Marriage, Shakespeare’s Elizabethan Era, and Modern Day America

After discussing the significance of the use of the word “eye” and the role physical beauty has in William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, it sparked some debate about marriage in the Elizabethan era and its relevance in Modern Day America. Was this because of the patriarchy and the social constructs of Shakespeare’s time, or was this simply just a case of love at first sight?

When I first read Romeo & Juliet in middle school, I didn’t pay much attention to the social constructs of the Elizabethan era, in fact, I believed that perhaps “love at first sight” was indeed, very much real.  If that was how every Disney princess fell in love, why not then for Romeo and Juliet? But as I delved into the play a second time, I noticed something increasingly disturbing about the role of marriage. It became apparent that it wasn’t just Romeo and Juliet who spoke tenderly about one another’s physical attraction, but in fact, every character present in the play thus far. According to the findings of my group today, we found at least eight lines each per act, that focused on “physical beauty.”

For instance, when Romeo melancholically describes his love for Rosaline to Benvolio in Act 1. Scene 1, he sighs, “She will not stay the siege of loving terms, Nor bide th’ encounter of assailing eyes, Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold. O’ she is rich in beauty; only poor that, when she dies, with beauty dies her store.” Now, at first glance, you read that line and think Romeo is love-struck, but when you break each sentence down to its core, there’s only one thought that comes to mind, and it’s that Romeo is what modern day girls would call, a creep. Why? Well, according to Penguin’s footnotes, the line “nor bide th’ encounter of assailing eyes” translates to, “she will not allow me to woo her” or in other words, Rosaline wants nothing to do with Romeo and his romantic urges. But then he goes on to further say, “only poor that, with her beauty dies her store” which then translates too, “it’s a shame when she dies she will not have children that will resemble her beauty.” This is not upsetting just because it is sexist, it is upsetting that women have been enduring this notion that to be fruitful is a woman’s primary duty since the Elizabethan era, and yet are still plagued with that same responsibility today.

Another instance in the play where marriage is dependent on physical attraction, is initiated from a female character! For example in Act 1. Scene 3, Capulet’s Wife encourages Juliet to marry Prince by stating, “Younger than you, here in Verona, ladies of esteem are made already mothers” continuing, “Can you love the gentleman? Read o’er the volume of young Paris’ face, and find delight writ there with beauty’s pen.” Capulet’s Wife’s insistence on marrying Juliet off to Prince when she is not even at the age of fourteen, just so she can fulfill her duty as a “lady of esteem,” becomes increasingly dangerous when she encourages her daughter to merely look at Prince and all of his “beauty” and decide on that night, if she can love him. This reliance on love simply on the terms of physical attributes, continues onwards throughout the rest of the play.

The heart of this discovery however, lies not with Shakespeare’s story of an Elizabethan romance, but as to why in the twenty-first century, women, are still held to the same social constructs. Why is it that women are still viewed as incubators for future generations? Why is it that today, in some states in America, women are shamed for receiving abortions or seeking reproductive medicine?  Why is it, that the bodies of women and their rights, are being legislated by a majority of older white men? If it was only acceptable to think a woman was “an esteemed lady” if she bore children in the Elizabethan era, why then, is it still acceptable to think that way today, not just in some parts of United States, but throughout the rest of the world? What does that say about our willingness to change?

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