How Toxic Masculinity Killed Romeo and Juliet
With the rise of the #MeToo movement and women’s marches all around the world, stereotypical perceptions of gender roles are being called into question daily, with an emphasis on the nature of societal female oppression. Nevertheless, this hot topic is nothing new and dates back to the premodern era where even William Shakespeare seemed to have an opinion on the matter. In Romeo and Juliet, there is evidence of the author’s critique of traditional gender roles. In the realistically patriarchal society in which the plays takes place, Juliet not only defies societal norms by expressing bold female agency, but Romeo also serves as a sort of role model for Shakespeare’s alternative version of the “ideal male.”
From the opening lines of the very first scene of act 1, we already see an affirmation of masculinity. In a conversation between Gregory and Sampson, two servingmen of the house of Capulet, Gregory challenges Sampson’s dedication to the Capulets by claiming he is not “quickly moved to strike,” to which Sampson replies that “a dog of the house of Montague moves me.”1. Shakespeare suggests that simply fighting in this longstanding feud is not enough, but that a real man has to be ready to fight quickly, as if without even thinking about what he is actually fighting for—which no one seems to know in the Capulet-Montague feud anyway. In response, Gregory pushes Sampson even further, stating that “to move is to stir, and to be valiant is to stand. Therefore, if thou art moved, thou runn’st away,” which essentially implies that Sampson would run away from a fight, and therefore lacks heroism, a staple of masculinity 2 Becoming increasingly defensive, Sampson undoubtedly asserts his masculinity by calling women “the weaker vessels,” which implies that weakness is looked down upon in men, and by bragging that he would “cut off [the Montague’s maids’] heads . . . the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads. Take it in what sense thou wilt.”3 Not only does this joke seek to normalize sexual violence, murder, and rape, but it demonstrates the fragility of masculinity and the extremes which men felt they needed to go just to prove it to themselves and their peers.
Further, it is not unusual for characters in Romeo & Juliet to equate such violence to sexual imagery. Throughout the play, the swords the men carry with them at all times are commonly referred to in phallic puns, such as a “tool,” and it is in the same scene that Sampson refers to his sword as a “naked weapon.” While this is likely meant to add a comedic aspect to the tragedy, it also emphasizes how these weapons of violence literally act as proxies for the one true physical marker of manhood. 4 Not only does Shakespeare recognize this symbol of toxic masculinity, but he also seems to critique it, as when Capulet calls for his sword, and his wife replies “a crutch, a crutch! Why call you for a sword?”5 The word “crutch” as a synonym for sword highlights the notion that Capulet, one of the leaders of this futile family feud between the Capulets and the Montagues, literally relies on this fruitless violence to uphold the appearance of his own masculinity. Likewise, that his wife is the one to point out this relationship hints that women, although looked down upon by men as the “weaker vessels,” are not oblivious to the delicacy of masculinity, nor do all women passively accept the patriarchal standards of their society, especially in this Shakespeare play.
On the other hand, Romeo displays a drastically different version of manliness. Far from the fragile masculinity plaguing those around him, Romeo appears very secure in his maleness, in part due to the transformative nature of his love with Juliet. For instance, when Tybalt attempts to provoke a fight out of Romeo, he responds with love rather than hate and aggression. He even declares “good Capulet, which name I tender as dearly as mine own, be satisfied.”6 Even though Tybalt doesn’t know it, Romeo’s secret marriage to Juliet has extended his love not only to her but to her entire family—which includes her cousin Tybalt—thus resolving any of Romeo’s familial hatred for the Capulets, even if no one else feels the same yet. Nevertheless, upon witnessing Romeo’s refusal to fight, Mercutio exclaims “O calm, dishonorable, vile submission!” and takes the fatal fight with Tybalt upon himself.7 Not only is Romeo’s attempt to finally make peace with the Capulets and offer forgiveness to Tybalt seen as weak, but it is also viewed as a surrender of his own masculinity. Similarly, it is Tybalt who originally claims “what, drawn, and talk of peace? I hate the word as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.”8 Although Romeo does not seem to mind Tybalt’s ridicule, Mercutio—who does not belong to either the Capulet or Montague house—enters himself in the duel in Romeo’s place. Despite Romeo being Tybalt’s true enemy, he still agrees to fight Mercutio, thus demonstrating the endless desperation to prove one’s own masculinity. Further, if Romeo’s refusal to fight is considered a “submission,” then Tybalt, with his overt exhibitions of violence and strength, along with his disregard for peace and his thirst for asserting his own male dominance, is likely meant to embody the stereotypical, ideal man at the time. Yet, Shakespeare clearly paints Tybalt as a villain, while Romeo—whose unfortunate fate is revealed in the prologue—represents the kind, loving hero the reader roots for nonetheless.
Even though Romeo attempts to break up the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio, Tybalt still ends up defeating Mercutio, who then blames Romeo’s good-intentioned interference for his fatal wound. Upon mourning the loss of Mercutio, Romeo exclaims “my reputation stained with Tybalt’s slander . . . O sweet Juliet, thy beauty hath made me effeminate and in my temper softened valor’s steel!”[22.214.171.124-114.] Although formerly representing Shakespeare’s alternative male ideal, Romeo gets sucked back into society’s predetermined gender expectations and concern for his reputation. He begins to question the personal effects of his love for Juliet, blaming her beauty for making him act more feminine and “[softening] valor’s steel,” a direct metaphor for the physical weakening of his manhood. In turn, this signifies Romeo’s loss of a part of his traditional masculinity, as well as his fear of progressing towards castration, both physically and metaphorically. Similarly, the fact that it is looked down upon for a man to possess any feminine-perceived characteristics whatsoever—even values such as peace-keeping—not only reiterates the fragility of masculinity but also underlines Romeo’s urgency to regain his sense of traditional, “ideal” manliness. This is likely why Romeo, who just moments before preached peace and love, now challenges Tybalt to another duel to avenge Mercutio’s death.
Juliet is also not one to entirely conform to gender norms. For instance, even though her family expects her to accept an arranged marriage, as was common for women of her standing, she plans her marriage to Romeo—the true love of her young life—in secret and then sets in motion her own plan to escape with him. Even though it all goes horribly wrong in the end, she still utilizes her strong will, intelligence, and what little power she has to be her own agent of change. Additionally, she is brave enough to stand up to her parents, rejecting the idea of marriage to Paris. Yet, her angry father still replies with a stream of insults, calling her a “young baggage!” and a “disobedient wretch!”9 This scene also highlights the outspokenness of Juliet’s female nurse, another strong female character throughout the play. When Juliet’s father becomes irate at the idea of even a remotely disobedient daughter, it is her nurse, not her mother, who stands up for Juliet, responding “you are to blame, my lord, to rate her so.”10 Not only does she share her thoughts candidly with Lord Capulet, speaking what some would consider ‘out of turn’ for a woman, especially of her class, but her bravery and confidence also allow her to selflessly look out for Juliet’s best interests when no one else does.
Moreover, the night of Romeo and Juliet’s wedding, when Romeo is supposed to come to Juliet’s room to consummate their marriage, Juliet sits in her room and longs for her new husband to come to her so that she may lose her virginity to him. This soliloquy is particularly interesting because it reveals the physical desires of a woman, something previously unexplored and still considered taboo even in today’s pop culture. Alone in her room, Juliet repeatedly calls “come, civil night,” as she cannot wait any longer for Romeo to arrive.11 Unbeknownst to Juliet, Romeo has just killed Tybalt and although their night does not go as planned, her yearning to “learn me how to lose a winning match, played for a pair of stainless maidenhoods” is not diminished.12 Not only is female desire—in any form but especially physical—not often recognized by a male-driven, patriarchal society, but a candid and lengthy expression of such longings would certainty not be deemed “ladylike.” This simple act of sharing such an honest part of herself with the audience is in its own right a resistance to the strict gender roles meant to dictate both Juliet’s ways of thinking and expressing herself in society.
Overall, the main characters in Romeo and Juliet not only reveal Shakespeare’s rejection of the kind of toxic masculinity that still plagues patriarchal societies today, but also support the notion of female agency and autonomy, a rare concept at the time. Additionally, it seems like no coincidence that one of the rarest and almost fantastical loves in history is shared between Romeo and Juliet, both of whom tend to operate outside the traditional gender roles assigned to them. It is almost as if their intimacy—which stems from their rare rejection of traditional gender expectations—is Shakespeare’s commentary on the faults of unequal, gendered power structures, his way of highlighting how society’s useless gender dynamics are the true tragedy keeping love like Romeo and Juliet’s apart. Even though it may seem like Juliet gives into her own objectification when she pretends to agree to marry Paris—thus allowing both him and her father to use her like a piece of property—uncoincidentally this is also where things take a turn for the worse. Moreover, while Romeo’s death comes about from a bottle of poison, it is important to note that Juliet ends her life by impaling herself with Romeo’s deadly dagger, the very manifestation of masculinity at the time. Likewise, it is when Romeo reverts back to the confines of fragile masculinity, as defined by societal gender roles, that the story’s misfortunes escalate. By taking it upon himself to avenge Mercutio, consequently killing Tybalt, Romeo gets sent into exile, thus sparking the plot that eventually ends in a double suicide. Ultimately, it is Romeo’s submission into his own toxic masculinity that transforms this potential comedy into an epic tragedy.