Romeo’s privilege

In the opening scene of the final act of Romeo and Juliet, our “hero” seeks out a poverty-stricken apothecary in Mantua and demands that the apothecary sell him deadly poison so that he can take his own life in an overblown gesture of romantic love.

The apothecary informs Romeo that, under Mantuan law, the sale of such drugs is punishable by death but Romeo counters that the law is only there to protect and serve the privileged (people like Romeo), and that wretches like the apothecary should not expect to accrue any benefit by playing by the rules. The only option for the apothecary if he wanted a better life, according to Romeo, was to break the law and accept the forty ducats on offer.

Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness

And fear’st to die? Famine is in thy cheeks,

Need and oppression starveth in thine eyes,

Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back,

The world is not thy friend, nor the world’s law:

The world affords no law to make thee rich;

Then be not poor, but break it and take this.

The apothecary clearly understands the situation and replies; “My poverty, but not my will consents.”

It is not just illegal drugs that Romeo can purchase with impunity. Throughout Shakespeare’s five act play, Romeo’s privileged position allows him to get away with just about anything, including murder and secretly marrying the daughter of his family’s sworn enemy.

We are supposed to believe that it is fate that has brought these two “star-cross’d” lovers together, but it is highly doubtful that Juliet would have even noticed Romeo had he come from the same social class as the apothecary. They were brought together because they were both members of the Verona elite and shared the same background and values.

Romeo could not have got through the door of Capulet’s mansion to attend that fateful party if he were not part of the moneyed elite, and because he was a prominent member of that elite, even after he was unmasked, Capulet turned a blind eye to Romeo’s intrusion and instructed his mortally offended nephew Tybalt to ignore the insult.

Content thee, gentle coz, let him alone,

He bears him like a portly gentleman;

And, to say truth, Verona brags of him

To be a virtuous and well-govern’d youth.

Like all privileged young men (then as today), Romeo was indulged by a coterie of admirers and enablers who made sure all his physical and emotional needs were met. His doting parents obsessed over his welfare, while his cousin Benvolio not only facilitated his escape from the scene of the crime but brought him news of Juliet’s “death” and assisted in his fateful return to Verona.

Next to Benvolio, Romeo’s chief enabler was Friar Laurence. Perhaps out of some misguided sense of public service, the hapless Friar agrees to marry Romeo to a girl he has just met: “For this alliance may so happy prove, To turn your households’ rancour to pure love.”

Even after Romeo kills Tybalt, Friar Laurence still helps him escape to Mantua and then convinces a distraught Juliet to risk her own life in an elaborate ruse to bring her husband back to Verona.

The nurse is an irreverent character who owes Romeo nothing but she is clearly quite taken with the handsome and virtuous youth and consents to act as go-between in the clandestine marriage.

Mercutio is the one character who, apart from Friar Laurence, is willing to call Romeo out on his self-absorbed and reckless behaviour but it is seemingly all done in jest. Indeed, his constant teasing and ridicule could just be a cover for his own romantic feelings towards Romeo. It is only after he is wounded by Tybalt that Mercutio damns Romeo for his fatal intervention.

Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm.

….. A plague o’ both your houses!

They have made worms’ meat of me:

I have it, and soundly too. Your houses!

Romeo was clearly culpable in Mercutio’s death but rather than accept responsibility for his actions, he first sought to deflect the blame on to his new wife:

O, sweet Juliet,

Thy beauty hath made me effeminate

And in my temper soften’d valour’s steel.

In an apparent bid to prove his masculinity, Romeo flies into a rage and kills Tybalt when he reappears on stage. Again, rather than accept responsibility for Tybalt’s murder and turn himself in to the authorities, Romeo spends the afternoon skulking in Friar Laurence’s cell feeling sorry for himself and complaining that he has been banished rather than sentenced to death.

‘Tis torture, and not mercy: heaven is here,

Where Juliet lives; and every cat, and dog,

And little mouse, every unworthy thing,

Live here in heaven, and may look on her;

But Romeo may not.

And what of Juliet? It is tempting to see her merely as a victim of Romeo’s headstrong and ardent pursuit. But while she is certainly naïve and impressionable, Juliet is also a willing accomplice. She too comes from privilege. She is the only daughter of one of the richest men in the city and, like Romeo, is used to getting her own way. She is so determined to get what she wants that she defies her domineering father and risks her own life in elaborate act of subterfuge. Her desperation for self-gratification reaches a climax in the final act when she awakes in her grave to discover Romeo dead beside her. After failing to join him in death by kissing his poisoned lips, she picks up Romeo’s dagger and stabs herself: the last of dozens of phallic references strewn throughout a play that begins with an act of gratuitous thumb biting.

The hyper-charged sexuality and toxic masculinity on display in the play emanate from the patriarchal values of the time but also specifically from the long-standing feud between the Montagues and Capulets. It is a blood feud that generates blind passions and violent desires, as revealed by Juliet when she discovers Romeo’s identity:

My only love sprung from my only hate!

Too early seen unknown, and known too late!

Prodigious birth of love to me,

That I must love a loathed enemy.

We never learn the origin of the two families’ “ancient grudge” but the play was written and first performed in an era when the merchant class was emerging as a powerful new force in Europe and we can perhaps see the Montagues and Capulets as early capitalists striving for dominance in an economy and society still infused with the feudal values of honour and duty.

The traditional power structure of the city state was breaking down, allowing the two proto-capitalist entities to have virtually free reign. Prince Escalus, the titular ruler of Verona, admits in the first act that he can no longer control the warring families who use the city streets as their battleground with no regard for innocent bystanders:

Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace,

Profaners of this neighbour-stained steel,

Will they not hear?…

Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word,

By thee, old Capulet, and Montague,

Have thrice disturb’d the quiet of our streets;

The Capulets and Montagues were later directly responsible for the death of two of the prince’s kinsmen, Mercutio and Paris: this after Paris had repeatedly sought the hand of Capulet’s daughter in marriage.

Both patriarchs expressed their power not just with violence but with ostentatious displays of wealth. Capulet spared no expense in his extravagant parties and Montague (in a gesture of reconciliation at the end of the play) vowed to erect a gold statue of Juliet so that Verona would always be associated with her memory. Thanks to Shakespeare, it still is.

Today, Montague and Capulet would probably be Mexican drug lords like Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán whose son, Ovidio Guzmán López, was arrested by federal authorities in November last year only to be released after the troops were surrounded by Sinaloa Cartel gunmen. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Guzman was released in order to prevent further bloodshed, much the same reason as given by Prince Escalus for banishing rather than executing Romeo.

Little, it seems, has really changed since Shakespeare’s day. Despite the establishment of democratic institutions and legal protections for all citizens, all too often, the rich and powerful can still get away with murder.

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