The Feminist Discourse in “Romeo and Juliet”: Challenging Gender Norms
The Gender Divide in “Romeo and Juliet”
“The Feminist Approach in Romeo and Juliet” states, “Men control everything in a woman’s life, and women have little or no say in big decisions in their lives. Women who think for themselves are often punished by fate, usually with death.” In Shakespearean times, this was accurate. Juliet, however, was a character that defied these stereotypical gender roles and rebelled against the patriarchy. Whether Shakespeare deliberately used symbolism to display Juliet’s feminism or not is still up for debate, but subtle indications can be found all throughout the play proving Juliet to be androgynous.
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In this time period, the idea of a woman having any sort of power was unacceptable, so it is arguable that Shakespeare felt the need to portray his opinions on feminism throughout his plays. While there is a large divide between feminine and masculine assets in the play, Juliet’s character actively switches gender roles, acting as Shakespeare’s platform. In reference to the quote above, Juliet’s rebellion against the patriarchy could have been a factor in her death. Shakespeare uses symbolism to demonstrate Juliet’s feminist rebellion because it was not a socially acceptable topic in his time, creating a subtle tone that can potentially influence today’s feminists.
Symbolism of Masculinity and Femininity
In Shakespearean times, certain objects or phrases were associated with femininity and masculinity but are occasionally still used to this day. For example, the medlar fruit is a term that is used in comparison to a woman, determined purely by the way it looks. On page 77, Mercutio states, “Now he’ll sit under a medlar tree and wish his mistress were one of those fruits that look like female genitalia” (Shakespeare). In addition to the medlar fruit, some other terms that collaborate with femininity include poison (considered to be a woman’s way of killing), and flowers, such as roses.
On page 109, the text states, “‘ Pink flower’ suggests the female genitalia” (Shakespeare). As for masculinity, the term “Popperin pear” was commonly used by men, referring to having sex with a woman. Again, on page 77, Mercutio remarks, “Oh Romeo, I wish she were an open-arse, and you a Popperin pear to ‘pop her in,'” showing how Mercutio wants to take Rosaline’s virginity, once again referring to the female genitalia (Shakespeare). Another object that is portrayed through a masculine lens is a knife/sword.
Only men owned one, and it was also seen as a “man’s way of killing.” On page 7, Sampson compares his sword to his penis, saying, “I have my naked sword out” (Shakespeare). Taking this into consideration, it could be said that a man’s sword, symbolizing his penis, takes the life of a woman when he takes her virginity. These terms/objects project a big divide between femininity and masculinity, making an impact on the gender roles in the play.
Greek Mythology and Gender Roles
Furthermore, Greek mythology was a large part of the culture in the time period of Romeo and Juliet, and it also influenced the gender roles of the characters. In addition to feminine/masculine qualities being added to objects, they can also be applied to Greek mythology. The God (masculine) of the Sun is Helios, and the Goddess feminine of the Moon is Selene. On page 79, Romeo declares, “Rise up, beautiful sun, and kill the jealous moon.” This statement shows an indistinct feminist tone because Romeo is telling Juliet to take on a masculine role the sun and kill her feminine role the moon. It is also implied that Juliet is jealous of the role men play in society, exhibited through the phrase “jealous moon.”
Viewing Greek mythology from another standpoint, Shakespeare also conveyed his views on feminism through Diana, the Goddess of chastity and childbirth. “Artemis, in Greek religion, the goddess of wild animals, the hunt, and vegetation, and of chastity and childbirth; she was identified by the Romans as Diana.” (Augustyn). It is believed that Shakespeare alluded to Diana to project his views on the social construct of virginity. On page 25, Romeo states, “She’s as clever as Diana, and shielded by the armor of chastity.” (Shakespeare) Shakespeare is attempting to project his opinions on virginity through Romeo’s character. The reference to Diana was used to elusively show that society should not determine when a woman has sex. Greek mythology functions as symbolism for Shakespeare’s revolt against gender roles.
Night, Day, and Gender Dynamics
Henceforth, when closely analyzing the play Romeo and Juliet, the time at which significant events happened leaves an impression on the gender roles in society. When crucial elements to the plot take place, they always take place at night. At night, there is a complete loss of inhibitions, which leads to a disregard for societal expectations. The gender roles are completely switched during the night, but in the day, they revert to a patriarchal system. On page 89, Juliet replies, “If your intentions as a lover are truly honorable and you want to marry me, send me word tomorrow.
I’ll send a messenger to you, and you can pass on a message telling me where and when we’ll be married.” (Shakespeare). Juliet’s proposal takes place at night and adheres to the gender switch. While a proposal of marriage is typically seen as something a man should do (especially at this time), Juliet takes on the masculine role and does it herself. Shakespeare is actively trying to show Juliet as a character that defies the patriarchy, and a proposal is a significant way to do it. Another instance in which the gender roles are being switched at night occurs on page 269.
Romeo exclaims, “Oh, that pharmacist was honest! His drugs work quickly. So, I die with a kiss.” Romeo, as well as Juliet, commits suicide at night. Romeo killed himself using a feminine strategy, and Juliet killed herself using a masculine strategy (knife). Juliet says, “My body will be your sheath. Rust inside my body and let me die.” Throughout the play, Juliet is compared to light. Since light is typically associated with masculine assets and following societal expectations, Shakespeare wants to show his audience the pressures he was facing to conform to gender roles.
The light that Juliet is being compared to is the same light that Shakespeare is pressured to follow. On page 267, Romeo announces, “Juliet lies here, and her beauty fills this tomb with light.” Also, as mentioned previously, when Juliet is told, “Rise up, beautiful sun, and kill the jealous moon”, It further proves the theory that gender roles are switched at night. The controversy between night and day in Romeo and Juliet confirms the desire to resist the patriarchy, as well as gender roles.
Next, the social construct of virginity is used to keep men in positions of power, but Juliet completely riots against this. The suggestion that Romeo and Juliet had sex strengthens Shakespeare’s feminist character. By not letting the concept of virginity internally impact her, she is going against these men in power. Quora explains, “Shakespeare presents Romeo and Juliet as very passionate, and they spend a night together.
There is a strong implication that they had sex”. It can be concluded that Juliet is disregarding the expectations of sex and virginity for women ages 14-15, further implying her role as a feminist. In the time frame of Romeo and Juliet, sex was something that would potentially end a woman’s life. After a woman had sex, she would go on to have children and become a housewife. “The primary roles of women in the time of William Shakespeare were to marry and have children”.
From that point on, the woman was not to be put in a position of power but to simply serve her husband and take care of the children. Juliet completely contradicts her assigned gender role by having sex at the time she chooses, not because society is pressuring her to do so. This rebellion can be seen on page 7. “Cut off their heads, take their maidenheads-whatever. Take my remark in whichever sense you like”. This statement displays the definition of virginity in the society Romeo and Juliet lived in.
A woman’s maidenhead is more commonly known as her virginity. When Sampson implies that taking a woman’s virginity and cutting off her head is the same thing, he proves Juliet’s rebellion against the patriarchy to be true. Virginity, a social concept created by men to keep themselves in power, proves Juliet to be a feminist because she is exhibiting the fact that having sex does not change a woman, internally or externally.
Lastly, while Juliet is shown as a strong feminist, she also exerts some weaknesses that could potentially cause readers to think she agrees with the patriarchal system she is living within. At this time, it was very easy to fall into the pressures of society, and there is evidence that Juliet collapsed into the way society believes she should live her life. “William Shakespeare was obviously not a feminist, based on the actions and dialogue of his different characters” . There are moments in which Juliet bluntly removes herself from the world of feminism she has created for herself.
On page 211, Juliet remarks, “That may be the case because my face doesn’t belong to me”. This statement proves that Juliet believes she is a man’s property, and the only reason she thinks this is because of the environment in which she was raised. Furthermore, on page 213, Juliet says, “And before I-who was married to Romeo by you-am married to another man, I’ll kill myself”. Juliet is saying that she would rather die than be married to anyone but Romeo. This statement shows how dependent she is on another man, weakening her role as a feminist. While these claims are completely valid, Juliet is a feminist because of the large gender switch in the play and her rebellion against the patriarchy.
Conclusively, Shakespeare uses symbolism to demonstrate Juliet’s feminist rebellion because it was not a socially acceptable topic at the time, creating a subtle tone that can influence today’s feminists. The switch between gender roles can further prove Juliet to be androgynous, meaning she is excluded from either gender role. There are many platforms in which William Shakespeare portrayed his feminist views, including feminine/masculine objects, Greek mythology, dark vs. night, and the social construct of virginity. The large split between feminine and masculine assets is quite evident in the play, and Juliet accentuates it with pride.
- Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Public Domain.
- Augustyn, A. (n.d.). Artemis. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Artemis-Greek-goddess
- Hodgson, N. (n.d.). What Were the Gender Roles in Romeo and Juliet? Quora. Retrieved from https://www.quora.com/What-were-the-gender-roles-in-Romeo-and-Juliet
- Roles of Women in the Time of William Shakespeare. Reference. Retrieved from https://www.reference.com/history/roles-women-time-william-shakespeare-569fc13350233ef6
- Rumstadt, K. (n.d.). Was Shakespeare a Feminist? Pen and The Pad. Retrieved from https://penandthepad.com/was-shakespeare-a-feminist-12078927.html