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Character analysis: Romeo and Juliet

Michael Donkor studies the characters of Romeo and Juliet in Act 2, Scene 2 of the play – otherwise known as the ‘balcony scene’.

Key quotation

JULIET 'Tis but thy name that is my enemy:
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,
Nor arm nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself. (2.2.38–49)

Setting the scene

Famously referred to as the ‘balcony scene’, Act 2, Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet begins with Juliet standing on her bedroom balcony, talking to herself. She muses on how unfair it is that the striking gentleman she kissed moments ago is in fact Romeo Montague – a young man from the family her Capulet kin are warring with. Romeo, who has crept into the Capulet grounds in order to find Juliet, overhears her words. Stepping out of the shadows, Romeo presents himself to Juliet and the two embark on an impassioned conversation in which they try to define their feelings and profess their love for one another. Their declarations are cut short both by the fear that Romeo will be discovered and by Juliet’s Nurse insistently calling her to come back into her bedroom. Before Romeo finally leaves, Juliet steals away from the Nurse and returns to the balcony. She issues Romeo with instructions about covertly communicating with her the following day in order for them to make plans to marry.

How does Shakespeare present Juliet here?

Juliet’s portrayal in this scene feverishly wavers between different positions, reminding the audience how inexperienced and emotionally unsteady she is. Firstly, her speech – seemingly delivered in private – offers the audience access to the thinking of a young girl on the cusp of independent womanhood. In her wrestling with the thorny issue of Romeo’s identity, she repeatedly asks questions: ‘What’s Montague? … What’s in a name?’ These disgruntled interrogatives about the inefficiencies of language and labels – a linguistic probing which connects with Romeo’s later promise to ‘tear the word’ (2.2.57) – are also assaults on social rigidity and received wisdom. These are not the words of a submissive child content to follow rules as she has been instructed. They are challenges posed by an individual developing a singular, personal way of looking at the world. They are the utterances of someone dissatisfied with the way things are.

1901 edition of Anna Jameson's Shakespeare's Heroines, illustrated by Robert Anning Bell

1901 edition of Anna Jameson's Shakespeare's Heroines

Juliet is characterised in this Victorian book as a woman of ‘passion and imagination’.

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This boldness continues throughout this almost-soliloquy, reaching its greatest intensity at the end of the speech when Juliet offers her ‘self’ to Romeo in exchange for him shedding his ‘name’. This imagined or proposed transaction is radical as it undoes all sorts of patriarchal assumptions. One of these is the idea that after marriage it was women who should lose their names. Secondly, in determinedly stating how she envisages her future, her vow here contradicts the Elizabethan expectation that fathers should ‘pilot’ the destinies of their young daughters rather than the daughters directing themselves.

Vives' conduct book for Christian women

Vives' conduct book for Christian women

Juan Luis Vives insists that, when it comes to choosing a husband, daughters should keep quiet: ‘it becometh not a maide to talke, where hir father and mother be in communicacion about hir mariage’, 1557.

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However, the surprising arrival of Romeo makes Juliet momentarily retreat into a more conventional role: that of the frightened, modest female. She becomes consumed with anxiety that her ‘kinsmen’ may discover and ‘murder’ Romeo (2.2.69–70). Though concealed by the darkness of night, she claims that her cheeks ‘blush’ at the idea that Romeo heard her earlier, emotional outpouring. Equally, she is desperate for assurances about Romeo’s feelings towards her; there is an almost imploring quality to her voice when she describes how she can change her behaviour until it meets Romeo’s approval:

Or if thou thinkest I am too quickly won,
I’ll frown and be perverse, and say thee nay,
So thou wilt woo, but else not for the world. (2.295–97)

But this submissiveness is short-lived, and Juliet soon regains a sense of stridency. As the scene progresses and Romeo begins to offer Juliet oaths as a way of demonstrating his affection, Juliet controls his smooth talking. Like a much more worldly and experienced woman, one tired of hackneyed ‘chat up lines’, she interrupts and edits his words:

ROMEO Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow
That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops–

JULIET O, swear not by the moon, th' inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

ROMEO What shall I swear by?

JULIET Do not swear at all;
Or, if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,
Which is the god of my idolatry,
And I'll believe thee.

ROMEO If my heart's dear love–

JULIET Well, do not swear. (2.2.107–116)


Interestingly, Juliet’s linguistic fussiness here returns us to our earlier analysis of her conceptual dissatisfaction with the limitations of language more generally.


This more controlled Juliet is the one also responsible for the sharp rebuttal to Romeo’s suggestive, saucy complaint that he leaves their encounter ‘so unsatisfied’ (2.2.125). Equally, this Juliet is keen for the relationship’s breakneck speed to be stilled, sharing the audience’s view that the pair’s love is

too rash, too unadvis'd, too sudden,
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say it lightens. (2.2.118–119)

It is also this more composed, mature Juliet who, towards the end of the extract, adopts a practical outlook in her attempt to make level-headed plans for the lovers’ next course of action.

How does Shakespeare present Romeo here?

Romeo’s impulsive nature is in full evidence in this exchange. The very fact of his location – Romeo has brazenly crept behind enemy lines – and his bragging that he has no fear if the Capulets ‘find him’ in their midst clearly demonstrate to the audience how Romeo’s ego is dangerously inflated by the power of love (2.2.75–78). As soon as he engages in conversation with Juliet, and in order to win her over, he immediately and without real thought about the consequences denies his lineage and heritage, instantly claiming his Montague background is now ‘hateful’ (2.2.55). Equally, in response to Juliet’s tender attempts to understand how he has trespassed into her family’s grounds, his hyperbolic declaratives and ornate comparisons are dazzlingly quick and unequivocal. For example, adopting the language of chivalric bravery and flattering of the prized lady, he claims

… there lies more peril in thine eye
Than twenty of their swords! (2.2.71–72)

He figures his pursuit of Juliet in the language of perilous expedition, where he must adventurously scale ‘stony limits’ (2.2.67) and traverse the ‘farthest sea’ (2.2.83) in order to reach his love. But, movingly, the grandness of his self-presentation is eventually reduced by the power Juliet has over him. By the end of the scene, rather than as a heroic, questing figure, Romeo describes himself as Juliet’s pet ‘bird’ (2.2.182): a tiny toy of a thing controlled by her every whim.

How does this presentation of Juliet and Romeo fit into the play as a whole?

This scene compares and contrasts with the beginning of Act 3, Scene 5, which contains another anguished parting between the two lovers. As in Act 2, Scene 2, in the later scene there is a sense of negotiation, exchange and gentle conflict between Romeo and Juliet as they sleepily argue about whether or not it is daylight and if Romeo must leave Juliet’s bedroom before he is caught. In the earlier scene both characters seem to agree that linguistic signs – names, in particular – are problematic. In the famous aubade – a song between lovers marking the dawn – of Act 3, Scene 5, the meaning of other kinds of signs – nightingales, larks and what these might symbolise – troubles the lovers.

In Act 3, Scene 5, the pretence both lovers uphold – at different times – that it is not yet daylight adds a note of childishness to the scene. By seemingly lying to themselves and to each other, these characters reveal themselves to be unwilling or ill-equipped to deal with the adult realities of their situation, and so escape into a fantastical realm where they can control the passage of time and prolong the secrecy of night. This youthful element neatly matches with Romeo’s impetuousness and Juliet’s greenness explored earlier.

Themes

Identity emerges as one of the key ideas in Act 2, Scene 2. As well as the discussion of naming, the shifting characterisations of the two lovers prompt audiences to ponder who we become when influenced by love, what we might sacrifice in order to love and how we change ourselves in the presence of one we love.

How has this scene been interpreted?

In typically punchy style, the academic Germaine Greer has referred to Romeo as an unsophisticated ‘dork’. In many ways, this scene provides ample evidence for this useful – albeit unkind – assessment. Romeo’s grandiose and often clichéd expressions of his intense feelings perhaps attest to the foolhardy nature of Romeo that Greer is getting at.

Conversely, the actress Ellie Kendrick, who played Juliet at the Globe in 2009, describes Juliet as ‘fiercely intelligent, very spirited, a really … mind-blowingly principled … girl [who] can match anyone on any image, any logic, any conversation that’s thrown at her’. Indeed, the deftness of some of Juliet’s responses in this exchange, her burgeoning self-awareness and analysis of the complexity of her position do make her a remarkable, singular creation; one with perhaps more perceptiveness and insight than her older, male counterpart.

Lithograph of the Cushman sisters as Romeo and Juliet

Lithograph of the Cushman sisters as Romeo and Juliet

In 1846, Charlotte Cushman played Romeo to her sister Susan’s Juliet. This must have created a fascinating dynamic between the two lovers.

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  • Michael Donkor
  • Michael Donkor is a writer and is currently working on his first novel Hold. He also teaches English Literature at St Paul's Girls' School in London.