The Problem of Age in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet


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In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the incredibly young age of the two lovers, Romeo and Juliet plays a crucial role in the direction and the outcome of the play. An essay by J. Karl Franson called, "Too soon marr'd" is my primary source for this paper, Franson writes about the symbolism of numbers Shakespeare uses throughout the play.Their age suggests that they are not responsible for the tragic ending to the play, or the circumstances in which they find themselves involved with. Throughout the play many references are given to suggest the ages of Romeo and Juliet. The theory I found to back up this claim involves a symbolizing of numbers in reference to Juliet's age. According to this theory, throughout the play there are many factors that are symbolizing Juliet's young age, such as the number of letters in her full name, the number of times Romeo refers to her by name, and the number of sonnets which are spoken between Romeo and Juliet. Some other uses of structural numerology include the number of guests invited to Capulet's party and the time sequence between Romeo and Juliet.

Although Romeo and Juliet was set during the Elizabethan time period, there are many distinct parts that are not felt by historians to be accurate. Such as the idea that Elizabethan couples married at such a young age, as in Romeo and Juliet. In contrast, most Elizabethan women married between the ages of 25- 26, and the men between 27-29. This is the oldest average marrying age for any society known (Franson, p. 2). Actually, Elizabethans believed that women being married at a young age and having sex with your husband led to permanent damage to your health. For the young man, getting married and having sex would lead to impaired physical and mental development and together the young married couple would produce sickly children. (Franson p.l) The earliest accepted age to become a mother was 18 years old, and the ideal ages for women to be married was 20 and for men was 30 years old. It has been said by one historian that Shakespeare wrote this play about the young lovers to show the dangers of marrying at such a young age, and it has even been suggested that this stemmed from his first marriage at 18, which was not successful (Franson p. 112).

Since Shakespeare obviously knew the socially accepted norm for men and women to be married, and he still made Romeo and Juliet extremely young, it suggests in the play that there will be some tragic outcome to the young lovers actions.

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And inevitably there will be some dire consequences from the the entire play seems to suggest something bad is going marriage, to happen it is only a matter of time before the tragedy occurs (Franson p. 2).

Numerical symbolism is seen throughout the entire play, in reference to Juliet's young age. This sort of writing was very common to Elizabethan audiences to pick up on. According to texts I have read, Elizabethan audiences were much more sophisticated than we are today, and wouldeasily notice all of the numerical symbolism throughout the play. However, theater audiences today would most likely not even notice any of the symbolism, because we are not trained as Elizabethans to pick up on such subtle parts of the plays we attend. (Franson p.2)

The numbers 13 and 14 are represented on many different occasions throughout the play, this is suggesting that Juliet herself is between 13 and 14 years of age. We know this to be true, because of the conversation between the Nurse and Lady Capulet. During their conversation, both women are trying to figure out how close to 14 Juliet is, since this is the age that was socially acceptable to be married according to this play, and Lady Capulet herself was married at 13, and had Juliet when she was 14. The nurse recalls Juliet was born on Lammas Eue at night, which is July 31, and Lammas Day is August 1. When the nurse asks Lady Capulet how long it was until Lammastide she replies a "fortnight and odd day", and according to Franson, odd day is known to be 3 days. So, the play began on July 14, a fortnight and odd days prior to Lammas Day and the play ends 13 days before Juliet's 14 birthday (Franson p.4).

Another example that Franson uses is the number of letters in Juliet's full name which has 13 letters, suggesting Juliet is 13 years old, which is true, she is not yet 14. Juliet is also the 13th named character to enter the play, and finally Romeo refers to Juliet by name exactly 14 times during the play. Although some people would claim that this was coincidence, it seems unlikely given all the other references to Juliet's age during the play. Another example is the four, 14-line sonnets that Romeo and Juliet speak to each other (Franson p. 4).

Romeo and Juliet is filled with symbolic references to their young age and inexperience. The tragic outcome of the play is being set up from the beginning of the play. Shakespeare's own feelings that young marriage leads to dire consequences is shown and proven throughout his play. But there are other factors besides the young marriage that led to the downfall of both Romeo and Juliet. Society and the pressures put on them by their parents who were to busy feuding to realize what was happening contributed greatly to the demise of the two young lovers.

For Juliet it began with the proposal of Paris and her parents forcing the marriage on her, when it was clear it was not what she wanted. Even the nurse, who tried to help in the beginning, ended up trying to convince Juliet to marry Paris. Capulet and Lady Capulet's goal was for Juliet to marry Paris in order to become more powerful and join with his family. Because of her parents and their thoughtlessness towards Juliet she was inevitably led to her suicide.

For Romeo, it wasn't so much his parents as in Juliet’s case, although they would have not approved of him marrying a Capulet, it was more society. Because of his banishment from Verona, Romeo was unable to talk to Juliet directly, and the message she sent to him was unable to get to him in time, and this led to Romeo's suicide.

Throughout the play, and all his plays, Shakespeare is constantly asking ethical questions and making people think about about all sorts of social issues, in this case, feuding. Ultimately, the feud caused the suicides of the two lovers. If it hadn't been for the feud, Romeo and Juliet would have been able to tell their parents about their love for each other, and everything would have been all right in the end. Instead, society led them to their deaths. It seems as though in this play Romeo and Juliet were the adults, who were mature enough to realize that family names don't matter, and nothing matters except love and love for each other, and this is something that they had together in their life and in their death.

I would now like to bring into discussion the role that Friar Laurence and the nurse had in the downfall of Romeo and Juliet. Friar Laurence married the young couple in secret and allowed them to keep everything from their parents. But even worse, he supplied pretend poison to Juliet to fake her death, and by doing this allowed Juliet's parents to suffer her "death" when it was all unnecessary. From one stand point you could say that Friar Laurence corrupted Romeo and Juliet, he was, when you look at it from this angle, a very detrimental influence on both of the children. Although his intentions were good and he was trying to help what he thought was true love, what he did was still wrong. But, you must also think, Romeo and Juliet may have done something just as crazy by themselves. I am sure Friar Laurence felt by him intervening, he was preventing a tragedy, but in the end he only caused more pain to Romeo and Juliet, as well as the Capulets and the Montagues.

The nurse also played a crucial role in Romeo and Juliet's deaths. Although she did not have as direct a part in the deaths of the two lovers, she was still involved. First of all, she helped Juliet talk to Romeo and even allowed him to spend the night in her room. She encouraged their relationship because she knew it would make Juliet happy, she knew about their wedding, and did not tell anyone about it. But, when Romeo was banished, the nurse wanted Juliet to forget about Romeo and marry Paris. The nurse first encouraged her to love Romeo and then wanted her to change her feelings and marry Paris, this would be hard for a young girl to deal with.

No matter what or who was the cause of Romeo and Juliet's death, the outcome is always going to be the same. It could have been the young age they were married, the role of society and of the Capulet's and the Montague's, or Friar Laurence and the Nurse, but it really makes no difference in the end. Romeo and Juliet knew they couldn't live in a world surrounded by hate, feuding, and anger. And especially in a world where they couldn’t be together and have each others love, so they went to a place where they could be together, so maybe it isn't such a tragedy after all.


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