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The Theme of Resisting Social Pressure in William Shakespeare's and Jane Austen's Works

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French sociologist Émile Durkheim believes “Social factors are not only external to the individual but are, moreover, endowed with coercive power, by virtue of which one impose themselves upon”. However, while individuals arise from social interactions and relationships, beliefs, values, and moral obligations may appear as matters of personal will. In Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the star-crossed lovers are hindered by the enmity between their households, misfortunes, and arguably, their own lack of faith. Drastically different in mood, Shakespeare’s other play ‘As You Like It’ depicts the story of Rosalind and Orlando, who along with three other pairs of lovers, escape the oppressive French court and find love and peace in the wonderland, Forest of Arden. Jane Austen, in her last novel ‘Persuasion’, also explores individual’s power against external pressure on one’s love life through the protagonist Anne Elliot. Although social forces threatens the three pairs of lovers in different ways, and the results of their love stories vary significantly, both Shakespeare and Austen suggest that individuals are capable of directing the results of their love.

Probably the most renowned tragic love story of all time, William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is often seen as a paradigm of failure of love and desire due to reigning demands of familial and social customs. Indeed, the long standing quarrel between the houses of Montague and Capulet is stated from the very beginning: “from ancient grudge break to new mutiny where civil blood makes civil hands unclean” (Prologue). Later on, the deeply engrained hatred leads to multiple murders, tearing the already-fragile lovers further apart. Ultimately, several unfortunate timings and misunderstandings push Romeo and Juliet to death. At first glance, it may seem reasonable to entirely blame the two families for their ruthlessness. However, while the familial feud may initiated the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, it should not be seen as the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Romeo and Juliet did not die solely as an expiation to social pressure, but also their own deficiencies of being youths. Throughout the play, Shakespeare illustrates multiple instances to indicate the dichotomy between the lover’s inner belief and practice in reality.

On one side, both teenager display rash, impetuous, and overly optimistic characteristics from the beginning of the play. Romeo enters the Capulet ball uninvited, climbs to the balcony of a girl he just met, involves himself in bloody fight and eventually slays Tybalt. Juliet, on the other hand, deceives Paris and her family, marries Romeo without consultation, and kills herself despite feeling “Romeo’s lips are still warm!” (5. 3. 168). Not to say immediately following one’s intuition is an act of immaturity, people do pay severe price for making decisions on the spur of the moment. Additionally, Romeo, instead of using logic and reason, displays an overly optimistic attitude towards his love with Juliet throughout the play. In the dream during his exile, Romeo confesses his love: “Ah me! How sweet is love it possessed, when but love’s shadows are so rich in joy!” (5. 1. 10-11). In other words, knowing all the dangers and uncertainties ahead, Romeo still believe in the minor chance of miracles in his result with Juliet. He is essentially fantasizing risk, weighing their love to see if it has the power that he thought has possessed in his dream.

However, while both Romeo and Juliet are heavily consumed by passion, they lack of grounding faith in the practice of their religious love. Without realizing that taking love to a religious dimension can put themselves at risk, Romeo and Juliet ultimately confront each other in front of Juliet’s death bed. At this stage, all Romeo needs is a little more faith beyond reason and external voices for one moment longer. In his last monologue, Romeo already observes that “Death…hath no power yet upon [Juliet’s] beauty”, “[Juliet] art not conquer’d”, and the “crimson in [Juliet’s] lips and cheeks” (5. 3. 93-95). He undergoes an internal battle of whether to “believe that unsubstantial death is amorous”, and even decides to “still will stay with [Juliet]” for a moment, yet ultimately kills himself (5. 3. 103-106). Here, in contrast with the fantastical dream he had, Romeo actually turns against his belief that their love is stronger than the world when it comes to real life decisions. If Romeo set himself independent from those who tend to destroy their relationships, their religious love may have triumphed after all. Therefore, instead of claiming the cause of their death solely to family, society, or even fortune, Romeo and Juliet’s doubleness of definitely finally takes way their chances of living.

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To further acknowledge the power of individual’s strength over social forces in love relationships, Shakespeare even have the lovers in ‘As You Like It’ to create a society of their own. Before Orlando and Rosalind escaped to the Forest of Arden, both of them live in an oppressive duchy usurped by Rosalind’s uncle, Duke Frederick. On top of the tyrant, Orlando also lives under the shadow his homicidal brother, Oliver. In the beginning of the play, Orlando describes his situation as “the spirit of my father, which is within me begins to mutiny against this servitude” (1.1.23). The struggle presented by Orlando here is similar to the “new mutiny where civil blood makes civil hands unclean” in the beginning of Romeo and Juliet. In addition, the conflict between Orlando and Oliver resonates Romeo’s speech before he kills Tybalt: “this day’s black fate on more days doth depend; This but begins the woe others must end” (3. 1. 118-119). In this sense, the court full of treachery and backstabbing in ‘As You Like It’ is comparable to the city of Verona in Romeo and Juliet, yet the two protagonists manage to escape. The society they formed in the Forest of Arden is later remarked by American critic Harold Bloom as “the best place to live…where all can give free rein to themselves, given the forest supposedly free nature, they’re outside the court, they’re out in the nature you might want to assume that love there is going to find free expression that it can’t find at court.” For instance, coming out from the midst of fear and hatred, Orlando starts to freely express his love through poems. Although his childish language and simple rhyme schemes is often regarded as “poorly written”, its naiveness and genuine definitely set his state apart from the brutal court, and eventually caught Rosalind’s heart.

To a lesser degree, traditional gender norms also appear as an obstacle between Orlando and Rosalind. Orlando is presented with great disparity from traditional ideal of masculinity, which stresses intelligence and power. Begin as an inexperienced lover who writes sloppy poems, Orlando grows throughout the play and wins Rosalind’s love with sincerity. On the other hand, when Rosalind first escapes the court, she disguises herself to a man “Ganymede” for fear of “danger will be to us…Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold” (1. 3. 105-107). Both characters clearly challenge the gender norms established by the society, but nevertheless fell in love with each other. Later in the play, Rosalind describes Orlando as “wicked bastard of Venus that was begot of thought”, “conceived of spleen”, “born of madness”, and “that blind rascally boy that abuses every one’s eyes because his own are out”, but also admits that “…[Orlando] didst know hoe many fathom deep I am in love!…I cannot be out of the sight of Orlando” (4.1.194-203). Therefore, with their courage to escape, determination for a better world, open mind and compassion, loves can overcome social pressure, misconception, and prejudice. Ending ‘As You Like It’ with four exuberantly festive marriages, Shakespeare indeed expands the contrast and the possibilities for the development of relationships between the two worlds.

Without escaping to a wonderland, love can also triumph social forces. Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ suggests that despite being separated for eight years, one can still find love back over time by developing their own voices. At the beginning of the novel, Austen emphasizes Anne’s quietness and insignificance through contrast with her dominant family members, notably her father Sir Walter Elliot who “speak only to defer or to be deferred to” (Chp. 1). As a caricature of the novel, he seems solely concerned with names, titles, lineage and appearance. Furthermore, Lady Russell, as a close friend of Lady Elliot, only appreciate Anne’s voice when “she could fancy the mother to revive again” (Chp. 1). As Anne’s advisor, she had a value for rank and consequence, which blinds her to the faults of those who possessed them. Through the intimate family members who privilege external markers over love itself, Austen demonstrates how concern for social standing inhibits perception. The belief not only impedes Anne and Wentworth’s love for each other, but their own ability to love as well. As the result, Anne was persuaded to give up her love for Wentworth when she was nineteen.

Eight years later, Anne’s part in conversation goes through a magnificent development. She speaks into herself when being in society, in conversation and in love life. Notably, even Sir Walter Elliot who previously took little notice of Anne commented her: “less thin in her person…her complexion, greatly improved – clearer, fresher”. In the final reunion scene with Wentworth, Anne defends her love for him passionately: “All the privilege I claim for my own sex…is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone”. As Wentworth overhears Anne’s confession, he responds with a love letter that brings their reunion to completion. Certainly, Austen does not suggests that our choices in life include freedom to act independently of any wider obligations. However, through the twisting love story of Anne and Wentworth, Austen shows that lost love can be found again with hope, confidence, perseverance, independence, and development of inner strength.

No individuals can exist without accompany, and both Shakespeare and Austen seem to agree that society often exert powerful force in romantic relationships. Whether it is familial feud, challenge to traditional gender norms, class differences, or other obstacles, both authors emphasize individual’s personal strength and development for the triumph of their love. While accidents do happen, faith, courage, perseverance, independence, and confidence are the virtues that will ultimately prepare one for the uncertainties ahead. When one grow as an individual, they become a better lover as well.

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The Theme of Resisting Social Pressure in William Shakespeare’s and Jane Austen’s Works. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-theme-of-resisting-social-pressure-in-william-shakespeares-and-jane-austens-works/
“The Theme of Resisting Social Pressure in William Shakespeare’s and Jane Austen’s Works.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/the-theme-of-resisting-social-pressure-in-william-shakespeares-and-jane-austens-works/
The Theme of Resisting Social Pressure in William Shakespeare’s and Jane Austen’s Works. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-theme-of-resisting-social-pressure-in-william-shakespeares-and-jane-austens-works/> [Accessed 3 Feb. 2023].
The Theme of Resisting Social Pressure in William Shakespeare’s and Jane Austen’s Works [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 25 [cited 2023 Feb 3]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-theme-of-resisting-social-pressure-in-william-shakespeares-and-jane-austens-works/
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