Juliet's Taming of Romeo
Brown, Carolyn E., Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
Shakespeare's Juliet has received divergent critical appraisals. Early criticism, in particular, of Romeo and Juliet largely overlooks Juliet, viewing the play as being primarily about Romeo and treating Juliet as a subsidiary, underdeveloped character. When such criticism explores Juliet, it is often influenced by her young age of fourteen, reading her as little more than a child - naive, immature, inexperienced, obedient to her parents' wishes, and uncomplicated. E. C. Pettet, for example, characterizes Juliet as a "spontaneous, passionate child of nature, whose speech and heart are always one."(1) But as criticism, especially feminist in orientation, begins to recognize the depth of Shakespeare's female characters, Juliet is receiving more concentrated, appreciative attention. And as critics look beyond her youth, they discover not a reticent virgin but a multifaceted character who transcends Romeo in maturity, complexity, insight, and rhetorical dexterity. Critical estimation of Juliet has moved from regarding her as a passive victim of "star-crossed love" to lauding her as a self-willed, courageous, intelligent young woman who initiates and controls action in her struggle to preserve her integrity and autonomy in a world that is hostile to women. Irene Dash argues that Juliet tries to retain "her sense of self as 'essential'" and, thus, moves the audience "with admiration for a courageous person attempting to fight her destiny as a woman" and "to govern her own life. "(2) Nancy Compton Warmbrod views Juliet as determined to see "herself as an independent person" and to establish "an identity apart from family and nurse."(3) Instead of perceiving Juliet as shallow, criticism is now more willing to admit that under the surface lyricism there is another dimension to her words and actions where her more independent, controlling, and rebellious nature is lodged.(4)
This essay enhances the critical appreciation of Juliet's depth and her struggle for selfhood, and focuses on her interchange with Romeo in two particular scenes - II.ii, the so-called balcony scene, and III.v, which contains the lovers' interchange the morning after the consummation. Typically these scenes are read as the most romantic in the play, and Juliet is traditionally read as helplessly in the throes of young love. Pettet, for example, looks at II.ii as "the most serenely joyful passage of the play," containing "lyricism and the warm, unfolding passion of [Romeo and Juliet's] love declarations."(5) My reading, however, explores a less romantic mode in which Romeo and Juliet woo each other in these two scenes, and challenges the traditional view of Juliet as Romeo's passive beloved by arguing that her language and actions contain a deeper level of meaning. This subtext is established by the falconry imagery that appears throughout the play but that reaches its prominence in the balcony scene. Through this imagery, Shakespeare establishes a reading that draws parallels between Romeo and trainable falcons (usually females) and between the way Juliet treats Romeo and the methods falconers (usually males) use to train their birds.(6) Shakespeare reverses the gender roles, as he does in other parts of the play, and has Juliet assume behavior typically assigned to men.
During the balcony scene, she can be read as trying to train Romeo, much as falconer Petruchio trains his bird Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. She attempts to make Romeo as obedient as a "manned" falcon. The falconry references contribute to the reading of Juliet as being interested in control since the relationship between the bird and trainer is not one of equality but one in which the trainer respects the bird's powers but subjects them to his own will and dominates the bird. Juliet transforms her future husband from a "flighty," impractical man of fancy who engages in long, unrealistic speeches, into a pragmatic, obedient man of few words who learns to give her the succinct answers she wants and to fulfill her commands. …