… that, perhaps, a single GIRL in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a husband?
PTS read through: Romeo and Juliet, Act I, sc ii
Hmmm, what to make of this scene?
Firstly, let’s get the question of Juliet’s age firmly out of the way:
(there was a high rate of pre-marital sex in the time period and one out of every five brides was pregnant at the time of marriage). By law girls could be legally married at twelve and boys at fourteen, but among most non-aristocrats the average age of marriage was the mid-twenties. [a]
If not an aristocrat, Capulet must at least aspire to those rarified circles.
These ‘shotgun’ weddings included Shakespeare’s, by the way. In 1582, when he married Anne Hathaway (lucky git), he was 18: she was 26, and five months pregnant, it seems.
It’s also worth pointing out, perhaps, that mortality meant something then, and life expectancy was broadly half what it is now – there was far less time to waste for most of the population.
That’s clear now, right? But it doesn’t mean that there’s ‘nothing to see here, move along now, please‘, in terms of Juliet’s prospective marriage to Paris. Let’s look at the attitudes of the various men involved (as yet our heroine has no voice).
Firstly, the ‘County’ Paris, kinsman of that bloody IDIOT Prince Escalus. It is, in itself, an interesting choice of character name by Shakespeare: is it ironic that Paris caused the Trojan War by eloping with the most beautiful woman on Earth? What are we to make of his ‘judgement’ of three goddesses as to which is the most beautiful (which, incidentally, like Dr Faustus, gave him access to Helen of Troy)? When we finish the play, I’ll possibly interrogate his motives at Juliet’s tomb. For now, though, Juliet represents an appetising morsel for him, or any young lordling.
Lord Capulet tells us that:
‘She is the hopeful lady of my earth.’ [b]
from which we (including René Weis at Arden) can assume – perhaps taking into account ideas about child mortality, above – that she is Capulet’s remaining heir. Paris has class, and solid connections in Verona, but we have no idea what his financial status is. Cynically, with our Gayle Rubin hat on, we might conclude that he is offering Capulet a leg up the social ladder via ‘kinship’; in exchange for the promise of the family unit (ie Paris himself) inheriting Capulet’s fortune when the old fella passes on. If Juliet looks as bewitching as Olivia Hussey (above), that’s an added bonus …
And that started me thinking. I’m going to go further – the text of scene iii suggests that she hasn’t met Paris yet, so they are introduced for the first time at the party. And look at this comment by Juliet in act III:
‘I wonder at this haste, that I must wed
Ere he that should be husband comes to woo.’
Suddenly, I believe Paris has proposed with no real idea what Juliet looks like. There. Said it.
He’s like Henry VIII salivating at the thought of Anne of Cleves (wife number 4) until he meets her. How might the story have been different if Juliet had a squint and a harelip, I wonder?
On to Lord Capulet.
In some ways, he’s more interesting. Not more laudable; just more interesting. I sense, to be honest, something amiss with Paris. Don’t get me wrong – Romeo is NOT son-in-law material eiether, but Capulet seems to turn down an excellent offer of advancement through kinship.
First, of course, he states:
‘My will to her consent is but a part’ (I.ii.14)
which sounds wonderful until we get to Act III sc v.* It seems to fit the drift from ‘kinship’ to ‘companionate’ marriages that we see in the EMP. What else can we find here? Well, he suggests Paris wait:
‘Let two more summers wither in their pride
ere we may think her ripe to be a bride.’ (I.ii.10-11)
Again, why? I don’t see him, like Prospero, wanting to challenge the suitor’s ardour and tenacity. In two years’ time Juliet might be seen, suspiciously, as a slightly older potential bride for someone of her stature. Not just that but what are the odds on Paris having found someone else? Is this what Capulet is aiming for?
I wonder. Because the next thing he does is invite Paris to that evening’s ball. One full of:
‘Earth-treading stars that make dark heaven light.’ (I.ii.24)
Remarkably, he tempts Paris:
‘Hear all, all see,
And like her most whose merit most shall be’ (I.ii.29-30)
It’s almost as if Capulet is inviting him to find someone else. So now my ideé fixe is that there is something wrong with Paris; I’ll be looking for clues as to what that might be as the play develops. It might simply be that he has proposed sight unseen?
My suspicions that this feast is some kind of ‘meat market’, a shop-window for the unmarried girls is confirmed by the guest list that falls into Romeo’s hands. We have a widow, various daughters, ‘beauteous sisters’, ‘lovely nieces’, a ‘fair niece’ (Rosaline) and the ‘lively’ Helena …
Benvolio – and he’s the nice one, remember – certainly reads it that way.
‘All the admired beauties of Verona’ (I.ii.85)
will be there: an excellent opportunity to ‘comparethemarket.com’ as we might say in the UK, and to snap Romeo out of his funk.
None of this is particularly impressive, gents.
* I fully appreciate that Juliet’s will is of no consequence to her father in III,v. Two things occur to me: firstly, that human beings DO change their minds, and should be allowed to (although we too often see it as a sign of weakness, it’s the opposite). Secondly, the case soon becomes one of principle, of the punishing of filial disobedience, and that’s quite a different matter for our patriarch.
[a] Brinda Charry, The Arden Guide to Renaissance Drama: An Introduction with Primary Sources (Arden Shakespeare), (Bloomsbury Publishing: London, 2017)
[b] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (Arden Third edition, ed. René Weis), (Methuen Drama: London, 2012) I.ii.14 All further references to the text are to this edition.