In William Shakespeare’s famous play, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, there are many themes and factors present. These contribute to the fated tragedy at the end, one being social expectations revolving around gender. Romeo and Juliet challenge these expectations individually as characters and introduce traits of the opposite gender. This brings their love together, though later attempts to conform to social norms contribute to their condemned fate. Juliet’s decision of marrying Romeo and arguing with her father, Romeo killing Tybalt in a street brawl, and the overall Montague and Capulet family feud are all occasions of when Shakespeare has incorporated and challenged the social expectations resolving gender in Romeo and Juliet.
In the Elizabethan Era, women were passed on from man to man to fulfil the duty of bearing children. They were raised to a certain age and those younger than Juliet were “happy mothers made” (I.ii.12). This concept of female inferiority and objectification was widespread amongst literature, but Shakespeare often made his female characters strong and independent and introduced character development over the course of the play. Regardless, the females always end up inferior. In Act I, scene ii, Paris asks Lord Capulet for Juliet’s hand in marriage. Capulet does not give a straight answer and instead says that Juliet has every right to choose her man for herself, “My will to her consent is but a part” (I.ii.15), though his power to force marriage upon her is implicitly present. He tells Paris to’woo her… [and] get her heart’ At this point, it can be inferred that he is very attached to Juliet and finds her immaturity an excuse to not agree with Paris’ proposal. This excuse indicates that Capulet loves Juliet a lot and wants her to marry the man that steals her heart. Juliet’s submissiveness also shows that she is also the perfect daughter, ‘But no more deep will I endart mine eye / Than your consent gives strength to make it fly’ (i.III.100). Towards the end, however, Juliet starts to depict a growth of intelligence and emotional strength, breaking away from the gender norms and arguing with her father. When she finds out that her father decided to agree to Paris’ proposal, Juliet retaliates and tries to voice her thoughts, as she is already secretly married and cannot legally be allowed to marry again. Upon hearing her do so, Capulet’s attitude takes a complete 180° and berates her, “hang thee, young baggage! Disobedient wretch!” (III.iv.160). His anger brings out his dominance and he declares his ownership of Juliet, “An you be mine,” and objectifies her as an item of trade, “I give you to my friend” (III. iv. 193). His words make Juliet feel threatened and weak and evoke a temptation of rebellion. As an act of mutiny towards the unfair deeds bestowed upon her. Juliet uses her wits and goes to Friar Laurence to declare herself dead to the world, but alive to Romeo. Her impulsive actions lead to the fatal misunderstanding which results in the tragedy. Had Capulet not berated her and had he not forced the marriage upon Juliet, there would be no tragedy and Romeo and Juliet’s love could have flourished.
When Romeo falls in love with Juliet, he tries to make peace with the Capulet’s and prove himself to them. This can be seen in Act III, scene i, when there is another fight between the Capulet and Montague men. Here, Tybalt approaches Benvolio and Mercutio, who are deep in conversation, to ask of the whereabouts of Romeo. He does so to fight him for coming to the Capulet Ball. As he is a Montague, Mercutio is naturally aggravated and does not give Tybalt a straight response, instead provokes him further. Romeo, “[Tybalt’s] man” (III.i.27), enters and is put on the spot when Tybalt tries to stir up a fight, “thou art a villain… turn and draw”. Seeing Romeo give a “calm dishonourable, vile submission” (III.i.44), Mercutio takes up the offer to fight, with Romeo consequently trying to make peace. It is a common belief to think that girls/women are the peacemakers, so when Shakespeare made Romeo try to break up the fight, it was out of the norm. He also continuously tries to pacify the situation by saying that he “[loves Tybalt] better than [he] canst devise” (III.i.40) and that no amount of hurtful comments could change that. This makes Romeo a more feminine character. All these actions are soon contradicted, however, when he kills Tybalt to take avenge of Mercutio’s murder. This event shows Romeo breaking out of his feminine ‘phase’ and becoming masculine again. The death of Tybalt led to more hate between the families and, more importantly, Capulet’s decision to marry Juliet to Paris.
Social expectations about gender have contributed to the tragedy and the Montague and Capulet family feud is an example of when this has occurred. This “ancient grudge” (prologue) provides both households’ ‘masters and [their] men'(I.i) a reason to resent each other. There is no specific start to the feud but both Montagues’ and Capulets’ stubbornness and attempt to be ‘manly’ worsens it. Their speech represents their abhorrence and this can be seen in Act I, scene i, through Gregory and Sampson’s exchange. Sampson and Gregory are both servants of the Capulet household. Here, Gregory can be seen telling Sampson that it is hard to make him angry, ‘thou art not quickly moved to strike’ (I.i.6). To this, Sampson responds by saying that ‘[any] dog of the house of Montague moves [him]’ (I.i.7). Society expected men to be strong, willing to fight at any threat and defend their family’s honour. If they didn’t do so, they would be called ‘coward[s]’ (I.i.63). This expectation is seen later in Act I, scene i, when a fight breaks out between the two households. Their resentment for each other is obvious and they aren’t afraid to yell it out, ‘As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee’. The fight is worsened when Lord Capulet takes Lord Montague’s actions as an invitation to fight, ‘Old Montague is come, And flourishes his blade in spite of me’. This anger and hatred provides a reason why Romeo and Juliet’s love is forbidden and will never be accepted. If it weren’t for the feud, there would be no need to hide the marriage. Consequently, Friar Laurence would not have to find a way that would let Romeo and Juliet be together (i.e. faking Juliet’s death), leading to the tragic outcome of his decision.
Overall, Romeo and Juliet are greatly affected by societal expectations based on gender. These expectations are evident within the play and all contribute to the tragedy. Not only do they provide a challenge for Romeo and Juliet’s love, but they also challenge social views at the time. Through Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare has shown how society’s perception of matters can lead to many problems.