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Is Shakespeare’s portrayal of a patriarchal Verona ironic and subversive, or is the play an endorsement of male power?
It is vital to establish the definition of the term patriarchy in order to discuss the essay question in detail. The Oxford English Dictionary, (edited by Judy Pearsall) suggests that patriarchy is:
“A form of social organization in which the father or eldest male is the head of the family.”
The feminist critic Sasha Roberts states that patriarchy is ‘a male-centred society.’ Both of these useful sources support the idea that patriarchy is a phallo-centric society where men are dominant over women, and women are arguably ‘doormats’ for men - with their human rights being restricted by men.
During Shakespeare's time the prologue played a key part in the opening of the play. As the crowd was loud, the opening of the play had to compete with the noise and was aimed at settling the audience as quickly as possible. This was done by a single figure appearing on stage that captured the audience's attention. The second objective was to read what is called the 'prologue'. This explains to the audience they are in Verona and the city is divided by civil war between two noble families: the Montagues and the Capulets.
The opening of the play, Romeo and Juliet is fast and exciting as to immediately gain the concentration and interest of the crowd. The reason for the fighting is to show the intensity of hatred between the two rival families. The powerful fight also demonstrates the loyalty of the servants to their respective families. During the build up to the fight Shakespeare 'played' with the words to give a variety of meanings: Sampson, who was defending the Capulet family, exclaims:
“Gregory, on my word, we’ll not carry coals.” (Sampson says in line 1, S 1/ A I)
In 16th century England this was seen as an insult. Gregory, servant of the Montague family retaliates with:
“No, for then we would be colliers.” (Gregory says in line 2, S 1/ A I)
A collier is a man who carries
coals. This ambiguity of phrase would excite the Elizabethan crowd, although in modern day society the meanings are not as insulting. Gregory then states:
“The quarrel is between our masters, and us their men.” (Gregory says in lines 18-19, S 1/ A I)
He specifically states men, as he believes women should not be involved in the feud. Sampson's views are to the contrary and for him gender makes no difference. Once he has fought them men he will then cut off the maids' heads. This is another idea of ambiguity; he confirms the heads of the maids, or maidenheads, meaning their virginity, and this would again resonate with an Elizabethan audience. Unlike in contemporary society, virginity was considered very important and a woman who had lost her virginity considered being of less ‘value.’ The statement is also effective, in that, it gives an early impression to the audience about the way women are spoken of and how that endorses a male dominated Verona. During the course of the scene, there are ambiguous references like, “I will be civil with the maids”: this phallic imagery of sexual intercourse again, emphasises the male dominance. The phallic language used by Shakespeare reaffirms to the audience that Verona is a patriarchal society. Shakespeare is suggesting that the society is ‘corrupt’ and ‘unequal’ with patriarchy in practice.
Romeo's first tragic characteristic is shown clearly in Act one. His flaw is falling in love too quickly and deeply. At the beginning of the play Romeo is hopelessly in love with Rosaline. However Rosaline does not reciprocate his feelings. Romeo's unhappiness shows when he says to Benvolio:
“Not having that which, having, makes them short.” (line 162, S 1/ A I)
This illustrates how deeply Romeo was in love with Rosaline. However, the fact that his love was unrequited suggests a sense of power held within women. This may be Shakespeare making a subversive comment about male dominance in Verona. So, although Shakespeare stresses the male-centred society in the opening, there may be an element of subversion and irony, in that Rosaline holds the power to decide whether to like or dislike Romeo.
"It is too rash, too unadvis'd, too sudden;" (line 118, S 2/ A II)
However, the love they share is far deeper and more authentic than the puppy love Romeo felt for Rosaline. Romeo's love matures over the course of the play, from the shallow desire to be in love, to a profound and intense passion. This shows how Shakespeare has conveyed the strength of Romeo’s character. The suggestion here is that, regardless of the endless struggle men are left with in terms of love, they are able to overcome this, showing a slight superiority of men over women.
Juliet’s nurse is a useful source to highlight the possible irony and subversion that Shakespeare has towards patriarchy in the story. The nurse is a sexually motivated character because she is represented with an element of masculinity, as her conversations with Juliet suggests her absorption with sex.
“Now, by my maidenhead at twelve year old.” (line 2, S 3/ A I)
This means she was a virgin when she was twelve years old. This is suggesting a masculine feature in her character because in 16th century England, it was the men who were bawdy, and since the nurse is not following the “motherly” behaviour as expected at the time, she may not be behaving in a ‘feminine’ way. This may suggest that Shakespeare is giving an opinion on patriarchy, as the nurse may be a satirical figure for a typical male in Verona. Also, through Baz Luhrmann’s film version of Romeo and Juliet, the character of the nurse is more obviously portrayed. Her physicality and her almost broken and manly tone of voice suggest a challenge toward patriarchy by Luhrmann, unlike the neutrality maintained by Shakespeare. To a contemporary audience however, the Nurse is a less controversial character since today women’s behaviour is very similar to men’s.
Juliet’s character in the opening scenes is essential to be considered when discussing the subservience of women in a patriarchal society like Verona. Juliet is conveyed as an obedient and “girl” and is, at times, a passive character.
“I’ll look to like, if looking liking move.” (line 97, S 3/ A I)
She is saying to her mother that she will look at Paris with the intention of liking him, if looking at Paris is enough to make her like him. The lack of independence and the idea of being possessed are being supported through Juliet’s conversation with her mother. Furthermore, this also helps to bring about the immaturity of Juliet’s character, as she does not have a mind of her own to make life changing decisions on her own. Nonetheless, when she fell into the world of love, her lack of maturity and dependence changes considerably.
“What says he of our marriage? What of that?” (line 47, S 5/ A II)
Her strong and firm questions suggest her growing maturity and independence, and, ironically, she has almost taken the role of Lord Capulet the ultimate patriarchal figure. Essentially, Shakespeare has cleverly used a passive “girl” at the start of the play, and developed the character into a more assertive “woman”. This may suggest that Shakespeare is expressing the importance of women during the course of the play and the idea of changing positions between men and women.
In conclusion, I think that William Shakespeare has approached patriarchy in an ambiguous fashion, Although Shakespeare shows a patriarchal society through the use of characters like Lord Capulet, Mercutio and Romeo, he does not convey the idea explicitly and also goes to show his subversive side through the use of characters like Juliet, Nurse and Rosaline, leaving his views neutral to a certain extent. All in all, the question of Shakespeare’s views on the patriarchal Verona is one that is implicit and ambiguous, and different audiences will have different interpretations on the views of Shakespeare on Verona. As to potential buyers, this story is one that should not be missed, and the fact that it is from our exceptional Shakespeare makes it even more significant to get hold of.
Oooh sorry my bad I now see this is the play catagory - it's the Baz Luhrman film poster that confused me - what's up with that Ciao??! Anyway can't change my rating as this is a very specific essay question as opposed to a general analysis of the play. Zx
Zoe 07.02.2004 13:45
This is an English essay, not a film review sorry Zx
newb00ts 07.02.2004 13:00
Good review but you need more of your own opion in it. Let me know if you re-write