m giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
We don’t see anything of Juliet’s hobbies, but her goals and beliefs are much more clearly defined. Throughout the play she’s motivated by a desire to be with Romeo. She clearly doesn’t subscribe to the belief in the traditional family feud, otherwise she wouldn’t have stuck by Romeo after finding out he was a Montague. She also has very strong Christian beliefs, as she makes frequent references to religion, insists that she and Romeo get married before they have an adult sleepover, and objects to her family’s attempts to marry her off to Paris incredibly strongly (as this would have counted as either adultery or bigamy, if not both). Two out of three ain’t bad.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
We don’t see all that much of Juliet’s skills – but like any other Shakespearean character, she can deliver a mean sonnet. Her personality is much more clearly defined. She’s determined, loyal, witty, straightforward, sincere, knows what she wants and sticks to it, but she’s also perfectly capable of going to any lengths necessary. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
Unfortunately, you really can’t describe Juliet without mentioning her love life. You could certainly describe her personality without mentioning it, but she just doesn’t have any other goals that take her through the narrative. Her story arc and development as a character are so fundamentally tied up with her love life that you just can’t separate the two.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
As I discussed in the previous question, Juliet’s love life is the cornerstone of her story. As such, it underpins every decision she makes. She doesn’t really have anything that motivates her at all before she falls in love with Romeo. The classic example of this is when, at the beginning of the play, her mother tells her they’re thinking of marrying her off to Paris – she has absolutely no reaction to this, with no strong feelings either way. This is before she’s met Romeo – after she’s fallen for him, and her parents bring up the subject again, she violently rejects Paris, saying that she would quite literally rather die. As she doesn’t have any secondary goals, Juliet’s love life is really what drives her through the play, so I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Juliet actually goes through a lot of development in the play, even though it only takes place over five days. She starts off as a young girl with little interest in marriage and no real understanding of love, demonstrating a childish kind of naiveté when she discusses the prospect of marrying Paris. As the play goes on, she experiences the full force of first love and matures as a result of this, coming to understand her own feelings about love and marriage as well as drastically changing her viewpoint on the traditional family feud.
She also goes from being a relatively childish, sexless character to being much more sexually active – eagerly anticipating her wedding night with Romeo and begging him to stay a little longer when dawn eventually comes. She takes more risks, she becomes more proactive, and actually displays a remarkable level of strength and resolve. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she have a weakness?
Juliet does have a weakness that eventually leads to her downfall – she’s reckless, single-minded and can be incredibly immature. Much like Romeo, she rushes headfirst into a love she knows is dangerous without a thought of the consequences. Although she matures over the course of the play, she never really considers her options in a thoughtful and adult kind of way. In Juliet’s mind, these are her choices:
- Run away with Romeo and be together forever and ever
She never once entertains the idea that marrying Romeo and then making the knowledge public might stop the feud between their families, or appealing to a higher authority (such as the Prince, who both families must obey), or even a plan that’s slightly less dramatic than faking her own death. She never even considers slowing down a bit after she meets Romeo. After their first date, they get married the next day, and at her suggestion – most other couples just go for milkshakes.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Juliet is actually a real influence on the plot. She confesses her love to Romeo – and then tells him if he likes it, he better put a ring on it.
She sneaks messages to him, gets people to smuggle him into her bedroom so they can consummate their marriage, and ultimately comes up with the plan that leads to their downfall. Juliet is a girl who makes things happen, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
In some ways, Juliet can be seen as quite progressive. Although she’s younger than Romeo, she’s definitely the more mature one in their relationship, she’s sexually forward without being judged for it, and she’s very headstrong, going out of her way to defy her family and fully prepared to turn her back on literally everything she knows.
But that’s no getting away from the fact that Juliet is the embodiment of one of the oldest stereotypes in the book – Life Begins at Man. This trope implies that a woman’s life only becomes truly significant when she meets a man and settles down – everything that happened before that doesn’t really matter.
Juliet fits this trope down to a T. Before she meets Romeo, she has literally nothing to motivate her – no goals, no interests, no particularly strong beliefs – and to be quite frank, before he comes on the scene she’s not a particularly interesting character. After she meets Romeo, she’s motivated, she develops her own beliefs, and she becomes much more appealing to the audience now that she’s got something to fight for. We don’t get much of a sense of her personality before she falls in love, but afterwards, she’s given some of the most memorable speeches in the play, using some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful language. Love literally breathes life into her.
But this works both ways – when Romeo dies, Juliet (at the tender age of thirteen, I might add) decides she has nothing left to live for and kills herself. It doesn’t matter that she has her whole life ahead of her and a loving family – the fact that she doesn’t have a boyfriend any more trumps everything else. This is actually reinforcing an incredibly dangerous belief – that life without love is not worth living, and that suicide can be the ultimate expression of romance. Of course, it goes without saying that this is not the case, yet Juliet’s last act is held up as proof of the depth of her love, rather than the desperate action of a vulnerable young woman who has had all her means of support systematically removed. Her parents and nurse rejected her and threatened to disown her in a previous scene, her boyfriend (and means of escape) is dead, and if she is discovered she will face the wrath of both the Montague and the Capulet family, as well as a certain amount of social condemnation for getting married without her family’s knowledge or consent. This isn’t an expression of love, it’s an expression of how utterly helpless, friendless and alone Juliet feels, and it should be treated as such.
What makes this particularly galling in Romeo and Juliet is that we don’t actually see what makes them fall in love. Unlike some of Shakespeare’s other heroines, Juliet falls in love the moment she claps eyes on Leonardo Di Caprio Romeo. In Othello, we learn that the heroine, Desdemona, fell in love with Othello because of all his stories about his wonderful travels – but we get no such explanation for why Juliet likes Romeo.
This, of course, may well be a deliberate choice on Shakespeare’s part. There’s a few ways to interpret the love story that drives the play forward: one is that it was the truest, purest love that ever did love, and the other is that it was just two reckless teenagers who jumped headlong into a dangerous relationship without thinking of the consequences. But this associates Juliet with another stereotype about women – that of the teenage girl completely blindsided by her first relationship. This cliché is particularly damaging to Juliet’s character, as it effectively negates all the emotional maturity she has developed by the end of the play.
All in all, whether you believe Romeo and Juliet were destined for each other or not is really up to the audience, and there have been adaptations that have played it both ways. Whichever way you look at it though, it doesn’t exactly help Juliet with regards to gender stereotypes. I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- How does she relate to other female characters?
In Romeo and Juliet, we only see Juliet interact with two other female characters: her nurse and her mother. Neither of these characters are given real names, but in spite of that their relationships are actually quite well-developed. Both of them are quite overprotective towards Juliet, but Juliet’s mother has a much more formal relationship with her (as was common in the sixteenth century) and is fully prepared to put the good of the family over her daughter’s concerns – even if this involves disowning her. Juliet’s nurse, on the other hand, has a much more loving, caring relationship with her, allows her to break the rules once or twice, and makes jokes at Juliet’s expense – something her mother never does. Ultimately, though, her nurse is still a paid employee, and must bow to Lady Capulet’s wishes, even though she does try and soften the blow.
Despite their very different attitudes towards her, they do both genuinely grieve for Juliet – even though Juliet herself doesn’t really give either of them much thought. The two different relationships, while still sketched out in some pretty broad strokes, also allow Shakespeare to portray a certain amount of class difference as well as making up a significant part of the play. I’ll give her the point.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
Juliet is a well-written, determined young woman who’s in control of her own destiny, develops through her own story and has weaknesses that hold her back, but ultimately, she hasn’t passed my test. This is because when you get right down to it her love life is her entire reason for being, and this not only undermines her character but also comes with a side order of unfortunate gender stereotypes.
I expect that a substantial part of this may well be because of the time in which Romeo and Juliet was written – while it wasn’t quite as bad as you might suppose, Shakespearean England was literally structured around a series of beliefs that said women were inferior to men. While Shakespeare was certainly ahead of his time, he wasn’t outside of it – there’s no getting away from the influence of the society in which he lived.
However, much like with other historical characters I’ve looked at, I’m not going to give Juliet a free pass because of this. Romeo and Juliet is a story that’s constantly being retold – as such, it remains relevant to modern fiction (and that’s saying nothing of its impact). Juliet’s a character we see everywhere – from a world populated by CGI garden gnomes to the post-zombie apocalypse – and she bears re-examining to modern standards. Consigning her to the past is trivialising her character and, frankly, doing Shakespeare a real disservice.
Next week, I’ll be looking at Grease. Sandy, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.