‘Romeo and Juliet’ was the first Shakespeare play I ever read. I started with a graphic version when I was around seven and progressed to the text just as I started secondary school. I puzzled over the language but disentangled its meaning slowly, carefully, eager to connect with this girl who was almost of an age with me. I memorised one speech, practised it in front of a mirror countless times, in the way that cooler, more popular kids sang pop songs with their hairbrushes held to their mouths in wallpapered, shagpile carpeted bedrooms just like mine.
Yet, it was not Juliet’s famous call to her lover that made me fold in upon myself and empathise so strongly, but that speech which begins with her embarrassment at being overheard, and goes on to be a declaration, boldness made possible by dark skies:
‘Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face,
Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek
For that which thou hast heard me speak tonight.’
What she is about to say is shocking, will render her vulnerable, but in her courageousness, she takes a chance and blurts out not only her feelings for Romeo, but her fears, her insecurity. It is a momentous thing for a wealthy, largely cloistered, adolescent girl to do. Years later, when I had just left my teens, I went to what is called Juliet’s balcony in Verona. It isn’t at all of course, Juliet didn’t exist, but nevertheless, impressionable and besotted with the man who had brought me there, I stood in those high ceilinged, white medieval rooms, airy and lovely, and felt incongruously how claustrophobic they might have felt to a medieval girl whose whole life was mapped out in front of her and had nothing to do with the hurt in her chest or the ache between her legs or the red flush of excitement that swept through her at the touch of a palm on hers.
She asks Romeo, ‘Dost thou love me?’ She adds quickly that she knows he will say he does and that she will ‘take thy word’ but she begs him to think, be honest, tell her only if he is sure. She even laughs at her own actions, thinks that yes, of course, like convention demands, she should have been more coy, smiled and said ‘nay’. She is worried that he would have liked her more if she had done that, been a challenge, more difficult to woo and win. She even says she ‘would have been more strange’ if he hadn’t overheard her earlier. Yet in saying this she is compounding her own position – he has been told twice now how she feels and what she wants from him is honest reciprocity. When he gives it, there is both benediction and relief, yet it makes the tragedy inevitable.
The speech is a timeless glance at a young woman caught by her emotion, defying convention, although also bound by it, bravely risking censure or worse. Her speech is uninterrupted; she receives no reassurance (and therefore the audience doesn’t either) about how it will go. Even the exchange that follows is uncertain, remember it is Juliet who insists:
‘If that thy bent of love be honourable,
Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow’
It is a suspended and suspenseful revelation of a dilemma triggered by emotion. Juliet is conventionally depicted as brave, but it is not just when she swallows the sleeping draft, but here where all can be lost with a word. She parades her feelings, regardless of convention, breaking away from her accepted and expected familial role, and in doing so allows her own vulnerability to be exposed. In her brash insecurity, her hesitant daring, Juliet speaks across the centuries of the exquisite hurting of an adolescent in love.
I taught the play once, to an all female class at a university in another country, in a culture far more alien to me than Juliet’s medieval Verona had seemed when I first found it. But the commonalities appeared, there were arranged marriages; families that got on and were of a similar ranking in the local hierarchy and others that did not; wealthy young women who had been protected but nevertheless nurtured secret dreams and desires.
I shared my thoughts on the play and watched fear flicker from eyes that were the only thing visible behind masks of black. The risk, the daring was almost unimaginable. But while the ending of the play did bring censure from students who thought that Juliet had only got what she deserved, that she should have been more obedient to her parents, more mindful of decency, there were a quiet few whose expressions said something else. I imagined them then, daring to speak perhaps, on another night, to a different boy, and worried for the consequences.
Photograph © Spencer Wright