Romeo and Juliet–The Betrayal (2 of 3)

(Edited 28 March to add a comparison with Karl Kraus, the Viennese satirist.)

The Second Blow: Dad

Juliet could handle her mother. Her father is quite another matter. I’ve shown you quite a lot of Old Capulet, and he’s generally come off as rather clueless. We’re about to see that he is not so much a senile old duffer (and yes, the redundancy in “senile old” is deliberate) as a powerful man so completely focused on his own interests that he doesn’t even notice others’. Though how could it be otherwise when—as Luhrmann makes clearest—he’s essentially the head of a Mafia family? (Yes, we all know about Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, who feigned insanity for over twenty years, but even if Capulet set the example for him, the mask drops in this scene.)

It starts innocently enough; entering to Juliet crying, he thinks she’s still mourning Tybalt, but he shortly gets down to business:

How now, wife?
Have you deliver’d to her our decree?

As we expected, Lady Capulet punts to him

Ay sir, but she will none, she gives you thanks.
I would the fool were married to her grave.

(Lady Capulet will get her wish sooner than she thinks.) Old Capulet doesn’t quite get how Juliet, whom he hasn’t even seen since before she met Romeo, can possibly reject his plan for her. You’ve got to admit her response is not exactly forthright

Soft. take me with you, take me with you, wife.
How? Will she none? Doth she not give us thanks?
Is she not proud? Doth she not count her blest,
Unworthy as she is, that we have wrought
So worthy a gentleman to be her bride

Not proud you have, but thankful, that you have.
Proud can I never be of what I hate,
But thankful even for hate that is meant love.

In brief, thanks but no thanks. And now comes the explosion. We all underestimated the old man:

How, how, how, how? Chopp’d logic? What is this?
‘Proud’ and ‘I thank you’ and ‘I thank you not’
And yet ‘not proud’? Mistress minion you,
Thank me no thankings nor proud me no prouds,
But fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday next
To go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church,
Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither.
Out, you green-sickness carrion! Out, you baggage!
You tallow-face!

Is this how he always talks to his family? From the women’s shocked reaction, almost certainly not; he more likely doesn’t talk to them at all. What is notable in this tirade is the extent to which he fails even to see Juliet as human. First she is a horse (“fettle your fine joints”), then a bundle to be dragged to the church “on a hurdle,” and finally “baggage.”  For her father, Juliet is a lump of property, and—if she really has the temerity to refuse the deal he’s made for her—not especially valuable property at that.

Lady Capulet and Juliet both try to interject, but Old Capulet is on a roll:

Hang thee young baggage, disobedient wretch!
I tell thee what—get thee to church a Thursday,
Or never after look me in the face.

There’s that “baggage” again. (Just parenthetically, note the irony to us again; Juliet will never look him in the face after Thursday, because she’ll be dead.) If he can’t use her as he pleases, Juliet is nothing but a burden to him—as he goes on to state with vehemence:

Speak not, reply not, do not answer me.
My fingers itch. Wife, we scarce thought us blest
That God had lent us but this only child;
But now I see this one is one too much,
And that we have a curse in having her.

For me, this is the most shattering moment in the play.

The emotional violence wrought by Old Capulet is far more devastating than the physical violence of the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt. At the start of this scene, less than 150 lines ago, Juliet foresaw a life filled with love and joy. Now, as her own father curses her with a bully’s blind rage, ready to eject her from the bosom of her own family, she faces the choice between a miserable, lonely death and a fate worse than death:

God’s bread, it makes me mad! Day, night, work, play,
Alone, in company, still my care hath been
To have her match’d. And having now provided
A gentleman of noble parentage,
Of fair demesnes, youthful, and nobly lign’d,
Stuff’d, as they say, with honourable parts,
Proportion’d as one’s thought would wish a man—
And then to have a wretched puling fool,
A whining mammet, in her fortune’s tender,
To answer ‘I’ll not wed; I cannot love,
I am too young, I pray you, pardon me!’
But, and you will not wed, I’ll pardon you!
Graze where you will, you shall not house with me.
Look to’t, think on’t, I do not use to jest.
Thursday is near. Lay hand on heart. Advise.
And you be mine,I’ll give you to my friend;
And you be not, hang! Beg! Starve! Die in the streets!
For by my soul I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee,
Nor what is mine shall never do thee good.
Trust to’t, bethink you. I’ll not be forsworn.(III.v.176-195)

“An you be mine”—my property—“I’ll give you to my friend/And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets.” Such is the price of Juliet’s, indeed women’s independence in Verona, and in Shakespeare’s London.  Of course it would be wrong to characterize Shakespeare as a radical feminist, or a feminist of any kind. Yet with unclouded vision he depicts the social conditions that faced a woman who wanted any kind of independence in his society—the likelihood of being sold by one man to another—and quietly draws the conclusions for Juliet. The satirist Karl Kraus liked to say that he was merely putting fin-de-siècle Vienna “between quotation marks,” so that it condemned itself out of its own mouth. Here, three hundred years earlier, Shakespeare does the job for Verona.

There have always been some who argue that Shakespeare was a political conservative, as if such labels meant anything obvious when applied to him, and I suppose you could say that here his depiction of Verona society shows what happens when you try to buck it, so you shouldn’t bother. Be quiet, women, and get back in your corner. Anybody who really means this simply hasn’t been paying attention—unless they believe that women are “baggage.” The thing about Romeo and Juliet’s love isn’t the sappy romanticism, nor is it the widely held idea that they were fated to be a couple. It’s that they choose each other despite every contrary indication from everything they know. This scene is the true low point of the play (coming, by the way, exactly where today’s screenwriting instructors say it should be—way to go, Will!) because it shows how casually that choice can be negated.

Comments are closed.