In Act I, Paris petitions Capulet, Juliet’s father, to let him woo and marry his daughter. Capulet is less than enthused, though he doesn’t give Paris a hard “no.” Instead, he simply emphasizes Juliet’s young age, and further points out that there will be many “fresh female buds” at his ball, and so Paris should remain open-minded.
Capulet Gently Turns Down Paris
Juliet, Capulet points out, is too young (thirteen years old). In a couple of years, Paris is more than welcome to talk about possibly marrying her. Anyway, Capulet reminds Paris, the point is to get Juliet’s heart. His approval as her father is only a part of that process. It’s a humble and reasonable attitude which Capulet adopts. It even sounds modern to our ears today.
Capulet’s open-mindedness is also evident in his magnanimous attitude towards Romeo at his ball. Despite Tybalt wanting to confront Romeo and possibly attack him, Capulet instead suggests that Romeo has a good reputation in Verona and should be left alone. At least in the first part of the play, Capulet is a personification of moderation and amiability.
Capulet does emphasize to Paris, however , how important Juliet is for him:
“The earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she;(Act I, Scene II, 14-15, p.29).
She is the hopeful lady of my earth”
Some interpret this as to mean that Juliet’s sibling(s) have died, and therefore Juliet is his only “hope.” Rather, I believe that by this Capulet simply means that the trials and tribulations of life have left him so as to feel that he can only lay hope in his daughter, such that his “earth” is otherwise a fairly desolate place. He harbors no great ambition for himself, only that his daughter will be happy and carry on his legacy. Also, Capulet later states, “God had lent us but this only child” (Act III, Scene V, line 186, p.167). There isn’t much evidence that Shakespeare is implying that Juliet had siblings who passed away.
Capulet’s above tribute is the poignant and poetic manner in which he expresses his vast love for his daughter. It is therefore a weighty matter whom she might marry. Nevertheless, Capulet, by his tone, does not particularly try to lord it over Juliet in terms of her choice. Her consent is important too:
“But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart;(Act I, Scene II, lines 16-17)
My will to her consent is but a part.”
Juliet is Open-minded
As to Juliet’s attitude, the girl about whom so many plans and hopes are being laid, she remains agnostic. Her thoughts on the prospect of marriage:
“It is an honor that I dream not of.”(Act I, Scene III, line 73, p. 39).
Lady Capulet points out that ladies younger than her (thirteen-years-old) are made mothers, which put a different perspective on our current issues with teenage pregnancy. Here is an utterly unfamiliar view of when a girl should marry and become a mother as compared to our zeitgeist. It never fails to amuse freshmen to learn of Juliet’s scandalously young age.
Lady Capulet has focused all her powers of rhetoric to persuade her daughter that Paris is the man for her. She compares Paris to a book, in an extended metaphor. Juliet, then, would be the cover of the book:
“This precious book of love, this unbound lover,(Act I, Scene III, line 97- 98, p.41).
To beautify him only lacks a cover”
Here is a rather pretty metaphor about the complementary roles that men and women play for one another. And isn’t a man something of an “unbound book” without a woman? The metaphor suggests there is something wild about a man without the civilizing effect of a woman.
Juliet herself is not horrified by the prospect, but apparently she has never met Paris; or at least she has not properly evaluated him yet. Her mother asks her a pretty and strangely formulated question:
“Speak briefly, can you like of Paris’ love?”
Juliet’s equally enigmatic response:
“I’ll look to like, if looking liking move.”(Act I, Scene III, line 106-7, p. 39)
After Tybalt Dies
I would be remiss not to mention that Capulet dramatically changes his attitude in Act III, possibly because of the death of Tybalt, his nephew. When Juliet proves unreceptive to the renewed proposition of marrying Paris, Capulet darkly tells her that she will indeed marry Paris– on Thursday:
“I tell thee what–get thee to church a Thursday
Or never after look me in the face.”(Act III, Scene V, line 182-183, p.167)
Capulet, who was the picture of amiability in Act I, has now completely lost his temper. Capulet is “egged on by the grief surrounding Tybalt’s death” (Bloom 292). Now he perhaps craves some sense of stability, to steady family matters after the shock of his nephew’s death. Juliet is merely a victim of these circumstances, which has turned her kind-hearted father into a tyrant.
Now Juliet must shake off this parental authority, which has become so bellicose in the form of Capulet’s raging. Should Juliet defy her father, he would prefer that she leave his house for good. It has become a matter of great urgency that Juliet marry Paris, which obviously she cannot do, having married Romeo.
To be fair, Capulet is not aware that Juliet has married Romeo. If you recall when Lady Capulet first mentioned Paris to Juliet, before Juliet had met Romeo, she was merely agnostic on the question. By Act III, of course, marrying Paris is out of the question. Capulet’s ignorance of Juliet’s marriage to Romeo goes some way to explaining his incredulity at her ruling out of hand Paris. Nonetheless, the sense of urgency and the falling out of Juliet and her parents ushers the plot towards the crisis point.
Paris sheds a little more light on Capulet’s thinking in Act IV in a conversation with Friar Laurence:
Now, sir, her father counts it dangerous
That she do give her sorrow so much sway,
And in his wisdom hastens our marriage
To stop the inundation of her tears…(Act IV, Scene I, lines 11-14, pg. 175)
This suggests that Capulet intended the marriage to be for Juliet’s benefit. With that said, one gets the impression that the concept of Paris and Juliet’s marriage is for Capulet’s own piece of mind more than Juliet’s.
Paris a True Lover?
Paris as a character has such a secondary role to the passionate Romeo. He tends to play second fiddle, and his “love” for Juliet is a mere shadow of Romeo’s legendary love for Juliet. Yet is that completely fair?
Given that Paris is Juliet’s parents’ choice for her and not her choice makes him seem dull and even insufferable. This is part of the dramatic irony, as we the readers cringe to hear Paris trying to sweet-talk Juliet. Presuming they will be married, Paris appears foolishly confident when we know so much better.
Act V gives a different view of Paris, such that the wellspring of his affection for Juliet is deeper than one might have been suspected. After Juliet dies (apparently), Paris shows that for him, Juliet was not some ploy or some obligation to be avoided, as she viewed him. Rather, he really did regard her as a future wife and love of his life. After all, he shows up to the cemetery to honor her and pledges to do so every night:
“The obsequies that I for thee will keep
Nightly shall be to strew thy grave and weep.”(Act V, Scene II, lines 16-17, p. 219).
Who knew that Paris felt this way? This is the beauty of Shakespeare: even relatively minor characters have depth and are dynamic in surprising ways, just as people in our lives surprise us too.
An Arranged Marriage?
In Shakespeare’s day, the Elizabethean era, arranged marriages were still common. But interestingly, society was beginning to rebel against such arrangements (Akerman 273). In Act I of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s parents are not exactly arranging her marriage, but they are strongly suggesting it–especially Lady Capulet. In Act III, it starts to feel more like an arranged marriage, to be denied at much social cost to Juliet–homelessness, if we are to believe her father’s admonitions. In Act I, Juliet was initially open to this prospect. But once she meets Romeo, I’m afraid, it is all over for Paris.
- Ackerman, Diane. “A Natural History of Love.” Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Dallas: McDougal Littell, 1997 (pgs. 273- 278)
- Bloom, Allan. Love and Friendship. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
- Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Dallas: McDougal Littell, 1997
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