The Enigma of Juliet: Shakespeare’s Heroine

MAY / JUNE 2012: BY SHANNON H.

romeojuliet

A LOVELORN TEENAGE girl stands at her balcony one evening, gushing over the handsome stranger she has met at a masquerade ball that same night. She speaks nothing but open admiration for the man in question, Romeo Montague, despite the fact that their families have locked horns in a never-ending feud. Romeo, having fled the masquerade, finds himself hidden in Juliet’s garden and at the same time, hears his name from the lips of his lady love: “Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

This is the famous quote from one of William Shakespeare’s most beloved characters, Juliet Capulet, from the play Romeo & Juliet. The idea of Juliet has permeated literature, entertainment, and our culture of romance ever since. Some single women pine to be Juliet in search of their Romeo. Very seldom do women strive to emulate Jane Eyre in search of a Mr. Edward Rochester (men who lie about being married seem to draw some red flags). Often, women can have a rather misconstrued view of what it would like to actually be Juliet. It is easy to imagine oneself living in a rich, 15th century Italian family without a care in the world but also it is wise to note that Juliet, barely 13, was originally set to wed Count Paris, a man twice her age. At the time, life expectancy was not very good (the period wasn’t known for its advanced healthcare and sanitation) so getting married at such a young age was expected. Just imagine being a 13-year-old engaged to be married to a man in his mid 20s. From our standpoint, the word “creepy” merely underestimates the very thought. Being torn between two men, one of them an enemy of one’s relations, also compounds the problem. Romantically speaking, it would not be very easy to be in Juliet’s shoes, because sometimes the spouse your parents pick out for you isn’t necessarily “the one.”

Juliet Capulet has influenced music and entertainment in several ways. A ballet by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev and an opera by French composer Charles Gounod are based on Shakespeare’s famous play about the two star-crossed lovers. The rock band Blue Oyster Cult and country singer Taylor Swift also make mention of the play, with Swift putting more emphasis on Juliet’s feelings about being apart from her beloved Romeo in the song Love Story. The song itself appears to draw more on the notion of young teenage girls who desire to find the Romeo in their lives despite the objections of their parents for whatever reason.

In literature, Juliet is referenced a great deal and can be found as a main character in Robin Maxwell’s novel O, Juliet, an interesting spin on the play where there are slight changes but it still has the same meaning, and also in the nonfiction book, Letters to Juliet by Lise and Ceil Friedman, later becoming a 2010 motion picture.

Film versions of Romeo & Juliet are abundant, with great performances by Norma Shearer (1936), Olivia Hussey (1968), Claire Danes (1996), and several other actresses portraying the titular Shakespeare heroine. While Norma Shearer does an excellent job as Juliet, her age at the time of filming doesn’t do the role justice as she was in her mid-30s. Claire Danes’ Juliet is almost spot on but the production itself has too much of an MTV feel. Olivia Hussey’s Juliet is just right; age, beauty, and personality shine through to make a believable lovelorn and angsty teenager.

While there are other literary heroines that are more admirable,  none  pervade our culture like Juliet Capulet, who leaves single females envying her situation in life and influencing the culture of romance in entertainment and society. While her situation may not be envied, those who have been in her shoes (romantically speaking) may empathize with her because of her desire to be with her forbidden lover despite the obstacles that keep her from him. The very concept of Juliet can be seen often in literature, music, film, and even stage performances, making the heroine a sort of literary enigma. ♥

mayjune2012

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