How does Shakespeare present Juliet ?
At the beginning of the extract, Juliet is firstly aligned with light, and the verb “ breaks” implies that her appearance at the window could be compared to sunrise. She is directly compared with the sun in the metaphor “ Juliet is the sun.” having connotations of a warm and life-giving force. The full stop here shows his absolute respect, awe and unquestioning devotion. Shakespeare also aligns Juliet with light elsewhere in the play, for example when Romeo first sees her at the Capulet ball. His exclamation of “ O she teaches the torches to burn bright !” is monosyllabic , conveying his surprise and wonder. This metaphor also has alliterative qualities. The plosives in “burn bright” arguably convey Romeo’s depth of feeling at first sight. The suggestion that Juliet is a model for fire, teaching them to burn, also conveys her radiance and stunning beauty.
It is implied that Juliet will act as a new beginning for Romeo, ridding him of his previous inertia and lethargy when obsessing over Rosaline. His language whilst describing her is still ardent and passionate, but has none of the artificiality used when talking about Rosaline – this could emphasise Juliet’s purity, meaning that she inspires Romeo to be more genuine. Shakespeare conveys Romeo’s deep desire through his frequent use of apostrophe and exclamation marks which shows the intensity of his emotion. Occasionally, the syllable count in the iambic pentameter is out of balance, such as in the lines “ O that she knew she were !” and “ That I might touch that cheek !” which could show Romeo’s frustration and desperation to make himself known to her. The endstop after his plea to her to “ cast off” the moon’s vestal livery shows the forcefulness of his love.
Juliet is also associated with celestial imagery throughout the play. As well as being compared with the sun, her eyes are metaphorically described as “ two of the fairest stars in all of heaven,” following the Elizabethan traditions of cosmic conceits and ideas to describe love. Shakespeare also conveys her innocence and purity by describing her as a “maid” of the moon. The moon itself has connotations of fertility and could be a reference to the classical goddess Diana, who symbolised chastity and maidenhood. The idea that Juliet is superior to the moon and Diana also emphasises her absolute purity and other-worldly characteristics.
From her first appearance at the ball, Juliet is also surrounded by religious imagery. Romeo addresses her as “ dear Saint,” merging the language of love and religion, and having connotations of pardon and redemption. Their conversation becomes an extended metaphor of love as a salvation, and the semantic field of worship continues throughout the play. Whilst under her balcony, Romeo refers to her directly as “bright angel,” the adjective bright having connotations once more of light and fire. The noun “ angel” also conveys her heavenly-like purity, suggesting that she excels any mortal. Romeo’s declaration that he will be “ new baptised” also conveys the strength of his love for Juliet – he is willing to give up everything for her as he sees her as his new religion. This could be compared to the metaphor “ Juliet is the sun” as she has now become the centre of Romeo’s world.
As a character, Juliet is presented as more pragmatic than Romeo. Whereas Romeo still uses extravagant hyperboles, and is in some ways retaining his role of the romantic courtly hero, Juliet is established as more genuine and practical. She is almost frightened by the passion that Romeo displays, wishing to dwell or form. Her question of “ Dost thou love me ?” conveys a sense of vulnerability. However her promise of her “ true-love passion” shows a mixture of feelings, both intensity and sincerity. The simplicity and lucidity of her language displays her innocence, but also genuine feeling. She also sees Romeo as the “god of my idolatry,” implying that both lovers see each other as the centre of their world, conveying the strength of their love. At their first meeting, they speak to each other in a sonnet, a traditional form of Elizabethan love poem, showing the intensity of feeling and perhaps their pre-destined meeting.
However, despite her extreme youth and innocence, Juliet is also presented as having intelligent and sensible qualities. She is aware of correct form and behaviour, for example when answering her mother on the topic of marriage she replies carefully and obediently with “ It is an honour I dream not of.” Her relationship with the Nurse also highlights her ability for quick-witted dialogue, for example her complaint of “ How art thou out of breath when thou hast breath to tell me that thou art out of breath ?” Although normally practical and simple in her language, she is also capable of extravagant and romantic conceits, comparing her love of Romeo to a flower in the metaphor “ this bud of love …may prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.” The conversation between her and Romeo at the balcony is that of equally matched lovers, also perhaps implying their fated meeting. When leaving the balcony, she departs on a couplet, rhyming “ sorrow” and “ morrow”, showing her capable of making a decision for herself.
However despite her normal obedience, Juliet can sometimes be seen as a non-conforming or even rebellious character. As a woman in the Elizabethan time period, Juliet would be socially expected to conform with her father’s choice of husband. In the patriarchal society of Verona, she is treated as a commodity, to be bought and sold. Even her mother, Lady Capulet, also married at a young age, acknowledges that her priority is to make a good marriage, and her praise of Paris in deliberately stylised and artificial language stresses the code of manners that Juliet must obey. Lady Capulet and the Nurse fight for her attention throughout this scene, and her two lines, albeit dignified and measured, show her loss of voice as her elders presume to speak for her. Marriage is seen as a transaction, and Juliet merely as an economic commodity, used as property to advance the family name. Even Romeo views her as “merchandise”, having connotations of material love and commerce.
Despite this, Juliet does not always conform with the rules of society. Her declaration of love for Romeo on the balcony would be seen as a fundamental breach of maidenly decorum (although she may have been excused by the audience as she did not realise Romeo was present.) Juliet is also presented by Shakespeare as questioning form and social expectations rather than complying. Her questioning of language and identity instead of her arguably inappropriate love is shown through her question “ What’s in a name ?” She recognises that correct form has been broken , and states “ farewell compliment,” showing her disregard of convention. Later on in the play, her refusal to obey her father and marry Paris is an example of her rebellious qualities. Her invocation of “ Saint Peter’s Church” that “ [Paris] … shall not make [her] a joyful bride” shows the strength of her opinion and feeling. Her exclamation of “ If all else fail, myself have the power to die” goes against the most fundamental human instinct, to survive, and shows her willingness to sacrifice herself for the love she believes in.
On another level throughout the play, Juliet’s eventual death is foreshadowed from the beginning. Described in the prologue as a star-crossed lover, she is marked out as ill-fated and doomed to die in tragic circumstances. At her first introduction from her father, Juliet is presented as apart from the mundane male-directed society all around her, being described metaphorically as a “ stranger in the world.” This has connotations of her youth and innocence, but also implies that she is merely a visitor on the mortal world, soon to pass on. The statement of Capulet that she is the “hopeful lady of [his] earth” is starkly contrasted by Romeo’s opinion that she is “ for earth too dear.” He recognises her as an other-worldly creature, and he personifies the night as using her as an ornament. The simile comparing her to “rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear” has connotations of exoticism and brightness. The phrase “ [she] hangs upon the cheek of night” also has magical and other-worldly connotations, implying that she is defying gravity and self-sufficient, embodying and creating new worlds.
Hence although portrayed as intelligent, capable, and innocent, Juliet’s purity and beauty is foreshadowed to end. Shakespeare’s emphasis of her youth, and the fact that she is an only child, only highlights the tragedy of her death. The Nurse describes her as the “prettiest babe” and the “ sweetest lady” and throughout his description of her, Romeo’s language is full of hyperboles. Being more fair than the moon, and having eyes “ so bright that birds would sing and think it were not night !” shows that her beauty and brilliance is metaphorically so powerful that she can remake the night or day as her own. These superlative qualities also suggest that Juliet’s characteristics are too extreme, the world simply cannot accommodate her. The simile later on that “the brightness of her cheek would shame those stars as daylight doth a lamp;” shows her to excel any natural beauty or light, being elementally too powerful for this world. Such radiance surely cannot last, and when her “light” ends, Romeo also dies, seeing her as his animating spirit of his world.