Is Shakespeare’s portrayal of a patriarchal Verona ironic and subversive or is the play an endorsement of male power?

In order for me to answer the essay question the definition of patriarchy must first of all be established. The Oxford English dictionary describes patriarchy as ‘a system of society or government ruled by men’, suggesting that a patriarchal society is a society in which men completely dominate everything, such as political life and domestic life. Feminist critic Sasha Roberts supports this meaning as she defines patriarchy as ‘a society dominated by men’.

During the Elizabethan period, brawls and feuds were part of peoples’ daily routine.

Joan Homler views the constant quarrelling as ‘a daily reality for the Elizabethans’. In ‘Romeo and Juliet’ the feud between the families of Montague and Capulet is a feud so ancient nobody recalls its genesis, and yet it is so widespread it threatens civic order. Although feuds were very common, they were mainly between factions of the aristocracy Sasha Roberts depicts this irrelevant-violence as a ‘crucial facet of masculinity’ and also suggests that a certain faction of the aristocracy used duelling ‘as a means of asserting power’.

Coppelia Kahn agrees with this patriarchal reason for feuding as she argues that feuding was ‘the medium through which criteria of patriarchy oriented masculinity is voiced’. The feuding appears to symbolise the malevolent masculinity that pervades Elizabethan England. The historian Robert Lacey, in his book, ‘Robert, Earl of Essex’, contributes to this view saying:

In such an age of naked brutality and casual bloodshed it was no coincidence that Shakespeare’s plays should centre on personally inflicted acts of justice and revenge…

Although Shakespeare’s period is ruled by a woman, Elizabeth I, it was a patriarchal society and this is reflected in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ however, whether Shakespeare endorses male power or attempts to subvert it, is the question I will be exploring in this essay.

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In the opening scene of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Shakespeare presents various phallic images, through sexual slang and innuendo, which suggest a patriarchal Verona. For instance, Sampson, a Capulet servant, is conversing with Gregory, another Capulet servant, about his desires to sexually assault the Montague women:

… and thrust his maids to the wall. (Act1 Scene1, lines 16-17)

This reference to rape from Sampson symbolises his status and power over women. It is possible to imply that Shakespeare’s choice of language is an indication of his endorsement of a patriarchal society. Another example which suggests Shakespeare’s support of patriarchy is during Sampson and Gregory’s conversation:

… and therefore women being the weaker vessel are ever thrust to the wall. (Act1 Scene1, lines 14-15)

Shakespeare’s decision to use the biblical term ‘weaker vessel’, derived from The First Epistle General of Peter, (chapter 3, verse 7), gives the idea that women are the weaker sex. Shakespeare appears to supports patriarchy as he suggests that Christianity fortifies patriarchy and therefore suggest that his beliefs are justified. Shakespeare is also associated with supporting patriarchy in the opening scene through his choice of dictions which introduce strong phallic images; ‘to stand’ (Act 1 Scene 1, line 8) and ‘long sword’ (Act 1 Scene 1 line 66) in a phallic perspective suggest to have an erection; ‘tool (Act 1 Scene 1, line 30) and naked weapon (Act 1 Scene 1 line 32)’ both present an image of a phallus. Shakespeare’s attempt to imprint these phallic imageries into the mind of the audience can be interpreted as Shakespeare supporting patriarchy as he is suggesting that the phallus can be used to gain power and dominion over women and even possibly men.

Although, as Sasha Roberts suggests, ‘each generation rewrites Shakespeare for its own purposes…’ it seems directors such as Baz Lurhmann have tried to direct their interpretation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as Shakespeare would have done if he was alive today. To reflect Shakespeare’s possible support of patriarchy it appears Lurhmann includes elements such as very tall buildings in the opening scene, which create phallic images, and in turn they create a symbol of male power. Another element in Lurhmann’s interpretation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ which suggests he believes Shakespeare supports patriarchy, is obtained from the male supremacy created in Tybalt’s character. He is presented in spaghetti-western style, which indicates his possessing of great authority and power, subsequently suggesting that generally all men possess this supremacy.

The language employed by Shakespeare in the opening scene can be analysed as Shakespeare’s way of intensifying his support of the patriarchal society that existed during the Elizabeth I’s reign. His use of lewd language seems to serve as a way of bringing forth his endorsement of patriarchy and as a ‘dramatic function’, as Molly Mahood suggests.

In ‘Romeo and Juliet’ the plot is enveloped in patriarchy particular in the Capulet household. And it is in the Capulet household were most forms of patriarchy are endorsed or challenged by the mother figures of Lady Capulet and the Nurse. In Lady Capulet’s first appearance on stages she challenges Capulet’s action and behaviour:

Capulet: … Give me my long sword, ho!

Lady Capulet: A crutch, a crutch! Why call you for a sword? (Act 1 Scene 1 lines 66-67)

This sarcastic intervention is challenging patriarchy as ‘sword’ meant penis in contemporary sexual slang and she arguably insults Capulet’s virility by suggesting his ‘sword’ is inappropriate and redundant. Lady Capulet again criticizes her husband’s behaviour saying, ‘Fie, fie you are too hot’ (Act 3 Scene 5 line 176). Lady Capulet appears to be challenging a patriarchal society in which men are irrelevantly violent. Another example of patriarchy being subverted is found when Lady Capulet threatens to put Capulet under surveillance:

Ay, you have been a mouse- hunt in your time, / But I will watch from such a watching now. (Act 4 Scene 4 line 11-12)

Again it is possible to suggest that patriarchal authority is being subordinated, as Lady Capulet is reversing what as being described as the ‘patriarchal gaze’, in which women were subjects to men’s surveillance. The Nurse is also part of this defiance of patriarchy as she fights for Juliet saying ‘God in heaven bless her!’ (Act 3 Scene 3 line 168). In addition to this, she expresses her disapproval of Capulet saying ‘you are to blame, my lord, to rate her so.’ (Act 3 Scene 3 line 169). From this it is apparent of Nurse’s subversion of patriarchy. Although both Lady Capulet and the Nurse challenge patriarchy they also endorse patriarchy and accept the inevitable defeat to men. The Nurse’s use of bawdy language, which encourages Romeo to ‘… stand up, stand, and you be a man’ (Act 3 Scene 3 line 87), is an example of the Nurse endorsing patriarchy. The Nurse’s use of ‘stand’ bears a bawdy resonance of the erected penis and in doing so it appears she recognises that there is no way to bring to an end the patriarchal dominance of her society. Lady Capulet’s endorsement of patriarchy takes place when she rejects her daughter:

Talk not to me, for I’ll not speak a word. Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee. (Act 3 Scene 3 lines 202-203)

Lady Capulet appears to be commanding her daughter, just like Capulet always does, but this time to submit to a patriarchal society just like she herself has. Through this Lady Capulet has endorsed patriarchy when she aligns herself with him and his control over Juliet.

It is impossible to establish a full conclusion as to whether Romeo’s character is weak or strong and passive or assertive; this is due to various examples of Romeo being each of these characteristics. For instance Romeo is portrayed as a weak character is through his refusal to be aggressive and to quarrel with Tybalt. Another example of Romeo’s weakness is witnessed during his feminine behaviour as he cries after being banished from Verona. Friar Laurence criticizes his effeminacy, saying ‘Art thou a man? …Thy tears are womanish’. (Act 3 Scene 3 lines 108;109) Friar Laurence reveals his attachment to patriarchal assumptions of feminine weakness and masculine mastery, and it is also clear that he believes, ‘tears’ are conceived to be a sign of emotional vulnerability which should be only found in women.

Friar Laurence also describes Romeo as an ‘ill-beseeming beast’ (Act 3 Scene 3 line 112) that is ‘unseemly woman in a seeming man’ (Act 3 Scene 3 line 111). Friar Laurence is suggesting that Romeo is behaving in an inappropriate manner like a woman; whereas men, by contrast, should show more strength and assume their position as the head of the house. However Romeo is viewed to be behaving in a completely contrasting manner. You can see this by the rash decision he makes: he is compelled to sneak into the Capulet’s garden just to catch a glimpse of her. This shows how strong his character is, and that he is assertive rather than being weak and passive. Nevertheless I am unable to suggest that Romeo character is definitely strong and assertive as there are other examples which suggest he is weak and passive.

Shakespeare puts considerable emphasis on male bonding and friendship. This is, according to feminist critics, due to the fact that male friendships of the play are partly responsible for the tragedy that falls on Romeo and Juliet. It is this male friendship which leads to the demise of Mercutio and Tybalt who both die, and Romeo who is banished from Verona, and loses his true love: Mercutio is insulted by Romeo’s persistence to not fight that he decides to fight on Romeo’s behalf. Consequently, Tybalt murders him. It is at this point that male bonding conflicts with love for a wife; Romeo at first refused to fight Tybalt because he loves Juliet in such a way that he rejects his masculinity. However, after the death of Mercutio, the male bonding is rapidly ignited and Romeo kills Tybalt ‘for Mercutio’s soul’ (Act 3 Scene 1 line 117). As Sasha Roberts suggests the ‘bonds between men’ are ‘defended to the death’, unlike the female bonds which are strong but are not protected fiercely, possibly because of men’s patriarchal obsession. Shakespeare at this point in the play has clearly endorsed patriarchy by pointing out how it is strongly defended, compared to matriarchy.

It can be considered ironical that the two characters, Capulet and Old Montague, who are the ultimate symbols of a patriarchal Verona, are also the prime examples of anxious men. They are both anxious about the possibilities of losing their omnipotent status: Capulet is apprehensive about his ever more challenging and disobedient daughter, Juliet and also prospect of losing power to Tybalt; while Old Montague is agitated and alarmed about being overtly out-classed by Capulet. This suggests that although Shakespeare’s portray of Verona is endorsed, there is possibly an ironic sensation to this depiction.

The idea of romantic love appears to be rejected by Shakespeare as his play ends with Romeo and Juliet dying, rather than living happily ever after, like a typical love story. It seems that this end on a tragic note is Shakespeare’s way of suggesting that romantic love is destined for failure. This notion of Shakespeare rejecting romantic love is intensified as this concept is yet again incorporated by him in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the two lovers Pyramus and Thisbe’ s faith concludes unhappily with their death. From this is possible to suggest that Shakespeare, a likely supporter of patriarchy and the masculine ideas that follow patriarchy, viewed romantic love as an opposition of patriarchy and therefore reflects his rejection of romantic love in Romeo and Juliet as an indication of his endorsement of patriarchy.

Like Romeo’s character, it is also moderately difficult to come to a definite climax about Juliet’s character. On her first appearance is submissive, conventional and demure, but rapidly matures to womanhood. Feminist critic Sasha Roberts describes Juliet as ‘far from being a simple, conventional heroine.’ She views her as a ‘multidimensional character’ bringing forth the idea that she is a multifaceted and versatile character. Sasha Roberts also views Juliet as an ‘unruly woman’:

Rather than representing a female ideal Juliet evokes the problematic figure of the unruly woman; the woman who challenges patriarchal dictates and social convention.

This idea that Juliet is very much an assertive character is noticeable in many scenes, one of them being the balcony scene in which she has double the number of lines as Romeo, dominates the conversation and continuously orders Romeo ‘Well do not swear’ (Act 2 Scene 2 line 116). This dominance, including her subversion against patriarchy has made me conclude that Juliet’s character is strong and assertive.

Over the years many critics have raised many questions surrounding Mercutio’s character, and the most famous question seems to be, is Mercutio a misogynist? In my opinion having read his infamous Queen Mab speech, Mercutio appears to be a misogynist. This view has being constructed due to Mercutio’s reference to women as merely sexual and reproductive objects rather than subjects:

This is the hag, when maids lie on their back, / That presses them and learns them first to bear, / Making them women of good carriage. This is she- (Act 1 Scene 4 line 91-93).

His use of the word ‘hag’- an incubus or nightmare that induced evil, suggests his true feelings of repulsion towards women. Coppelia Kahn take these lines to reveal Mercutio’s ‘fear of giving in to the seething nighttime world of unconscious desires associated with the feminine’, from this it appears Mercutio is a misogynistic character. In Terry Hand’s 1973 RSC production he deliberately emphasizes the latent misogyny and sexual anxiety present in Mercutio during the Queen Mab speech: Mercutio carried ‘a grotesque, coarse-featured, life-size female doll, upon which he vented clearly sado-masochistic sexual loathing’ which was both ‘deeply-disturbed and equally disturbing’. In this pivotal moment of the play it is very apparent of Mercutio’s misogynistic characteristic.

Capulet’s unfair treatment of Juliet and his family widely reveals how, in Shakespeare’s epoch, fathers controlled the lives of wives and daughters and also regarded them as possessions. This treatment reflects the subordinate position of women during the Elizabethan period. An example of this is Capulet’s commandment over his wife, ‘… go you to her ere you go to bed’, this mirrors the reality that women had limited personal autonomy; their status and roles were subject to the tyranny of patriarchy and their rights were restricted, legally, socially and economically.

Having analysed the question of patriarchy in Romeo and Juliet, I conclude that there is insufficient evidence to conclude whether Shakespeare’s portrayal of a patriarchal Verona is endorsed or subverted and ridiculed. This is due to various examples which support both ideas; for example Romeo’s effeminacy and Juliet’s assertiveness can be viewed as Shakespeare subverting patriarchy; however the dominance of male characters such as Capulet, Tybalt, Mercutio, Benvolio and Sampson, and also the inclusion of a biblical term which hints that patriarchy is accepted can both be viewed as Shakespeare’s support of patriarchy. In my opinion, another element which could affect how the audience views Shakespeare’s portrayal of a patriarchal is the interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, for example I recently saw a production of Romeo and Juliet performed by an all-boys’ school. In this production the homo-eroticism of the play is emphasized and there appeared to be an ironic and subverted depiction of a patriarchal Verona, due to an all male cast.

Overall the ambiguity of Shakespeare’s portray of Verona has made it very difficult to come to a definite conclusion therefore I end this essay by suggesting that Shakespeare’s opinion of patriarchy, obtained from the Elizabethan society and reflected in his portray of Verona, is that of both subversion and endorsement.

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Is Shakespeare’s portrayal of a patriarchal Verona ironic and subversive or is the play an endorsement of male power?. (2018, Dec 26). Retrieved from

Is Shakespeare’s portrayal of a patriarchal Verona ironic and subversive	 or is the play an endorsement of male power?
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