Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Struggle between Title and Identity in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and "Twelfth Night"

Jessica Mason
ENG 309 “Early Shakespeare”
Dr. David Willbern -UB
March 8 2005

The Struggle between Title and Identity:
Strict Gender Roles, Sexuality, and Violence in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night

A Place for Everything: Roles v Identity

As individuals unconsciously and consciously construct their identities, factors that have been learned and factors that are inherent in their personalities can become confused and conflicted. The way individuals may feel inside and the way they perceive themselves may oppose the position that society has foisted upon them through strict codes of behavior base on sex, class, and race. Often the results of defying these strict behavioral codes are tumultuous and painful for the individual who questions and/or disagrees with the governing structure. When a societal structure is developed on a fundamentalist basis, there is little room for the individual to develop a positive and comfortable identity, and when this turmoil exists within and around an individual, suffering is inevitable. Mercutio, Romeo, and Juliet are youthful characters in Shakespeare’s tragedy, The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, who experience the pain that is caused by a society that is unwilling to allow for individuals to make choices in their own best interests. Both Romeo and Juliet desire to make choices that differ from what has been arranged for them by the strict familial code of conduct that surrounds them. Together they suffer from the unjust and violent barrier that has been imposed between them. Because she is a young woman, Juliet faces particular challenges in the role she desires to identify with, as well as in the decision she makes to fight the powerful and patriarchal force that her father embodies.

As the young lovers rebel against the codes of sexuality, gender, and class that have been placed on them, Mercutio’s private feelings create a fierce turmoil that is anchored within his mind, but is outwardly expressed in violent forms of language and physical action. Romeo, Juliet, and Mercutio are all conflicted, and while the lovers find solace in each other, Mercutio does not find a positive way to express his inward opposition. Sexuality is a key factor in Mercutio’s struggle, but his inward confusion leads him to a violent end. Romeo and Juliet reject the roles that they have been forced into, as well as the standards of sexuality and violence that govern Verona, and they, too, suffer. It is not the choice to rebel which causes the suffering that all three characters experience, but the roles and standards that are harsh, unfair, patriarchal, and barbaric in nature.

Although the comedy, Twelfth Night, or What You Will, is a comedy, there are dark themes that persist throughout the play. Malvolio is a central character involved in the darker, underlying themes. Malvolio is a prime example of a man who is trying to fit into the proper role of a virtuous and proper steward, and his critical and self-righteous attitude is a way of compensating for the lack of virtuous motivations that exist within him. His inner conflict with sexuality is expressed through a puritanical attitude toward other characters in the play, but it is his inability to cope with his own feelings that generates his downfall.

Lovers in a Dangerous Time: Romeo and Juliet

Marriage among families of noble status during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras was “contracted” on the basis of factors such as property and familial alliances. Women of middle class families often married at younger ages than those of nobility because without property, housekeeping was difficult to arrange. Though young love inevitably persisted in both communities, children of noble birth faced a great risk of being cut off from all resources, physical punishment, or banishment if they decided to go against their parents’ wishes in their choice of spouse (Best “The age of marriage”). In Romeo and Juliet, violence is a way of life that controls the conduct of characters born into the feuding Montague and Capulet families. Romeo and Juliet’s futures have been laid out for them because of ancestry and gender, and although Juliet faces a different struggle with a patriarchal influence, both characters are forced into roles that they wish to challenge. The code for behavior and expectations for the youth is to marry a suitable partner from the appropriate family line. Romeo is given some choice as to who he will marry because of his status as a noble male, but Juliet’s life and future are under the patriarchal control of her father, Capulet.

If Romeo and Juliet had acted in accordance with their socially determined roles, they would have become pawns acting on behalf of the motive to preserve capital within the family line (Best “The marriage ceremony”). Their love serves as a means for each character to develop an individual identity. Discovering, choosing, and embracing a self-identity is a positive and liberating experience, but the pleasure can be undercut and complicated when opposition and rejection are involved. In his introductory essay, Stephen Greenblatt describes the intensity of the lover’s passion as having a “compelling, self-justifying force, which quietly brushes away all social obstacles and moralizing warnings” (Greenblatt 870). The love that they share is a powerful and self-justifying force because it is tied into their liberations through discovery of self. They are most excellent lovers because through their feelings for each other, they have found a way to be boldly honest and confident in their own inner truths and instincts.

Never Going Back: What Characters Do Before, During, and After the Rebellion

Though the light that Shakespeare creates in the love between Romeo and Juliet is outstanding, the darkness of the opposing force threatens the future of the freedom they have found in separating themselves from their isolated family structures. Initially, Romeo and Juliet struggle with the conflicted position they face as lovers and as members of feuding families. Romeo, in his passionate realization of the strict and unfair standards that his lineage poses for him, curses his family name:

My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself
Because it is an enemy to thee.
Had I written it, I would tear the word.

to the point that he would willingly sever the bonds that serve as a barrier between him and the love for Juliet that is an integral part of the freedom he seeks from his assigned role, as a Montague (2.1 97-99). Romeo’s fervent words mark his growing recognition of oppression. He clearly identifies the gravity and pettiness of the source of his oppression, expressing his frustrations over what his name means. The Montague family name is bigger than Romeo. He feels the importance of his feelings, but realizes that his own name is the source of his oppression, and that in order to gain autonomy; he will have to confront it.

It takes Juliet longer to yield to her feelings for Romeo because, as a noble woman, she has been closely monitored by an overseeing Nurse and controlled by Capulet all of her life. Once she embraces her feelings, her new-found confidence develops very quickly. It most apparent when she refuses to marry against her will. Capulet, caught up in a violently patriarchal view of the world as a place where women do not have a voice, is furious with Juliet. Without making an effort to be rational, his emotions explode, mirroring the irrationality of the violent behavior between the Montague and Capulet families that controls Verona. Despite Capulet’s tyrannical reaction to her refusal, spitting words of rage at her—“Hang thee, young baggage, disobedient wretch!” (3.5 160)— Juliet carries a solid conviction in her heart and mind to stand up for her love regardless of what consequence may result. She is not only standing up for the one she loves and believes in, but for herself. In this moment Juliet is truly alone. Capulet has succeeded in silencing both Lady Capulet and Nurse with his savage use of violence, and although Juliet is devastated and afraid, she does not give up. Instead, she practices agency in devising a plan that she hopes will provide her with time to reunite with Romeo.

It is remarkable that Juliet has the strength of character to question and disagree with the messages that have been driven into her and it is in this strength of character that her love is unique and distinguished. Both Romeo and Juliet come to terms with their identities through their love for each other, the discovery of sexual desire in Juliet, and their willingness to move beyond the violence that governs their community. Other characters are critical of their union because they are unable to envision an alternative to the codes of conduct that tyranny and fear have fostered in Verona. Though their love is short lived, in the time that they do share together they show the ability to grow rapidly and the capability of rejecting the labels that previously governed them. They demand justice for their love, and therefore their identities.

Living a Lie: How Sexuality and Violence Become Intertwined in Romeo and Juliet

The lust and love that Romeo and Juliet share is not unlike the initial infatuation that lovers typically experience, but the story of their love greatly contrasts with and clearly exposes the violent world that surrounds them. Because Romeo and Juliet are predisposed to violence, they do fall victim to and suffer the consequences of society where assigned roles are rigid and violence is used to maintain a hierarchal structure. Violence is a part of their identity, but during the play they realize that such a system is corrupt and inappropriate, and they make an honorable effort to change the cycle. Although this effort may be partially unconscious, it is still an achievement. Youth is especially important in Shakespeare’s development of the contrast between violence and democracy. Because violence is the only form of communication between the feuding families, it is extremely rebellious that Romeo and Juliet cast aside their assigned roles and break the larger trend of hate. Their communication is threatening because it replaces war (or the “ancient grudge” 1.1 3). According to assigned roles in society, women are expected to be silent and if they have the ability to be influential or communicative it is through their sexuality. Men, on the other hand, communicate through violence. So, sexuality and violence are intertwined, and when Romeo and Juliet attempt to rebel against their roles as violent man and silent woman, they fall victim to a society that is not ready to grow.

In Living Black and White: What Happens When the Role Doesn’t Fit

The intimate connection and struggle between sexuality and violence are evident in Mercutio’s chaos and violence. Mercutio’s discordant words and behaviors are an indication of the larger sexual frustration that is manifest in and builds upon the level of violence in the interactions prevailing in Verona. He acts out as a result of not feeling comfortable with the role that he has been forced into. After speaking of “hidden, unpleasant realities” (Best “Queen Mab”), Mercutio comments on something unsettling within him:

True. I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air,
And more inconstant than the wind, who woos
Even now the frozen bosom of the north,
And, being angered, puffs away from thence,
Turning his face to the dew-dropping south.

This comment reveals the complexity of Mercutio’s mind and the melancholy, power, and dissension over his undisclosed feelings (1.5 97-103). The words “idle,” “vain,” “inconstant,” and “thin” indicate the melancholy that Mercutio feels towards his identity. Before Romeo asks him to calm down, Mercutio describes sexuality with sharp and aggressive images and references. After he is subdued by Romeo, Mercutio speaks of fantasy with words of despondency. Romeo has a strong hold over Mercutio, which likely is connected with homoerotic feelings deep within Mercutio that have been repressed. The repression is a product of the construct of the society he inhabits. Mercutio’s anger and melancholy regarding sexuality, and women’s sexuality in particular, is a personification of the larger repression that exists in the characters of this play.

Releasing Malvolio: The Freedoms and Humiliations of Public Honesty

Similar to the repression that Mercutio experiences, Malvolio struggles with the complexity of his identity in Twelfth Night, or What You Will. The comedy challenges traditional gender roles and stereotypes using the theatrical element of mistaken identity, and taking on such a multifaceted issue requires the exploration of dark subject matter. Malvolio’s first words, “Yes, and shall do till the pangs of death shake him. / Infirmity, that decays the wise, doth ever make the better fool,” presents a puritanical and pretentious attitude through dramatic language (1.5 65-66). Until he is tricked, his outward expression is uptight, morally rigid, and pompous, but Shakespeare reveals that this is yet another façade resulting from Malvolio’s attempt to repress his identity in order to fulfill an assigned role. When Malvolio reads the letter that he believes is written to him by Olivia, his inner feelings are quick to become external expressions. As he releases the narcissistic, erotic, and excitable elements of his personality saying, “I thank my stars, I am happy,” he does not realize that he is making a public display of himself (2.5 148). The audience is privy to two aspects of his personality: the public, asexual puritan and the private, sexual narcissist.

Malvolio’s transformation from private to public or repressed to free is not pleasant for Malvolio because the desires that existed within him were thrown at him in a public mockery. If Malvolio had truly been confident with his self-identity, he wouldn’t have had to hide under a puritanical guise in the first place. If given the space to explore his own sexuality and desires, Malvolio may have been able to be himself. His exposure was not a positive experience because he did not embrace his actions. Malvolio is a dark character because his inability to be true to himself made him vulnerable for ridicule by others.

Embracing the Stigma, Celebrating the Self

Today there are societal standards placed on different groups of people according to age, gender, race, class, and sexuality. Stereotypes weigh heavily on the attitudes and level of comfort that governs our self-identity and behavior. The messages that we receive at a very young age are very powerful and continue to affect us throughout our lives. Those messages come from various places and become manifest in us in different ways, as well. It is difficult to fully understand at what points in our lives we latch onto certain messages, but whether we acknowledge those messages or not, they play a strong role in our development, the way we view ourselves, and the choices we make. Messages that carry stigmas often serve as a code of conduct for standards of socially acceptable behavior. Models and messages can be found in the subtle influences that often go unrecognized on the part of the force carrying the message, as well as obvious influences that are deliberately put in place for a purpose and are strictly and blatantly expressed by those in some position of authority. Although we may be able to question or reject a standard that has been put in place, we cannot help but be affected by them. Shakespeare’s characters struggled with the roles that had been placed on them, and ultimately they suffered. As we, as individuals, struggle to follow our own truths, there will be obstacles. Yet if our actions are based on honesty and with good intent, they will always have an impact and help to create room for expression rather than repression or oppression.

Works Cited

Best, Michael. Shakespeare’s Life and Times. 2001. 26 Feb. 2005

Greenblatt, Michael., et al. “Hamlet.” The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, Inc., 1659-1666.

---. “Romeo and Juliet.” The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, Inc., 865-871.

---. “Twelfth Night.” The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, Inc., 1761-1767.

Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.” The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen., et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1997. 1668-1756.

Shakespeare, William. “The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet” Greenblatt 872-939.

Shakespeare, William “Twelfth Night, or What You Will” Greenblatt 1768-1821.

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