I saw Romeo and Juliet at the Orlando Shakespeare Center this weekend and have been searching for an appropriate topic to write about. I found it on a website called Shmoop (tag line “we speak student”) which lists a series of exam-type questions for students reading the play. This question stood out (emphasis is mine):
The fact that Romeo and Juliet have sex is what makes it impossible for Juliet to marry Paris and it is what leads to the play’s final tragedy. Why do the Friar and the Nurse decide to help Romeo and Juliet spend the night together, even after he has killed Tybalt? Could the play still have unfolded in a similar way without this night of lovemaking?
I am less concerned with the actual question in this question than I am with the question’s premise: Juliet’s loss of virginity precludes her marriage to the County Paris.
I have read Romeo and Juliet several times and have seen it performed twice on stage, once in a ballet and several times on film. I have not until now heard the argument that Juliet doesn’t agree to marry Paris, not because of her intense love for Romeo, but rather because she has lost her virginity to Romeo. This reading, at first blush, appears to make some sense because if Juliet were to marry Paris he would, on their wedding night, discover that she is not a virgin, immediately demand an annulment and thereby disgrace Juliet and the entire Capulet family.
But is this reading supported by the text?
In Act III, Scene V, shortly after Romeo has left Juliet’s bed chamber, Lady Capulet tells Juliet that she is to wed Paris “early next thursday morn.” Here’s the exchange (emphasis is mine):
LADY CAPULET: Well, well, thou hast a careful father, child;
One who, to put thee from thy heaviness,
Hath sorted out a sudden day of joy,
That thou expect’st not nor I look’d not for.
JULIET: Madam, in happy time, what day is that?
LADY CAPULET: Marry, my child, early next Thursday morn,
The gallant, young and noble gentleman,
The County Paris, at Saint Peter’s Church,
Shall happily make thee there a joyful bride.
JULIET: Now, by Saint Peter’s Church and Peter too,
He shall not make me there a joyful bride.
I wonder at this haste; that I must wed
Ere he, that should be husband, comes to woo.
I pray you, tell my lord and father, madam,
I will not marry yet; and, when I do, I swear,
It shall be Romeo, whom you know I hate,
Rather than Paris.
LADY CAPULET: Here comes your father; tell him so yourself,
And see how he will take it at your hands.
The only sentence above that might possibly be construed as alluding to Juliet’s lost virginity is her outburst,
Now, by Saint Peter’s Church and Peter too,
He shall not make me there a joyful bride.
The phrase “shall not make me there a joyful bride” certainly means that the bride shall not be joyful, but it might also mean that Paris won’t find his bride joyful (to himself) when he discovers that she has been enjoyed by someone before him. But I think that’s much too subtle a reference, even for Shakespeare.
I have searched the entire play and couldn’t find a single reference or allusion, other than the above sentence, that would indicate that the reason Juliet will not marry Paris is because she cannot marry him, having already lost her virginity to Romeo. Consequently, as we must always do when interpreting a Shakespearean text, we must assume that what is not there is not there for a reason. In other words, if Shakespeare wanted his audiences to believe that Juliet would have married Paris had she not consummated her marriage with Romeo, he would have made it clear at least somewhere in the text. That he didn’t include it in the text is additional evidence that Juliet would not have married Paris under any circumstances because she was utterly and thoroughly devoted to Romeo.
Here are two final points that make it easy for me to conclude that Juliet would not have married Paris even had she not already married Romeo and even if she had not consummated her marriage to him:
1. Even were Juliet inclined to accede to her father’s wishes and marry Paris, since consummation was required in Renaissance Catholic Italy (and probably Elizabethan England, too) in order to create a binding marriage contract, it would be Juliet’s marriage (remember, it’s not a marriage until it’s consummated) and not just one component of that marriage (the consummation) that precludes her marriage to Paris. Shakespeare, in other words, would not have separated the marriage from the consummation because in the time of the play and his own time the two were coterminous.
2. Shakespeare’s tragedy is premised on Romeo and Juliet’s extreme and reckless devotion to one another. If Juliet avoids marrying Paris only, or even partially, because she cannot marry him, that devotion is compromised and, along with it, the tragic crux of the play.