Romeo and Juliet is generally taught one of two ways: either it’s “tragic, star crossed lovers,” or “that play in which two teenagers have a crush on each other, and then six people die in three days.” These are oversimplifications, though reasonable considering that the play is generally taught to 9th graders who must grapple with both the language and the fact that what they’ve been told is a transcendent love story is actually 15% dick jokes.
But this play can also be interpreted as a critique of toxic masculinity. While he cannot be called a feminist by conventional definitions (great discussion of that here), Shakespeare’s work examines, plays with, and subverts gender in a way that is strikingly modern. And, while toxic masculinity might not have been conceptualized as such in Shakespeare’s day and age, it still dictates the show’s central conflict.
The play opens with phallic imagery and rape jokes. The first two characters to appear on stage, Gregory and Sampson, begin by quipping back and forth about their frustration with the Capulets, but their conversation becomes increasingly violent and increasingly sexually charged. “I will push Montague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall” (1.1.14). And “I will be cruel with the maids, and cut off their heads…the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads” (1.1.17-9).
Both of these statements make women an instrument of male dominance and the victim of sexual violence, but the second one goes so far as to conflate sexuality with violence and to make the act of murder and rape on in the same. It’s also worth noting that both of these lines are delivered by Sampson, after Gregory has poked fun at his weakness. Violence against women is not only a way of asserting dominance over the other family, but also a way of proving his own masculinity.
When, unsurprisingly, the two manage to pick a fight with some Capulets they meet on the streets of Verona, physical violence erupts. The heads of the Montague and Capulet families attempt to enter the fray not in spite of their age and infirmities, but because of them. When Capulet asks for his sword his wife replies “A crutch, a crutch! why call you for a sword?” (1.1.59). The sword is his crutch. He leans on violence to uphold an image of traditional masculinity and so, even though the reason for the fight has been forgotten, the families must continue fighting. Any legitimate dispute has long since been replaced by empty posturing, in part so that two aging men can continue to act out antiquated notions of strength, dominance, and how real men ought to behave.
And the first scene hasn’t ended yet.
Cut to Mercutio and Tybalt’s deaths in Act Three. Mercutio, a loveable emotionally unstable asshole who is neither a Capulet nor a Montague, challenges Tybalt in response to Romeo’s “calm, dishonourable, vile submission,” (3.1.44) when the latter refuses to fight. By calling a refusal to fight “submission,” dominance is again conflated with violence, strength with conflict rather than with the ability to make peace. What’s more, Mercutio has no part in the rivalry between the houses. He is fighting to show up his friends, and so that he doesn’t want to come off as weak. This being a Shakespearean tragedy, he doesn’t fare particularly well.
When Romeo decides to avenge Mercutio, he does it as much for grief as he does it to live up to society’s concept of masculinity. What does he think when Mercutio staggers off stage, badly wounded? “O sweet Juliet,/Thy beauty hath made me effeminate/And in my temper soften’d valour’s steel!” (3.1.75-7) Romeo started the scene trying to create peace, which he now conflates with weakness, femininity, and (if “soften’d valour’s steel” is any indication) sexual impotence. He must fight in order to prove to himself and to those around him that he is still a man.
Also, it’s worth noting that swords are used as phallic imagery throughout, deepening the connection between not only masculinity and violence but also sex and violence. This pervades the language of the play, from the first fight up until Juliet impales herself on Romeo’s sword (a very complicated act of claiming her own sexuality while also being falling victim to house conflict, which I am not going to unpack here). In a world where violence is equated with sexual potency, masculinity is inherently toxic and anyone who aspires to it is poisoned by its harsh nature. This presents an argument that resonates with our own contemporary ideas about masculinity and rape culture. If sexuality is linked to violence, there can be no intimacy.
It is the subversion of these norms that make Romeo and Juliet’s relationship stand out. Together, they escape the confinement of these rigidly constructed gender roles. Whenever they talk to one another, they do so as equals. Their relationship constitutes an exchange of affection; when they meet, they not only they trade kisses but also verses of a sonnet. Before they die, they trade kisses once again. Juliet’s sexuality and desire is given as much weight as Romeo’s (see her “Come, night” soliloquy at the start of 3.2), and they come together as willing partners rather than as an abuser and a victim. By rejecting a gendered power structure they are able to experience genuine intimacy.
Their love is tragic because it is naïve; the two create a space apart from the expectations of their families and without regard for the brutal reality of the society that they live in. It is innocent, compassionate, and ultimately unable to last when both are pulled back towards their traditional gender roles—Romeo towards violent masculinity when he kills Tybalt, and Juliet towards objectification when Paris attempts to claim her as property.