The tender age of Juliet Capulet provides the focus of the initial conversation between Lord Capulet and Count Paris in Romeo and Juliet. She is still a child, says her father, "a straunger in the world" who "hath not seene the chaunge of fourteen yeares"; she should be at least 16, he says, before she will be ready for marriage.(1) In Shakespeare's primary source, a long narrative poem by Brooke, she is 16 (or nearly so), and in another English version he might have known, the translation of a novella by Bandello, she is almost 18, yet in both accounts she is still considered too young for marriage.(2) A very young Juliet, therefore, appears to have been Shakespeare's idea. Is it to emphasize the "charm of her girlish directness, the pathos of her passion," to amplify the drama of her progress from innocence to suicide, or merely to "apologize to the audience for the boy who played so difficult a part"?(3) As for Romeo's age, Shakespeare makes him merely a "yong" man (E3; 2.4.119), whereas Brooke describes him as so young his "tender chyn" sports no beard (54), thus perhaps 15-17, and Bandello gives his age as 20 or 21 (349).
The notion that Elizabethan couples married young has been challenged recently by social historians. Although the setting of Romeo and Juliet appears to be early 14th Century Italy, Shakespeare's cultural model is primarily Elizabethan England, where physical maturity developed later than it does today: girls matured at 14-15, boys at 16-18. Youths under 15 were still considered children. The earliest legal age for marriage, the age of consent or discretion, was 14, but early teenage marriages were rare, and in the few cases on record, the children were either not formally betrothed or not allowed to consummate their vows until much older.(4)
Popular manuals of health, as well as observations of married life, led Elizabethans to believe that early marriage and its consummation permanently damaged a young woman's health, Impaired a young man's physical and mental development, and produced sickly or stunted children. In opposing the marriage of her 13-year-old granddaughter, Anne Clopton alludes to the "danger [that] might ensue to her very life from her extreme youth" (Stone, Crisis 656). Capulet echoes such a concern in telling Paris, "Too soone mard are those so early made" (B2;, 1.2.13). The general view was that motherhood before 16 was dangerous (Stone, Crisis 656-57); as a consequence, 18 came to be considered the earliest reasonable age for motherhood (Camden 94) and 20 and 30 the ideal ages for women and men, respectively, to marry (Cook 23).
In actuality, however, Elizabethan women married even later, at an average age of 25-26, and men at 27-29, the oldest of any society known.(5) Shakespeare's wife and eldest daughter Susanna are typical, marrying at about 26 and 24, while his youngest, Judith, did not marry until 31. That Capulet would offer his daughter to Paris despite her "extreme youth," thus forcing Juliet to marry Romeo secretly, must have been appalling to an Elizabethan. One historian even wonders whether Shakespeare was deliberately writing a play about the dangers of love and marriage among boys and girls.(6) The playwright's own unsatisfactory marriage at 18 may have initiated him to some of the unpleasant consequences of premature marriage.
Shakespeare's alteration of Juliet's age and deliberate disregard of social custom seem to single out her age for special attention (Cook 28). An obvious consequence is to lessen the young couple's responsibility for the disaster that engulfs them (Muir 171-72). Yet beyond this, Shakespeare's symbolic use of Juliet's age casts over the lovers an ominous shadow, clearly implied in Capulet's prediction that ignoring natural and social practice invites disaster. Ignoble of him, then, to become the pander for Paris, even though he considers the Count a highly suitable match for Juliet. For his part, Paris apparently wishes to marry Juliet immediately to forestall rivals in securing the Capulet estate. …