Social Cues are Hard
The idea of reading people or situations is one seemingly taught rom the first moments of socialization. As people mature they’re taught, encouraged, and sometimes just thrown into the act of reading a room when they enter it, reading and following social cues, reading others to determine how to best speak to them and whom to speak to, reading how to act in a variety of social functions and settings, and all the moments of social learning in between. Through failure people learn what is deemed acceptable and to which standards they must adhere if they want to be respected and taken seriously. Such conventions extend to the sphere of romance, as well. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet demonstrates juxtaposing approaches to love and that the realities they present are more complicated.
From the beginning the County Paris pursues Juliet according to the traditional and acceptable social procedures. As was customary, these procedures began with the father. In the first scene between Paris and Lord Capulet it is clear that the topic of marriage is not new. Paris presses Lord Capulet for an answer, asking, “what say you to my suit” (1.2.6), in the hope that he will receive a different response than he did previously, but hears “what [Capulet] have said before” (1.2.7). There is some reward for his efforts in that Capulet encourages Paris to “woo her […] get her hear” because his “will to her consent is but a part./And she, agreed, within her scope of choice/Lies [his] consent and fair according voice” (1.2.16-19). Paris earns the chance to win Juliet through persistence and adhering to the standards of the time. Lady Capulet follows her script in preparing Juliet for marriage by telling her daughter to “this night […] at our feast./Read o’er the volume of young Paris’ face” (1.3.86-87) to “lock […] in the golden story” (1.3.98) of Paris’ suit. There is nothing extraordinary about Paris’ pursuit of Juliet. He follows convention to the letter in seeking her hand, and her parents respond in kind. Juliet attends the ball with intentions of “look[ing] to like, if looking liking move./But no more deep will […] endart [her] eye/Than [Lady Capulet’s] consent gives strength to make it fly” (1.3.103-105) as her role demands of her. Born into a system in which she is a pawn, Juliet appears to understand her place in society and how she can live in it.
Despite their strict adherence to traditional conventions even Lord Capulet and Paris flaunt the standard when it becomes convenient and necessary in their eyes. Paris excuses his haste in the matter by claiming “these times of woe afford no time to woo” (3.4.8). Lord Capulet, meanwhile, depends on Juliet maintaining obedience to tradition, confident “she will be ruled/In all respects by [him]. Nay more, [he] doubt[s] it not” (3.4.14-15). She is expected to obey her father’s will without question. Instead she balks, rejecting his request outright. Such behavior incites contempt, and the supposedly affectionate father becomes irascible, offering an ultimatum that Juliet “get […] to church o’ Thursday!/Or […] [she] shall not house with [him …]” (3.5.167, 200); “An [Juliet] be [his], [he’ll] give [her] to [his] friend./An [she] be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets,/For, by [his] soul [he’ll] ne’er acknowledge [her],/Nor what is [his] shall never do [her] good” (3.5.203-206). When it conveniences him, Lord Capulet is willing to contradict the social standards to which he usually conforms. Juliet appeals to her mother, but finding no help there appeals using the very standards that entrap her in order to buy more time. She plays the part of a contrite, chastened daughter, ordering her Nurse to tell Lady Capulet that Juliet is “gone,/Having displeased [her] father, to Lawrence’s cell/To make confession and to be absolved” (3.5.244-246). Though young, Juliet is familiar with the conventions that imprison her and is unafraid to use them to her advantage.
Though she would rather not acknowledge it, Juliet shares the quality of manipulating social standards to her uses with her father. In her treatment of Romeo’s suit she demonstrates a similar temperament. The apparently coy nature put on exhibit for Lady Capulet regarding the ball disappears when she sees Romeo. Though clearly smitten, Juliet deflects Romeo’s initial advances with courtly flirtation when Romeo devises to touch Juliet’s hand (1.5.58) and begin a verbal tete-a-tete with her. She
maintains proper decorum despite her emotions when she tells him “saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,/And palm to palm is holy palmer’s kiss” (1.5.110-111) and “lips that they must use in prayer” (1.5.113) when Romeo seeks more from her.
Romeo, no stranger to court language himself, continues his flirtation and is rewarded with kisses (1.5.117-120). For all that, Juliet still recognizes that Romeo “kiss[es] by th’ book” (1.5.121). His approach, though forward, bears the hallmarks of societal engagement in conversation with an interested party. Juliet is acutely aware that her new-found love for Romeo is problematic and defies everything she’s been taught, but she cannot fight it, muttering to herself that “Prodigious birth of love it is to me/That I must love a loathed enemy” (1.5.154-155). Even her knowledge of this does not keep her from confessing to herself, “Romeo, doff thy name,/And for thy name, which is no part of thee,/Take all [her]self” (2.2.50-52). It is not until she welcomes this that Romeo reveals himself to her and likewise proclaims his love for Juliet. Braver in their open flirtation now, Juliet checks herself and her passion. She admits that “Although [she] joy[s] in [Romeo],/[She has] no joy of this contract tonight./It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,/Too like lightning” (2.2.123-126). Juliet was willing to suspend propriety in light of her passion, but cannot bring herself to fully deviate from it. Her societal training takes control in the same way her father sheds convention but falls back on it when it best serves him. Unlike Lord Capulet, Juliet manages to shake loose her societal chains to challenge them. She almost immediately decides that if Romeo’s love is honourable and marriage his goal she will follow him (2.2.150-155). Her passion overcomes what she has been raised to believe is her reason. Juliet is unable to manipulate and rely on societal norms to find happiness the way the rest of her family is able to. When faced with the moment, she instead discovers she cannot stifle the feelings inside her. Perhaps it is her youth and lack of years being weathered by the system, but even if it is her new-found love breaks her perception of the conventions and allows her to take action she previously would never have imagined. She secretly marries Romeo (2.6.35-37) and refuses to be trapped in a marriage to Paris once Romeo is banished (3.5.125-128), choosing to find her own way.
Romeo and Juliet quickly learn that affairs are just as tricky and complicated when letting passion lead as they are when allowing established social conventions to lead. Friar Lawrence is one of the few characters forced to weigh each against the other. His position affords him an unique perspective. Though he warns Romeo, “Wisely and slowly. They stumble that run fast” (2.3.101) and calls him a waverer (2.3.96) for so soon exchanging Rosaline with Juliet, Friar Lawrence agrees to marry Romeo and Juliet with the hope that “this alliance may so happy prove/To turn [their] households’ rancor to pure love” (2.3.98-99). He attempts to instill Romeo with the wisdom to “love moderately/ Long love doth so” (2.6.14) but Romeo is too distracted to take the advice to heart. Friar Lawrence is able to observe the Capulet and Montague households, and his hope that a marriage between Romeo and Juliet will prove the alliance necessary to induce peace aligns with traditional thought. He becomes embroiled in the passion when Juliet seeks an option other than being forced to marry Paris and Romeo is banished. Then his misgivings of the situation prove accurate as events snowball and ultimately lead to the youths’ deaths.
Though the approaches to love and marriage in Romeo and Juliet seem in opposition, both highlight the complexities inherent in the situation and demonstrate that such things cannot be contained in easy parameters.