Shakespeare's Characters: Juliet (Romeo and Juliet)
We first see Juliet, the heroine of Romeo and Juliet, in 1.3., with her mother, Lady Capulet and the Nurse. She meets Romeo in 1.5. and they are married in 1.6. Juliet stabs herself in 5.3.
From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 8. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.D. Morris and Co.
Such is the simplicity, the truth, and the loveliness of Juliet's character, that we are not at first aware of its complexity, its depth, and its variety. There is in it an intensity of passion, a singleness of purpose, an entireness, a completeness of effect, which we feel as a whole; and to attempt to analyze the impression thus conveyed at once to soul and sense, is as if while hanging over a half-blown rose, and revelling in its intoxicating perfume, we should pull it asunder, leaflet by leaflet, the better to display its bloom and fragrance.
. . . All Shakspeare's women, being essentially women, either love or have loved, or are capable of loving; but Juliet is love itself. The passion is her state of being, and out of it she has no existence. It is the soul within her soul; the pulse within her heart; the life-blood along her veins, "blending with every atom
of her frame." The love that is so chaste and dignified in Portia — so airy-delicate and fearless in Miranda — so
sweetly confiding in Perdita — so playfully fond in Rosalind — so constant in Imogen — so devoted in Desdemona — so fervent in Helen — so tender in Viola — is each and all of these in Juliet.
In the delineation of that sentiment which forms the
groundwork of the drama, nothing in fact can equal the
power of the picture but its inexpressible sweetness and
its perfect grace: the passion which has taken possession
of Juliet's whole soul has the force, the rapidity, the
resistless violence of the torrent; but she is herself as
"moving delicate," as fair, as soft, as flexible as the
willow that bends over it, whose light leaves tremble
even with the motion of the current which hurries beneath them. But at the same time that the pervading sentiment is never lost sight of, and is one and the same throughout, the individual part of the character in all its variety is developed, and marked with the nicest discrimination. For instance, the simplicity of Juliet is very different from the simplicity of Miranda; her innocence is not the innocence of a desert island. The energy she displays does not once remind us of the moral grandeur of Isabel, or the intellectual power of Portia; it is founded in the strength of passion, not in the strength of character; it is accidental rather than inherent, rising with the tide of feeling or temper, and
with it subsiding. Her romance is not the pastoral
romance of Perdita, nor the fanciful romance of Viola;
it is the romance of a tender heart and a poetical imagination. Her inexperience is not ignorance; she has heard that there is such a thing as falsehood, though she can scarcely conceive it. Her mother and her nurse have perhaps warned her against flattering vows and man's inconstancy. . . .
Our impression of Juliet's
loveliness and sensibility is enhanced, when we find it
overcoming in the bosom of Romeo a previous love for another. His visionary passion for the cold, inaccessible Rosaline, forms but the prologue, the threshold, to the true, the real sentiment which succeeds to it. This incident, which is found in the original story, has been retained by Shakspeare with equal feeling and
judgement; and far from being a fault in taste and sentiment, far from prejudicing us against Romeo, by casting on him, at the outset of the piece, the stigma of inconstancy, it becomes, if properly considered, a beauty in the drama, and adds a fresh stroke of truth to the portrait of the lover. Why, after all, should we be offended at what does not offend Juliet herself? for in the original story we find that her attention is first attracted towards Romeo, by seeing him "fancy-sick and pale of cheer, for love of a cold beauty. . . ."
In the extreme vivacity of her imagination, and its
influence upon the action, the language, the sentiments
of the drama, Juliet resembles Portia; but with this
striking difference. In Portia, the imaginative power,
though developed in a high degree, is so equally blended
with the other intellectual and moral faculties, that it
does not give us the idea of excess. It is subject to her
nobler reason; it adorns and heightens all her feelings;
it does not overwhelm or mislead them. In Juliet, it is
rather a part of her southern temperament, controlling
and modifying the rest of her character; springing from
her sensibility, hurried along by her passions, animating
her joys, darkening her sorrows, exaggerating her terrors, and, in the end, overpowering her reason. With Juliet, imagination is, in the first instance, if not the source, the medium of passion; and passion again kindles her imagination.
It is through the power of imagination that the eloquence of Juliet is so vividly poetical; that every feeling, every sentiment comes to her clothed in
the richest imagery, and is thus reflected from her mind
to ours. The poetry is not here the mere adornment,
the outward garnishing of the character; but its result,
or rather blended with its essence. It is indivisible from
it, and interfused through it like moonlight through the
summer air. To particularize is almost impossible, since
the whole of the dialogue appropriated to Juliet is one
rich stream of imagery. . . .
The famous soliloquy, "Gallop apace, ye fiery-footed
steeds," teems with luxuriant imagery. The fond adjuration, "Come night I come Romeo! come thou day in night!" expresses that fulness of enthusiastic admiration for her lover, which possesses her whole soul; but expresses it as only Juliet could or would have expressed it — in a bold and beautiful metaphor. Let it be remembered that in this speech Juliet is not supposed to be
addressing an audience, nor even a confidante; and I
confess I have been shocked at the utter want of taste
and refinement in those who, with coarse derision, or
in a spirit of prudery, yet more gross and perverse, have
dared to comment on this beautiful "Hymn to the
Night," breathed out by Juliet in the silence and solitude
of her chamber. She is thinking aloud; it is the young
heart "triumphing to itself in words." In the midst of
all the vehemence with which she calls upon the night
to bring Romeo to her arms, there is something so
almost infantine in her perfect simplicity, so playful and
fantastic in the imagery and language, that the charm
of sentiment and innocence is thrown over the whole; and her impatience, to use her own expression, is truly that of "a child before a festival, that hath new robes and may not wear them." It is at the very moment too that her whole heart and fancy are abandoned to blissful anticipation, that the nurse enters with the news of Romeo's banishment; and the immediate transition from
rapture to despair has a most powerful effect. . . .
It is in truth a tale of love and sorrow, not of anguish
and terror. We behold the catastrophe afar off with scarcely a wish to avert it. Romeo and Juliet must die; their destiny is fulfilled; they have quaffed off the cup of life, with all its infinite of joys and agonies, in one intoxicating draught. What have they to do more upon this earth? Young, innocent, loving and beloved, they descend together into the tomb; but Shakspeare has
made that tomb a shrine of martyred and sainted affection consecrated for the worship of all hearts — not a dark charnel vault, haunted by spectres of pain, rage, and desperation. Romeo and Juliet are pictured lovely in death as in life; the sympathy they inspire does not oppress us with that suffocating sense of horror which in the altered tragedy makes the fall of the curtain a relief; but all pain is lost in the tenderness and poetic beauty
of the picture.
Mrs. Jameson: Characteristics of Women.