Sunday, March 12, 2017

Those Poor Capulets!

Generally, when I watch a production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, my response to Lord and Lady Capulet is: "Oh my goodness! You are the worst parents ever!"

However, last night I saw an interesting production in Rahway with Howard Smith as Lord Capulet and Judy Wilson as Lady Capulet. Though I still didn't approve of how they treated their daughter, I began to understand why they acted the way they did.

First of all, remember that Juliet was not always an only child. The Capulets clearly had more children in the past, for Lord Capulet says, "Earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she." Perhaps for this reason, the Capulets are exceptionally indulgent of her for parents of the period. In the first act, Lord Capulet doesn't want to make a match for his daughter, but rather is willing to allow her to choose her own husband, telling Paris:

                    My will to her consent is but a part;
                    And she agreed, within her scope of choice
                    Lies my consent and fair according voice.

It is only after Tybalt's death that Lord Capulet decides to marry Juliet off, and then it is mainly in an effort to spare her the grief of her cousin dying. In Act IV he says: "Sir Paris, I will make a desperate tender / Of my child's love." The Riverside Shakespeare glosses "desperate tender" as "bold offer" but the word choice here is important. The Capulets are "desperate" over their daughter's grief, and "tender" in their affections for her. To their minds, this hasty wedding is an act of mercy.

Lady Capulet confirms this when she explains the marriage to Juliet this way:

                    Well, well, thou hast a careful father, child,
                    One who, to put thee from thy heaviness,
                    Hath sorted out a sudden day of joy....

Is it any wonder they respond so strongly to Juliet's disobedience? For Lord Capulet, the disobedience is not nearly as bad as what he perceives as her ingratitude. "Doth she not give us thanks?" he asks. "Doth she not count her blest...?"

None of this justifies threatening to throw their daughter out on the street if she doesn't marry Paris, but it's interesting to note how Shakespeare can render even abusive parents in a sympathetic light.