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’ (Prologue, 1-4). The origins of this old quarrel are not made known to the audience, a fact that adds a note of absurdity to the situation. Even Prince Escalus and other noblemen in Verona seem to be tired of a never-ending feud which has become a heavy burden to the city. Paris, for one, complains to Capulet in the following terms: ‘Of honourable reckoning are you both, / And pity ‘tis you [i.e. Capulet and Montague] lived at odds so long” (1.2.4-5). The depth of the involvement of the heads of both families, their kinsmen and their servants in this dispute, hardly contained by the Prince’s authority, can be noted in the first half of 1.1 (with lines such as ‘The quarrel is between our masters and us their men’, as says Gregory, a servingman of the Capulets, in 1.1.17), while Lady Capulet and Lady Montague strive to calm their husbands down: ‘A crutch, a crutch—why call you for a sword?’ (Capulet’s wife to her husband, 1.1.69); ‘Hold me not, let me go’ (Montague to his wife, 1.1.72). The feud Romeo and Juliet have inherited from their families is thus presented from the beginning as a key constituent of the play, without which the plot would have never developed into a tragedy. Indeed, it is their death what will ‘bury their parents’ strife’ which only ‘their children’s end … could remove’ (Prologue, 8-11). The quarrel is led and instigated by the heads of the respective households, Capulet and Montague, and enthusiastically seconded by relatives and servingmen. Only the heirs of both families seem to hold a less passionate attitude about this issue. When they fall in love with each other instead of behaving as deadly enemies, they soon find ways to overcome such enmity, although they remain hostages to their families’ hatred. In the public sphere, this rivalry also provided opportunities to assert masculinity over male rivals, as shown in the long brawl between Montague and Capulet servingmen in 1.1: ‘Draw, if you be men’ (1.1.55). Kahn (1978: 5) has described the...
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