Having not quite reached her fourteenth birthday, Juliet is of an age that stands on the border between immaturity and maturity. At the play’s beginning however she seems merely an obedient, sheltered, naïve child. Though many girls her age—including her mother—get married, Juliet has not given the subject any thought. When Lady Capulet mentions Paris’s interest in marrying Juliet, Juliet dutifully responds that she will try to see if she can love him, a response that seems childish in its obedience and in its immature conception of love. Juliet seems to have no friends her own age, and she is not comfortable talking about sex (as seen in her discomfort when the Nurse goes on and on about a sexual joke at Juliet’s expense in Act 1, scene 3).
Juliet gives glimpses of her determination, strength, and sober-mindedness, in her earliest scenes, and offers a preview of the woman she will become during the four-day span of Romeo and Juliet. While Lady Capulet proves unable to quiet the Nurse, Juliet succeeds with one word (also in Act 1, scene 3). In addition, even in Juliet’s dutiful acquiescence to try to love Paris, there is some seed of steely determination. Juliet promises to consider Paris as a possible husband to the precise degree her mother desires. While an outward show of obedience, such a statement can also be read as a refusal through passivity. Juliet will accede to her mother’s wishes, but she will not go out of her way to fall in love with Paris.
Juliet’s first meeting with Romeo propels her full-force toward adulthood. Though profoundly in love with him, Juliet is able to see and criticize Romeo’s rash decisions and his tendency to romanticize things. After Romeo kills Tybalt and is banished, Juliet does not follow him blindly. She makes a logical and heartfelt decision that her loyalty and love for Romeo must be her guiding priorities. Essentially, Juliet cuts herself loose from her prior social moorings—her nurse, her parents, and her social position in Verona—in order to try to reunite with Romeo. When she wakes in the tomb to find Romeo dead, she does not kill herself out of feminine weakness, but rather out of an intensity of love, just as Romeo did. Juliet’s suicide actually requires more nerve than Romeo’s: while he swallows poison, she stabs herself through the heart with a dagger.
Juliet’s development from a wide-eyed girl into a self-assured, loyal, and capable woman is one of Shakespeare’s early triumphs of characterization. It also marks one of his most confident and rounded treatments of a female character.
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