Love, Death, and Patriarchy
in Romeo and Juliet
Recent criticism has tended to depict patriarchy primarily as an authoritarian institution for the regulation of society. 1 Where Elizabethan theorists praised the system for its order, we now have difficulty seeing beyond its flagrant injustices and limitations, especially its misogyny. Yet repression is not the whole picture. What made patriarchy tolerable, even valuable, to so many Elizabethans? No one in Shakespeare's Verona, for example, openly rebels against its patriarchs. Like Romeo, Juliet blames fate that she "must love a loathed enemy" (1.5.141); she desperately tries to placate her father with "chopt-logic" (3.5.149). For all their touchiness about being thought slaves, even the servants identify with—are willing to fight for—their houses. Why would individuals consistently subordinate their own desires to the will of a patriarch? 2
The answer I read from the play is that like religion, patriarchy systematized heroic fantasies of immortality. Anxiety about death pervades Romeo and Juliet. The word "death" itself shows up more often here than in any other work in the canon. In the lyrical balcony scene (2.2.53-78) no less than the ominous Prologue, love is "death-mark'd." Even before Romeo's first glimpse of Juliet, as he laments Rosaline's vow of chastity, he plays at being dead: "in that vow / Do I live dead that live to tell it now" (1.1.223-24). Even then he worries that "untimely death" will overtake him (1.4.111). This "Black and portentous" dread, I shall be arguing, dramatizes the breakdown in Verona of patriarchy's ability to control people's anxiety about death, and unconsciously anticipates the dangerous consequences of that breakdown.
Patriarchy evolved from ancient systems of social order based on heroic dominance. 3 In Roman law a male child of any age "remained