In Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, the age of the heroine is set forth explicitly. Juliet is thirteen, going on fourteen. Shakespeare changed her age from the source material, where she was eighteen. His heroines are usually at least eighteen, with most of them in their twenties. Like today, in Elizabethan England, girls did not typically marry in their teens. An average woman married in her mid twenties. Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, was twenty-eight when they married.
Romeo’s age, on the other hand, is not well defined by the text of the play. I’ve read persuasive arguments for seventeen to twenty eight, with some pleas to make him fourteen to sixteen, to avoid the creepiness of pairing him with the thirteen-year old. Romeo’s age is, apparently, irrelevant. Otherwise, we can assume, we would have been told how old he was.
Juliet, however, is undeniably young. People have suggested that Juliet is a very mature thirteen. Be that as it may, there is only so far along the path to adulthood any thirteen-year-old can be. An urban thirteen-year-old who struggles with life intensely can develop a serious maturity, in some regards. The level of maturity for a pampered daughter of a nobleman, however, is rather suspect. No matter how we slice it, thirteen is a very young person. Too young to marry for love and too, too young to die.
My point is that Shakespeare wrote Juliet as thirteen for a reason. He was not trying to show us how mature a middle-school girl can be. He was not penning an argument that a girl of thirteen can be mistaken for a young adult. He was not trying to show us that children in Verona are different than children in Elizabethan England or otherwise special. He made her thirteen because the story he told required her to be that age.
As any literate cynic will tell you, Romeo and Juliet is not a play about mature love. The couple meet, exchange pleasantries and die. If anything, Romeo and Juliet are young people who are just old enough to fall in love with being in love. They do not love each other, in the way that people in their twenties can love. They are young passionate hearts who live life with energy and excitement. They are caught in the throes of a storm.
The reason that Romeo and Juliet marry so quickly is because Juliet’s father has mandated a marriage for his young daughter to a well-placed young man, Paris. A “political” marriage of this kind was the only reason that anyone would have married that young during that time period. To bind a girl to a young man at such a tender age is an affront to any feeling person. She is hardly old enough to love, much less to tie herself down to a man she barely knows for the rest of her life. The action that follows is completely a reaction to this barbarous decision.
Juliet was given a very young age to make the plot deliberately cruel to her. When a father tries to commit a grown daughter to a loveless marriage, as often happens in Shakespeare’s plays, we might be taken aback but we are generally understanding of the realities of a harsher world, olden mores and a comedic plot device. Eventually we are amused when the officious father’s plan backfires and everyone lives happily ever after. But the plot of Romeo and Juliet is tragic and very different – a greedy father trying to advance his position by giving a thirteen-year-old girl in marriage goes beyond anyone’s idea of reasonable family politics . We don’t marry off our daughters at thirteen. Neither English nor Italian families would let, much less force, their daughters marry at thirteen. Then and now, no one thinks this is the proper action of a good father with the best interests of his daughter in mind.
Faced with such fatherly tyranny, who could be surprised that Juliet would become self-destructive? That is the reason Shakespeare made Juliet thirteen. He wanted us to be shocked by Capulet’s unfeeling treatment of his daughter. Juliet didn’t die because she couldn’t live without a boy she just met. She died to escape the unfairness of her mercenary old man.
I would love to persuade someone to overlook the inherent pedophilia of Romeo and Juliet and produce the play as it is written. The outrage aroused by Juliet’s extreme youth is central to the play. Juliet’s childhood was violated. Every production that evades this idea emasculates the drama.