The Bard is undoubtedly one of the most famous, if not the most famous, authors of all time. Shakespeare is credited with publishing 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and inventing over 1,700 words still used today. Arguably his most famous work, Romeo and Juliet, is still regarded as a classic alongside more modern works like The Catcher in the Rye and War and Peace, almost four hundred twenty years later. Although this play is viewed as a timeless classic, Shakespeare’s gender portrayals of both men and women in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet are not only negative and demeaning, but they are unfit, inappropriate, and incredibly dated in a modern world and have no place in a classroom without the proper curriculum surrounding it.
To many, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is viewed as one of the few be-all- end-alls of classic literature. Perhaps it is because, in a skewed way, love won out. Or in relation to love, maybe to some, the overwhelming hate draws them to this play. To some, the dramatic, quick-thinking and at times, outlandish characters are motivation enough to call this play timeless. After all, witty banter between the Montagues and Capulets and beautiful sonnets from Juliet and Romeo could bring someone back again and again to this play. On the note of language, it could possibly, and most likely is, solely the genius of the Bard himself, William Shakespeare. Arguably, no man or woman has had a greater and more eloquent command of the English language than he. The aforementioned banter between both houses and the poetry between two lovers would not have existed without Shakespeare’s wit.
Inarguably, Shakespeare’s skill and intelligence shines through in his work. While Shakespeare is a genius in regards to the English language, his portrayals of women in Romeo and Juliet are far from that. Juliet, as a title character, of course receives the most of this tired outlook on gender. After the slaying of her cousin Tybalt, by her lover, no less, she unquestioningly remains loyal to Romeo instead of her family. Juliet says “Did Romeo’s hand shed Tybalt’s blood?.. That villain cousin would have killed my husband.
Back, foolish tears, back to your native spring, your tributary drops belong to woe, which you mistaking offer up to joy” (Shakespeare 3.2. 71-104). Although this may seem mundane, it is not at all. By employing the fact that Juliet remains more loyal to her lover of a single day than to her family of twelve years, Shakespeare has played into the common thought that it is a woman’s duty to be loyal to her husband over anything and everything else. Throughout the play, Romeo dramatically influences Juliet. Towards the beginning of this tragedy, Juliet is seen as an incredibly intelligent character, even compared to most adults in the play.
This is demonstrated by her wit and command of words. She has a beautiful use of language, which is evident throughout the whole play. Shakespeare did not create Juliet’s understanding of language by accident. It is intentional, because it demonstrates both her level of maturity and intelligence. Yet in the two days that Juliet knew Romeo, she became unfailingly impulsive and immature. These two traits are drastically out of character for Juliet. This leads an audience or reader to believe that love and sex, to women, is an overpowering force that can turn even the most mature, intelligent females into vapid, sexually motivated, incapable of separating feelings for other people and complex thought. The only other somewhat prominent female character, the nurse, is put in several uncomfortable situations relating to gender and sex, but as she does not have a love interest, the reader is less privy to that aspect of her life than they are to Juliet’s.
For this reason, it is more challenging to analyze the nurse through this lens, but it is definitely not impossible. The most notable seen regarding this theme relating to the nurse occurs in the streets of Verona. The nurse is out looking for Romeo, when she finds him along with Mercutio and Benvolio. Mercutio, already making sexual puns before her entrance, now directs this towards her.
When the nurse asks him the time he responds that “the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” (Shakespeare 2.4 92-93). This is innuendo for sexual intercourse. Less significantly, the nurse is characterized as being somewhat slow and dimwitted. For example, the first time that the audience is introduced to the nurse, she is telling a story about Juliet as a child.
She cannot get through the story and it very much feeds into her negative characterization in that it makes her seem dim. Overall, women in the play are treated as objects who are legitimized by men. There are no female role models in the play, but with all fairness, there are arguably little to no male ones either. While women get a lot of mistreatment in the play, men arguably get more, as the play has more male characters than female. Just as Juliet was a title character and therefore received the most of this mistreatment, the same of course applies to Romeo. Romeo, most notably is influenced and motivated by women and sex. At the beginning of the play, Romeo is immensely disappointed because Rosaline, the woman who he, at the time, “loves”, “hath sworn that she will… live chaste,” and therefore cannot engage in a physical relationship with Romeo (Shakespeare 1.1 208-209).
He, throughout the play, is also only conscious of Juliet’s outer, physical beauty. Even when he mistakenly thinks that Juliet is dead, he only comments on her beauty. While speaking his final words to her before drinking his poison, he sees that, “Death, that hath sucked the honey of Juliet’s breath,” has had “no power yet upon her beauty” (Shakespeare 5.3 92-93). Romeo is also concerned with his masculinity. For example, when Mercutio dies, he thinks that loving Juliet has made him less brave and slower to fight. He thinks that he did not defend Mercutio because “Juliet’s beauty hath made him effeminate, and in his temper softened valor’s steel” (Shakespeare 3.1 105-106).
Romeo blames Juliet for supposedly giving him more feminine traits, causing him to restrain himself from defending Mercutio, and therefore, blaming himself for Mercutio’s death. This is a direct affront to Romeo’s honor.Although Capulet is not a main character, the audience gets a glimpse of his characteristics and mannerisms in regard to his interactions with Juliet. Capulet is seen initially as a kind and progressive father, telling Paris that he must win Juliet’s heart. Ultimately though, the reader learns that Capulet is cruel and quick to anger. When Juliet tells Capulet that she does not want to marry Paris and instead Romeo, Capulet becomes furious.
He is angered by the fact that Juliet is disrespecting his word, and by extension his honor. Overall, in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, men are portrayed as violent beings, using fighting as a first defense for anything and everything. All men who die do so because of honor, valor, or violence, which plays into the sexist view that men cannot help but act with their primal instincts when it comes to sex or violence.
Most importantly, men in this play constantly reduce women to sexual objects. Women and female virginity are often used as the butts of jokes. For example, two servants of the house of Capulet, Sampson and Gregory, are talking in the streets of Verona. Sampson tells Gregory that after he has fought with Montague’s men, he will “thrust his maids to the wall… and cut off their… maidenheads,” since women are “the weaker vessels” (Shakespeare 1.1 14-22). Notably, men, as previously illustrated, are concerned with their honor. This is evident in both Romeo’s reaction to Mercutio’s death and Capulet’s reaction to Juliet refusing to marry Paris.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet raises many problematic notes on modern concepts of gender. Objectification theory states that “many women are sexually objectified and treated as an object to be valued for its use”. Objectification occurs when a woman is viewed as something existent solely for male sexual gratification. Often, women will subconsciously internalize the ways that they have been objectified by others. This leads to women treating themselves as objects that are only worth their appearance. Frighteningly enough, research shows that objectification in the form of stranger-harassment, just like that of the nurse in the streets of Verona, can create anxiety in women with fears of victimization and rape. Objectification and self-objectification both have serious medical problems associated with them. Some of these symptoms include anxiety, shame, sexual dysfunction, reduced productivity, eating disorders, and depression (Szymanski, Dawn M, et al.
7).In Romeo and Juliet, the ideas of masculinity, dominance, and honor, and more specifically, how these traits make a man strong, are more than prominent. This is heavily illustrated by Romeo. On multiple occasions, he’s concerned not only with his honor, but how that relates to his lack of femininity as well. Both of these are displayed in the aftermath of Mercutio’s death. Arguably, in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio’s death is the pinnacle of desired masculinity and the perfect example of the consequences that can come from not fitting that standard. Although this play may make it seem as if honor and masculine dominance are ingrained in a male’s brain, this is far from true. Despite the fact that some argue that masculine violence is anthropological and hormonal, and therefore cannot be changed, evidence suggests that it is purely enforced by culture and society (Spierenberg 37).
Many professionals in the field of men’s studies agree that violence and honor, often a society’s idea of platonic masculinity, is in fact a manifestation of that society in and of itself. Just like in Romeo and Juliet, modern societies “which have pronounced notions of honor and shame” often inforce the idea that true male greatness is determined by both strength and “forceful responses to insult” (Spierenberg 2). As Gini and Pozzoli write, men are often characterized by “independence, self-affirmation, risk-taking, social dominance, and aggressiveness,” and while, as previously stated, these stereotypes of males are present in adults, the newest research shows that cultural stigma influences boys as young as three. The goal of the following experiment performed by Gianluca Gini and Tiziana Pozzoli of the Department of Developmental and Socialization Psychology at the University of Padova, Padova, Italy was intended to assess “the possible relation between masculinity and bullying in elementary-school children.
” Ultimately, the experiment did prove that there is a correlation between masculinity and bullying. While some girls did admit to a form of bullying, overall, boys overwhelmingly stated that they had bullied someone. By extension, it can be argued that a society that endorses traditional ideas of masculinity endorse bullying.Because of issues surrounding gender such as female objectification, the enforcement of traditional masculinity and honor, and the violence that said enforcement may cause, Romeo and Juliet should not be taught in schools without a corresponding gender studies curriculum. In Romeo and Juliet, women are often reduced to sexual objects. As previously discussed, in the streets of Verona, Sampson and Gregory discuss taking women and thrusting them to the wall to take their maidenheads. As the term maidenhead is synonymous with virginity, this statement reduces women to objects that exist solely for sexual gratification. Since objectification comes with a slew of health risks, a play that showcases it frequently should not be taught in a casual way.
One of the major issues of showcasing female sexualization in this light, is that it teaches impressionable young girls and women, in a classroom setting none the less, that this kind of objectification is alright. Even if these women come to the conclusion that sexualization is flattering, it has been shown that even women who find objectification complementary still unknowingly internalize these thoughts (Rooney, “The Effects of Sexual Objectification on Women’s Mental Health”). This causes self-objectification, which raises all the same issues that objectification from an outside source causes. While it is obviously a problem that a play that has a consistent theme of objectification is being taught to young females, another major problem is that it is teaching very negative things to boys.
If young men are taught that sexualization in this way is appropriate, this play will just breed bad things for the women that these young men will one day interact with in a more adult setting. On the note of these young men, Romeo and Juliet overemphasizes the importance of honor and its alleged strong correlation to true masculinity. As previously stated, these traits, when emphasized by a society or culture, for example, in most English curriculums, show a skewed representation of what it means to be a man. The idea that a true man proves himself by being courageous and honorable at all costs, even if that leads to violence, should not be enforced. Violence breeds violence, as the experiment regarding masculinity and its role in bullying demonstrates.
In a society where an almost archaic stereotype of masculinity exists and, even worse, is encouraged, bullying at the hands of young boys increases due to the desire to showcase these “desirably” masculine traits. Because of all the negative things that this play can do to both men and women, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet has no place in a classroom without the appropriate corresponding curriculum. Children and adolescents should not be taught this play without a syllabus that shows them that while Romeo and Juliet may be a beautiful story, it is ultimately unrealistic and the standard it provides for the proper treatment of both men and women is wrong. If a class isolates this work without teaching its themes in a modern context, even if unintentional, this does a great disservice to the students. Students should not only be taught this Shakespearean work, but how it relates to modern men’s and women’s studies. Psychology, including that of gender studies, like all other fields of study, is forever changing.
Works like The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet should not be taught with the psychological or historical backbone of the time of their publication, but the study surrounding it should instead change given the modern developments of research in regards to its themes. Just like the vast majority of William Shakespeare’s work, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is a beautiful, funny, and sadly, ultimately disheartening story. While the Bard, in this regard may be a genius, Romeo and Juliet showcases negative aspects of gender in an inappropriately positive light. From encouraging objectification, to endorsing archaic stigmas surrounding masculinity, this play highlights traits that do not have a place in a classroom. If the proper curriculum regarding masculinity and femininity does not surround Romeo and Juliet, a new generation of students is learning the most negative aspects of gender and both marginalization and mistreatment because of it.
While many aspects of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet have withstood the test of time, gender stereotypes in this play have not.