Sunday, 13 May 2012

Young Girl, Get Out of My Mind | How Old is Juliet?

Ford Maddox Brown's painting of Romeo
and Juliet - that blonde gal looks
much older than thriteen to me
The young lovers of Romeo and Juliet really are very young (especially the female half of the duo). So, is the tragedy of Shakespeare’s most famous love story, a tale of true love or just puppy love?

This week, I received a message from Emma, who had stumbled onto the site and wanted to know how old Juliet is in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. She wrote, “a girl in my class said Juliet was really young, like fifteen or something. Is that true?”

Juliet is How Old?!

Well, in actual fact, Juliet is only thirteen. Oh, yes, indeed. Little miss Capulet is just a fortnight shy of her fourteenth birthday. Which, from a modern perspective, does really rather alter our view of the play.

After all, Romeo isn’t thirteen too, is he? Well, Shakespeare doesn’t specify Romeo’s age, but given that he is (roughly) the same age as Tybalt, Mercutio and Paris - it’s illogical to think of them all as being in their early teens.

Given that assumption, and the knowledge that men, traditionally (although this is not true of Shakespeare himself), took wives who were younger than themselves, we can guess that Romeo is at least in his late teens or early twenties. I hardly need to point out how wrong that age gap would seem to us now. Gary Puckett and the Union Gap said it best with their 60s hit Young Girl.

How Times Have Changed

However, it is important to put all of that in its historical context. Bear in mind, a girl was classed as a ‘woman’, as soon as she had physically become one - in other words, once her menstrual cycle had begun. If you were capable of having a baby, you were a woman.

More importantly, if you were capable of carrying a child, and you’re not doing exactly that, then time's a wastin'. Keep in mind, in late 16th and early 17th century Europe, the average life expectancy was only thirty-five, which means that Juliet is almost pushing middle-age!

And They Called it Puppy Love

17th century image of Mary Saunderson
(probably the first woman to play Juliet) -
it looks like it's been a long time since she
saw thirteen.
Nevertheless, for any of us who have experienced teenage love, especially that first great love (that you’re just convinced will last forever), we know that things rarely work out as we think they will.

Romeo and Juliet may have been certain that they would never feel so strongly for another human being as long as they lived - and, indeed, they didn’t.

However, there is a good chance, had they survived that flush of rampant hormones, the lust would have eventually dampened and, at some point in her late twenties (after she’d married an accountant), Juliet would look back at her diary entries; the sickeningly bad poetry she’d penned, the pages of practice signatures for ‘Mrs Juliet Montague’, and realize what an innocent, naïve and, ultimately, ridiculous notion of love she had.


If you have any questions about Shakespeare, his plays or his poems, please feel free to get in touch.

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