Unlike almost every play we’ve read before in the Canon, Romeo and Juliet gives the audience a real sense of time and season. And for a few of the characters, Shakespeare provides ages as well.
While we never learn Romeo’s age, the three characters closest to the raising of Juliet–Capulet, his wife, and the Nurse–make five references in four speeches to our heroine’s age:
- Capulet: “She hath not seen the change of fourteen years” (I.ii.9)
- Lady Capulet: “She’s not fourteen” (I.iii.12)
- Nurse: “She is not fourteen” (I.iii.14 [ironic, no?])
- Nurse: “Come Lammas Eve at night shall she be fourteen… On Lammas Eve at night shall she be fourteen” (I.iii.17 and 21)
we’ll revisit Lammastide in a few moments…
Lady Capulet also tells her daughter,
Here in Verona, ladies of esteem,
Are made already mothers. By my count,
I was your mother much upon these years
That you are now a maid.
While some critics have argued that this may be an exaggeration on her part (in an attempt to seem younger than she is), I think she’s probably speaking the truth.
I’ll ‘splain why in a few…
That would make her about 27 or 28. Why is this important?
Well, we’re also given a clue as to Capulet’s age. As Capulet greets his guests at the party, we learn that it has been “thirty years” (I.v.34) since he last participated in a masked ball. Let’s say for argument’s sake that masking is a young man’s game and that men over the age of, say, eighteen rarely participate; this would put Capulet’s age at around 48, a full twenty years older than his wife. If, however, one masked until he was physically no longer quick-footed enough, then he might have been around 30 or 35 when he stopped masking, thus making his possible age as old as 65. Remember that in the opening scene, the Prince refers to the heads of the feuding families as “OLD Capulet and Montague” (I.i.89, emphasis mine); Capulet is old, Montague is not (as old).
So there is quite a disparity between the ages of Capulet and his wife. Is this the reason that Capulet is reluctant to allow Juliet to marry? When Capulet states his hesitancy over Juliet’s youth, Paris responds,
Younger than she are happy mothers made.
And too soon marred are those so early made.
The earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she,
She is the hopeful lady of my earth.
Juliet is his only surviving child, as he has buried (“earth hath swallowed”) all the others. Could it be that Lady Capulet is not his first wife? Infant mortality was high, as was the rate of death in childbirth. It certainly isn’t impossible that Lady Capulet is his second or even third wife. At 28, she is still of birthing age, so why is it that there is no other surviving child? Infant mortality is one possible reason, but maybe the clue is in Capulet’s statement that “too soon marred are those so early made” mothers: it is distinctly possible that in giving birth to Juliet, Lady Capulet was rendered incapable of having any more children. This would certainly add to Capulet’s reluctance for Juliet’s youthful marriage, motherhood, and possible suffering of her own mother’s fate.
Let’s revisit Lady Capulet’s age. As I noted earlier, I believe her when she says that she is around 28. The clues certainly are there:
- she mocks her husband’s age in the first scene when he calls for his sword; she responds, “A crutch, a crutch! Why call you for a sword?” (I.i.75)
- she shows obvious (and not-so-obvious) discomfort in discussing marriage with her daughter in Act One, Scene Three
- first, she demands that the Nurse leave, then calls her back, “I have remembered me, thou’s hear our counsel” (I.iii.9-10); she needs the Nurse’s support
- then, she allows the Nurse to ramble for over thirty lines; it’s as she doesn’t want to broach the subject
- finally, when she does bring up the subject of marriage, the scansion of her lines direct the actress to push forward through the speech, as if trying to get it over as quickly as possible:
~ \ ~ \ ~ \ \ ~ ~ \
Well, think of marriage now; younger than you,
~ \ ~ \ ~ \ \ ~ ~ \
That you are now a maid. Thus then in brief:
In both these instances, we have mid-line stops. Where we would usually expect either a continuation of the regularly iambic meter, or even a caesura, instead we get a trochee to push forward through the speech, to get past the subject
All these point to possible immaturity, one that is understandable for a 28 year-old trying to give marriage advice to a 13 year-old daughter.
Juliet… July… Juliet is Leo woman, hear her roar…
And let’s now revisit when this daughter will turn fourteen. Lammastide was the wheat harvest festival held on August 1. Thus, Juliet turns fourteen on July 31.
Since we’re some “fortnight and odd days” (I.iii.15) from Lammastide, the play takes place in mid-July. Why is that important? That time of year, according to weather almanacs, is the hottest time of year in Verona. Remember that the afternoon when Mercutio is killed, Tybalt is killed, and Romeo is banished is “hot… And … (the characters) shall not scape a brawl” (III.i.2-3).