Posted: March 11th, 2022
Gender in Romeo and Juliet
Judith Lorber, author of “Night to his Day: The Social Construction of Gender” asserts that gender is not biologically determined, but is a construct of society. This would indicate that the process of socialization is a prime determinant in the development of gender. In other words, how a child is raised will determine his or her gender-based behavior. With this theory in mind, it is interesting to examine traditional gender roles in literature; to examine how literature of the past treated the traditional roles of male and female. William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous works of literature in Western culture. It was written around the end of the 1500’s, at a time when actors were exclusively male, and therefore all the women’s roles would have been played by men. This alone would be enough to base a discussion on the traditional gender roles in society, but a more intensive look into the play will shed even more light on the role of the depiction of gender at that time. With Lorber’s theory that gender is a product of socialization, the role of gender in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet will be discussed.
The esteemed sociologist Judith Lorber claims that “gender cannot be equated with biological and physiological differences between human females and males. The building blocks of gender are socially constructed statuses.” (Lorber 17) It is society that defines gender, and the behavior associated with it, and in Western society there are two genders: male and female. How individuals that are male and female behave is a learned process called socialization, which begins in childhood and develops fully as one reaches adulthood. It is society that both expects and defines what gender is, and once it has been ascribed, “the social order constructs and holds individuals to strongly gendered norms and expectations.” (Lorber 25 )
While Lorber demonstrated that gender is a social construct, she also demonstrated that gender is not always the same in all cultures. While some cultures blur the distinction between male and female, Western culture has created a tradition of only the two genders. This tradition has been a strongly held belief and attempts to cross the traditional boundaries have been vigorously opposed. Western culture strictly enforces the traditional genders roles that have been developed in order to create a clear and well defined separation between the two genders. One way to investigate the traditional roles of gender in society is to study the literature of that society, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet provides a good example of the traditional roles of gender in Western literature, as well as a few surprises.
The traditional role of gender, as it was perceived during the Renaissance era, is best exemplified by a quote from Sampson, one of the Capulet’s servants, when he stated “And therefore women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall; therefore I will push Montague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall.” (I, i, 16-20) Men were strong and brave while women were considered to be weak and existed only for male sexual gratification. Shortly thereafter, Sampson again displays the traditional gender role of a male, masculinity, by challenging one of the Capulet’s stating “Draw, if you be men.” (I, i, 64) Men were traditionally strong, courageous, sexually promiscuous, and masculine. Men were also expected to be able to withstand pain and hardship. After Mercutio is fatally injured and lay dying, Romeo demonstrated this trait of masculinity by telling his dying friend, “courage man, the hurt cannot be much.” (III, i, 96)
But Romeo and Juliet is a love story, and traditionally when a man fell in love, as with Romeo, he was considered by many to be unmanly, and contrary to the definition of masculinity. For instance, infatuation, or an immature attraction to another, was considered shallow and transitory as exemplified by Friar Lawrence’s scolding of Romeo for his infatuation of Rosaline. Because Romeo was clearly infatuated, and behaving in an unmanly way, the Friar chastised Romeo for his lack of strength, “women may fall when there’s no strength in men.” (II, iii, 85) It would seem that it was unacceptable for a man to dote on, or to be slavishly controlled by woman.
On the other hand, women were seen at this time as physically weak, emotionally unstable, and intellectually inferior. Juliet, at the beginning of the play, conforms to these expectations; mostly because she is just 13 years old and only then reaching the age of maturity where gender roles are expected to be followed. She lives in her father’s house, is subject to his jurisdiction and control, and is expected to marry whom he decides. However, during the play Juliet eventually rejects these behavioral norms that she has been raised to observe, and disobeys her father’s wishes by marrying Romeo. (II, v,) She demonstrates emotional strength and intelligence, traits that are not traditionally assigned to females.
The play Romeo and Juliet provides numerous examples of how gender is learned through a process of socialization. The setting for the story is Renaissance Italy, a place where traditional gender roles were strictly enforced. By their very actions, the characters of the play demonstrate how their behavior was influenced through socialization, as well as part of the socialization process for other, younger members of society. Men were supposed to be tough, strong, able to endure pain, and to fight well. But when Romeo displays behavior that is considered unmanly, the Friar chastises him for his “womanly behavior.” Romeo then goes on to display this manliness when his friend dies, telling his in effect, to “endure the pain and die like a man.”
But it is not only masculinity that is expressed by the characters, but femininity as well. Juliet, a young adolescent girl, tries to behave in the manner that society has taught her. She tries to be demure, weak, and intellectually unimpressive, but her natural tendencies force her to reject those values. She is not weak, demure, or stupid, but a robust, intelligent and emotionally strong woman who defied her father, married her true love, and planned an elaborate scheme to get away from her family.
While Romeo attempts to conform to the gender role placed upon him by society, Juliet attempts to break free of those constraints. Romeo tries to be strong and masculine, but fails and eventually takes his own life when he believes that Juliet has died. This is considered the ultimate womanly thing to do, to fall apart over a woman. But Juliet, who successfully escaped her gender role, then found that her attempt to do so had also failed, as the man whom she loved had killed himself over her. Romeo tied to conform to his gender role while Juliet tried to break free of hers, In the end they were unable to accomplish their goals, and this is why the play is considered to be a tragedy.
Lorber, Judith. “Night to his Day.” Paradoxes of Gender. New Haven: Yale UP. 1994.
Shakespeare, William. “Romeo and Juliet Script.” Scribd. Web. 13 July 2011. http://www.scribd.com/doc/13433084/Romeo-Juliet-Script
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