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How Does Shakespeare Present Male Behaviour in Romeo and Juliet
I filmed a video today, dictating an essay from my key 13 quotes.
I hope you can see how this is a really useful revision tool - the whole essay took under 20 minutes to 'write’ this way.
Annoyingly, it does make me more chatty than in writing. And there are moments where I am teaching in the video, rather than just constructing my argument.
Anyway, the quotes and argument will be very useful to you.
You could probably reduce the words by about 40% in a redraft.
Shakespeare criticises, masculine society, by pointing out that patriarchal, male control of women is damaging not just individuals, but society as a whole. He equates violence towards other men to violence towards women, through repeated references to sexuality and exploitation of women, in particular the convention of forcing women to marry partners chosen by their parents.
This is why he begins with the scene involving Sampson and Gregory, where one says “my naked weapon is out”. This childish humour is inviting the audience to be amused at male behaviour which is actually shocking because penis is actually the sword. If we are in any doubt, Shakespeare next introduces the idea of rape, when they imagine “thrusting their maids to the wall”. This isn’t just violent, it’s also a sign of possession. Maidenhood and a maid was symbolic of a virgin. In this society, virginity is prized even more than the individual, the woman herself.
We can see how this plays out in Romeo‘s desires. When he first meets Rosaline, he remarks that he has used “Saint seducing gold” in order to persuade her to have sex with him. This of course is impossible for her because it will severely devalue the worth that she will be to her own father in seeking a suitable marriage. One of the main problems in this society is how males are in control of female lives, and they rank their worth not just in status and money, but in virginity. This leaves a woman effectively a prisoner in a gilded cage: she can only flirt, but never choose her own partner and certainly not have sex with one of them. This is the cause of the tragedy of the two lovers who are forced into marriage as the only way that they can have sex.
The Friar remarks on this, not just when he’s talking about Romeo, but about all men in this society when he says “love lies, not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes”. In other words, love is equated with lust, lust that could easily have played itself out in society without tragic consequences if young men and women were allowed to have sex. Yes, this would have caused the danger of pregnancy, but as we can see with Shakespeare’s own marriage, where Anne Hathaway was already pregnant when they did wed, this is not a concern from Shakespeare’s perspective.
We can see that Juliet has to manoeuvre Romeo into marrying her when he propositions her for sex. He says to her, after their poetic encounter post-party, “wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?” Juliet takes this to mean that he really wants sex and, more than that, he expects it. She turns to him with a rebuke: “what satisfaction canst thou have tonight?” Here she knows, even though she’s only two weeks shy of her 14th birthday, that giving away her virginity will mean that she will not be able to marry. Her solution is to manoeuvre Romeo into marrying her. This has been caused by the patriarchal control of her father, who has raised the possibility of her marrying Paris. She knows from her own mother’s experience where she had already given birth to Juliet when she was Juliet’s age, that this precursor to finding Paris attractive must be stopped because the marriage will happen much sooner than expected. Consequently, she’s moved to act quickly to choose a partner whom she believes she loves in Romeo.
The Friar is a male and offers a counterpoint of masculinity in the play. Where other males are obsessed with sex and violence, the Friar is obsessed with peace and love and so he says, “this alliance may so happy prove” as to get rid of the “enmity” between the two families and result in “pure love”. This could be seen as a naive view and the Friar is a Catholic. Of course, Shakespeare is criticising Catholicism in the play because that was the cultural position of England at the time: Catholicism was seen as evil and definitely not approved by the church.
Next we have Mercutio who gives us a different perspective on masculinity. He is utterly obsessed with sex and perhaps with Romeo. The love between Mercutio and Romeo is unspoken. However we can see his jealousy, which is perhaps sexual, but definitely personal, when Romeo does not leave the Capulet ball with him. Instead, Mercutio imagines that he is trying once more to seduce Rosaline, conjuring Romeo like a magician with Rosaline’s “quivering thigh”. This is a very obvious reference to her sexuality and from his perspective, Romeo's interest in Rosaline is simply sexual.
We can look a little deeper and see that his interest is also partly forbidden fruit: not only is she a Capulet who wants to preserve her virginity, she is a Capulet, the one family that he is forbidden to fraternise with. This makes us think that perhaps Romeo’s interest in Juliet is also another kind of violence: he’s rebelling against his parents' wishes. We can see the sexual reference again when Mercutio talks about ‘conjuring’ Romeo. This is another phallic joke like the “naked weapon” that gives Romeo's love for Juliet, an immature context. Shakespeare does this to undermine the sense that this love is actually real.
This is also reinforced by Romeo‘s reaction after the wedding. He has consummated the marriage and now he meets with Mercutio and he says, “why then is my pump well flowered”. This is another penis joke: the “pump” a crude metaphor for sex he’s been having, and the “flower" a metaphor for the virginity of the woman he’s been sleeping with. This is incredibly disrespectful, but also standard conversation amongst the young men of Verona.
Shakespeare’s doing this to show that this lack of regard for women as individuals is damaging to society. Even though Romeo is apparently in love, he cannot escape this convention, treating women as commodities and thier virginity as prizes to be taken and won. We can also see how this affects women of the time through the words of the Nurse. She recalls how, when Juliet was three and fell over on her front, the nurse's husband remarked, “thou wilt fall backwards when thou hast more wit” to Juliet at three years old. In other words, he’s telling a three-year-old girl that when she has more feminine wiles, more intelligence, she will learn to fall on her back because this is the position of sex: this is the way she will attract a man. Although the Nurse finds this very amusing, the very commonality of this kind of conversation suggests that it is entirely normal in this society for three year old girls to be vehicles for sex (obviously not at that age, but they are prepared for the role from such a young age).
That’s why it doesn’t seem remarkable that Juliet is going to be married at 14 years old. Now it’s tempting to think that this is a convention of Shakespeare’s England, but actually it’s not. The age of marriage in Shakespeare’s time was closer to 24, so we are supposed to be disgusted at the youth of Juliet, and her proposed marriage to Paris, and our disgust comes from this patriarchal control of women, that will marry them when they are still girls and obviously not ready for such a commitment, never mind the physical burden of giving birth.
We next see a more extreme form of masculine violence through Tybalt. He remarks at the party, “by the stock and honour of my kin, to strike him dead, I hold it not a sin.” This, of course, is blasphemous: one of the Ten Commandments is, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ and Tybalt disregards that, placing his family “honour” above it. This is another problem with the patriarchy: it promotes the interests of men so far, that powerful families see themselves as much more important in society than God. This would have been deeply offensive to the religious audience in the Elizabethan era.
Next we can examine Capulet a little more deeply. On the one hand, the male patriarch has to find a perfect match for his daughter and we can see Capulet doing an incredibly good job. So he chooses Paris, who is a Count, who is young and attractive, completely unlike the arranged marriage between himself and Juliet’s mother. So, he could not pick a better partner for Juliet and we can sympathise with him when he’s completely mystified by Juliet absolute refusal to marry Paris.
However, he turns to incredibly violent language with the fricatives of “fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday next.” “Fettle” refers to the potter's ability to shape clay and he is suggesting that his daughter is simply clay to be moulded into the proportions that he sees fit. These proportions are also sexual, which is why he talks about her “fine joints”. The joints of a piece of pottery are supplanted by the joints of her body, which she must shape in order to receive her husband on her wedding night. The fricatives, leave us in no doubt as to what the ‘F’ signifies in terms of the sex that she must have. This exemplifies the damaging sexual control that men have over their daughters.
We can see the complete disregard for Juliet's interests when he says, “I will give you to my friend”, and if she refuses she can “hang, beg” and “starve” in the streets. Although this doesn’t threaten physical violence, it does actually involve a violent dissolution of the family and a complete removal of any security that Juliet will have. So we can see she is faced with an impossible situation. It should have occurred to her at this point to say that she is already married. It’s also an opportune moment for the Friar to say that he’s already married them. But instead of doing this, she goes to the Friar and threatens to kill herself, which brings us back to the Friar's alternative version of masculinity. Because the Friar refuses to accept responsibility, he is also not a proper version of masculinity. Instead of owning up to his responsibility in this marriage, he seeks to hide it and therefore risks killing Juliet with this potion which is going to mimic death.
In the meantime we now return to Tybalt and Mercutio. Mercutio is outraged that Romeo won’t meet Tybalt’s challenge. To Mercutio, this masculine violence is all about posture and bravado and reputation, and so he talks about Romeo‘s “vile, dishonourable submission”. However, when he offers to stand in and fight Tybalt himself, he doesn’t actually expect this to be a fight to the death. He makes this really clear. He says that he wants from Tybalt “nothing but one of your nine lives”, alluding to Tybalt’s reputation as a cat with nine lives, which therefore suggests he’s only going to damage Tybalt a tiny bit. Beneath the bravado, this is also a contract between him and Tybalt. He’s saying in the event, Tybalt, that you actually beat me in this sword fight, I’d appreciate it if you only cut me a little bit, then we have both served our “honour”, we have both shown we are real men, but no harm has been done.
This of course quickly gets out of control, again because the patriarchy celebrates male power Tybalt is playing by different rules to Mercutio, because Tybalt is part of the family feud. Mercutio doesn’t appreciate this because he is neither Montague nor Capulet and therefore he makes this fatal error. Shakespeare’s point is not about Mercutio’s stupidity, however, his point is that in a patriarchal society that glorifies violence in this way, these tragedies are inevitable.
Romeo’s murder of Tybalt, however, is not inevitable. He actually feels prompted to action by blaming Juliet. Just like the Friar, that other example of masculinity, Romeo refuses to take responsibility. Instead he blames her. He says about Juliet, “thy beauty has hath made me effeminate”, you’ve turned me into a woman. This leads directly to his murder of Tybalt. And so this rejection of what is effeminate, what is a woman, leads directly to the tragedy. Shakespeare couldn’t be sending a more clear signal that he thinks female behaviour is superior to male, and that masculinity is a root cause of society's problems in this play.
We can see this again, once he has killed Tybalt and he says, “O, I am fortune's fool”. He blames fate for his actions rather than his own motives. Shakespeare’s contempt is revealed in another use of fricatives: “fortune's fool”. We can hear Shakespeare’s disgust at Romeo's own words.
Now we come to Juliet’s end. She doesn’t need to die. The Friar is there to prevent her death, but instead, he flees again, refusing to take responsibility, bring Juliet out into the open, and confess to the families what he’s done. When he flees, she turns to a destructive, yet sexual, act: she kills herself with Romeo's “dagger”, stabbing it into her. This is a sexual image. In case we’ve missed it, she is very explicit about how we should think of it: “O happy dagger”. Remember “my naked weapon is out”? It is exactly the same thing: the “dagger” takes the place of the penis, symbolically: “ this is thy sheath”, clearly the dagger penetrating her as a sheath, an image of being penetrated sexually. This is a coded reference by Shakespeare to how sex has killed the lovers. Sex, which has been outlawed because virginity is so prized; sex, which has been outlawed because the patriarchal rights of the father to marry his daughter to the highest bidder has been challenged.
Rather than conform to patriarchal society, both lovers choose to die. That shows how much disgust Shakespeare has for patriarchal control.