Patriarchy in Romeo and Juliet

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How far does an understanding of patriarchy assist in an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet?

Romeo and Juliet is basically the story of Juliet’s self-development and maturing through her love for Romeo in a city, Verona, where patriarchy impregnated politics, social life and private households at all levels. In this essay I will examine how patriarchy plays a central role in the development of the ‘ancient quarrel’ between the Montagues and the Capulets and how this feud eventually leads the lovers to their self-destruction. As Coppélia Kahn has noted, ‘… the feud in a realistic social sense is the primary tragic force in the play – not the feud as agent of fate, but the feud as an extreme and peculiar expression of patriarchal society, which Shakespeare shows to be tragically self-destructive’ (Kahn 1978: 5). Patriarchy has been ideally characterized by two fundamental notions: the household as a nucleus of stratification, and the male domination – i.e. males standing above females who would otherwise be their equals. There is a clear separation between the ‘public’ and the ‘private’ spheres of patriarchy. Public power is vested into male patriarchs, who share it subject to any other stratification principles (economic, social, etcetera) prevailing in their society. Women do not hold formal power but they can be acknowledged the status of ‘honorary patriarchs’ in certain cases. In the private sphere the male head of a household or family enjoys undisputed power over all members of the family – junior males, females and children – although women may have certain informal influence over their male patriarch (see Mann 1994: 178). In Romeo and Juliet, the blood-stained rivalry between two leading families, the Montagues and the Capulets, is presented to the audience in the first lines of the play: ‘Two households, both alike in dignity / … / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean’...
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