In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, while it may seem unlikely because of the historical time, Shakespeare is most sympathetic to a young woman protagonist, Juliet. This is apparent through his unusual treatment of the tragic figure, how he stacks the play against her parents, and his choice to make Juliet the main character.
Romeo and Juliet don’t die because of their own character flaws as usually occurs with tragic heroes; it is in fact their parents who have the hamartia that drives the play to its tragic conclusions. Unlike in the play Antigone, where it is Creon’s stubbornness and unwillingness to listen to reason from other sources that leads to him losing his son’s life, Romeo and Juliet have much less blame for their own deaths, as it was not their own persistent character flaws, but other people’s actions which created the situation that eventually forced them into desperate actions.
It is described as such from the beginning of the play, when the prologue summarizes the action as being that of two houses with an ancient grudge that is never buried until their children’s deaths, and is reiterated in the end of the play when the Prince says, “Capulet! Montague! See what a scourge is laid upon your hate, that heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.” The blame here is being laid squarely on the parents’ quarrel as the underlying cause of the tragedy.
Furthermore, Shakespeare chose to have Juliet’s parents play the antagonist’s parts; the text sides against them through the voices of reason that are present, mainly the friar and the prince. When Romeo goes to the friar soon after he has first seen Juliet, the friar berates him, saying he doted on, but didn’t love, his past obsession Rosaline, and seems not to believe that Romeo’s feelings are anything but a youth’s whims. Yet he decides to do as Romeo asks and marry Romeo and Juliet, because he hopes that “this alliance may so happy prove, to turn your households rancour to pure love.”
The Prince’s disdain for the houses’ continual grudge is evident from the beginning, when he breaks up a fight to say that the next brawl between them would have the perpetrators executed. The criticism becomes more personal when Capulet learns of Juliet’s refusal to marry Paris; he becomes wroth and curses her terribly, drawing even the disapproval of Juliet’s mother and her Nurse, who are neither of them very strong or principled. On the other hand, Romeo’s parents—whom you might assume should have equal space dealt to them—are almost entirely absent from the play; this works to bring Juliet’s struggle with her parents front and center.
Through these and other choices in crafting the play and its focus, it is clear that Juliet is being presented as the main character. Her arc is the most intimately connected with that of the antagonists; the climax of the play revolves around the results of her actions and it is her choices that drive the plot, whereas Romeo’s choices are mostly (and moreso after he meets Juliet) entirely made in reaction to others’ actions.
As noted, Juliet is the character with the clearest personal arc, connected with agency—something that keeps being denied her by her parents and her position. This is shown throughout the play with the choice of details and story-arc, but is also drawn attention to explicitly in the text, for example in the prologue to act two, which says that Juliet was “as much in love [as Romeo], her means much less to meet her new-beloved any where.” It is also clear in the scenes that deal with events after Romeo is banished and she has to marry Paris; the problem takes center-stage, as Juliet finds her possible allies (her mother and her nurse) betraying her, and she resolves to do whatever she can to stay her course: “I’ll to the friar, to know his remedy: if all else fail, myself have power to die.”
Some see this as an act of desperation but it and her subsequent drinking of the death-sleep potion is treated as a heroic act; when the friar tells her about the potion and the way she can use this to escape he says it will “free thee from this present shame [of having to marry Paris]; if no inconstant toy, nor womanish fear, abate thy valour in the acting it.”
“O, tell me not of fear!” Juliet replies, and crucially, in the next scene in which, alone in her bedchamber, Juliet prepares to take the potion, it is clear she is deathly afraid, yet she goes through with the act; nothing else in the play is presented as something so difficult yet heroic, and no one else in the play has a scene that parallels hers in focus.
Her situation is throughout the play more highlighted in a continuous manner out of the two protagonists; after Romeo is banished, the play follows her struggles with her family and the actions that she planned with the Friar, while Romeo’s situation is not switched back to until after she’s completed the deception and Romeo gets the terrible news, thinking she’s really dead. Even then, none of what Romeo did in Mantua in the interim is expanded upon, as it has no bearing on the story.
Romeo is the first of the two to be introduced, but Juliet is the last to die; in comparison, consider how Hamlet was the last to die in Hamlet (besides Horatio, who is the “I have to explain things at the end” character), and how Macbeth died after Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. As the Prince says with the last and final words of the play, “Never was a story more of woe / than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
Thus, Shakespeare shows that his sympathies lie with Juliet. The deft and unexpected handling of the tragic figure; the indictment of her parents through the voices of other characters; and his choice to make her the central character and protagonist, putting Romeo in the role of love-interest, all conspire to create an unconventional experience for play-goers. Such sympathies are to some degree even unusual for a Hollywood movie today. Shakespeare’s vision in this play extends beyond his time.
Photo by Pilot Theater, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Sara Barkat.