"bright angel" :: reconsidering juliet
Re-reading Romeo and Juliet a few weeks ago, I was struck by a particular speech of Juliet's. In the second scene of Act III, Juliet and her Nurse get into a harried exchange as the Nurse finally informs Juliet that Romeo has killed her cousin Tybalt. When the Nurse says, "Shame come to Romeo!" and Juliet defends him ("Blister'd be thy tongue / For such a wish! he was not born to shame: / Upon his brow shame is ashamed to sit"), the Nurse responds: "Will you speak well of him that kill'd your cousin?" Juliet's reply, a monologue beginning with, "Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?" is one of the more raw and beautiful passages in the play. I decided to learn it, and I loved the words even more.
It was only after I memorized and practiced it for several days that I knew why it was so moving. I had always thought of the two leads as these mad, foolish teenagers in love, and this is the only way I thought of them.
As I recited the words to no one on Friday night, I began to think of Juliet differently. She isn't sentimental. She isn't a young girl with a crush. She is a young woman about to be put into a forced marriage at thirteen years old, older than many mothers in Verona. She is raised by obstinate parents and an intolerable nurse, in a city where she is at war with half its population. She meets a young man, and their meeting is her first indication of a life outside the one that has been built for her. She wants to throw everything else away, despite the familial wrath that will fall upon her.
And then he is taken away. Her chance at happiness is exiled from Verona.
'Tybalt is dead, and Romeo--banished;' That 'banished,' that one word 'banished,' Hath slain ten thousand Tybalts. Tybalt's death Was woe enough, if it had ended there: Or, if sour woe delights in fellowship And needly will be rank'd with other griefs, Why follow'd not, when she said 'Tybalt's dead,' Thy father, or thy mother, nay, or both, Which modern lamentations might have moved? But with a rear-ward following Tybalt's death, 'Romeo is banished,' to speak that word, Is father, mother, Tybalt, Romeo, Juliet, All slain, all dead. 'Romeo is banished!' There is no end, no limit, measure, bound, In that word's death; no words can that woe sound.
There is good reason the play is called a tragedy and not a romance. Now that I have more thoughtfully considered Juliet, I wonder if her and Romeo's brief relationship was even born of love. The love-at-first-sight phenomenon has always been arguable, but what I mean is: Did they love each other, or did their initial attraction simply open their eyes to the existence of a world outside of their families' bounds? Was their affection born not of attraction but of recognition -- that here is someone else who understands, who needs the same things I do?
Then again, what is love if not those things?
When I was younger, I was always upset by adults who dismissed me simply because of my age. I still am. It is willful ignorance to choose one part of a person and view her only for that. Yet even with a character like Juliet, about whom we really know so little, she is more than simply a star-cross'd lover. I am thankful that it only took a few days of speaking her words, living in her mind, to open mine.