Welcome to the Capulet Family (Dys)Function

In Romeo and Juliet, the Capulets are a fascinating family.

Lord Capulet tells Paris that he has had children in the past, but they’re all dead now, all save for Juliet:

Earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she,
She is the hopeful lady of my earth.

— I.ii.14-15

Now, since he also tells Lady Capulet that Juliet is their “only child” (III.v.166), we can safely assume that Lady Capulet is not his first wife. She could be his second or even third wife, especially considering her age–or, more importantly, considering their difference in ages.

As we’ve discussed earlier this month , Lady Capulet is around 28 years old. Her husband, on the other hand. is somewhere in the 45 to 65 year range. The fact they have only the one child can also lead us to believe that Lady Capulet was rendered incapable of having more children (and thus would explain Capulet’s statement to Paris that “too soon marred are those (girls) so early made (mothers)” (I.ii.13). Either that, or she no longer gives him access to her bed.

What would this age difference and this inability to conceive (or sexual estrangement) do to a relationship? There doesn’t seem to be much affection between husband and wife (though not a little measure of fear, given Lady Capulet’s response to Capulet’s explosive anger at Juliet in Act Three, Scene Five). Even when Lady Capulet flirtatiously teases him, a dark sexuality rises to the surface; on the eve to Juliet’s wedding, in the midst of preparations, she tells him, “Ay, you have been a mouse-hunt in your time; // But I will watch you from such watching now” (IV.iv.11-12). There are two different bawdy definitions to “mouse-hunt.” The first is a simple “womanizer” (Partridge, Eric. Shakespeare’s Bawdy. New York: Routledge, 2008; page 195); this would mean that he’d chased women before (now whether she means before her or just before tonight is debatable). The second meaning is “whoremonger” (ibid), which would make him more a frequenter of whores, a real concurrent possibility given what we can interpret as their sexual estrangement.

Another member of the Capulet family is “the fiery Tybalt” (I.i.108), the “Prince of Cats” (II.iv.19). Now, though both Lady Capulet and Capulet describe Tybalt as their brother’s child (III.i.145 and III.v.128, respectively), whose brother is he? I’d vote Capulet for one reason, and one performance possibility. The textual reason is the feline correlation between Capulet’s description as a “mouse-hunt” and Tybalt’s as “Prince of Cats.”

The possibility in performance takes into account Capulet’s “mouse-hunt” and the couple’s lack of affection. Could Tybalt and Lady Capulet be lovers? (Baz Luhrmann certainly thinks so, as seen in his 1996 film) I think it’s a possibility based on three exchanges:

  • The heated argument between Capulet and Tybalt at the party, over the younger man’s desire to attack Romeo at the party. Capulet uses such phrases as
    • “goodman boy” (I.v.78)
    • “Am I the master here, or you?” (I.v.79)
    • “You will set cock-a-hoop, you’ll be the man!” (I.v.82)
    • To cast off all restraint, become reckless
    • “You are a princox” (I.v.87)

    All of these phrases attempt to take away Tybalt‚Äôs manhood, a manhood Capulet thinks the younger man’s been using with Lady Capulet?

  • Lady Capulet’s ridiculous explanation of his death: “Some twenty of them fought in this black strife, // And all those twenty could but kill one life” (III.i.177-178), the life of Tybalt. Could this hyperbole have at its root a sexual desire and passion?
  • When Capulet talks to Paris the night of the killings, he tells the county, “Look you, (Juliet) loved her kinsman Tybalt dearly” (III.iv.3); then almost as an afterthought, he continues, “And so did I” (III.iv.4). Might it be that Capulet no longer cares about Tybalt, but a cross look from Lady Capulet forces him to make some kind of concession of affection toward his own nephew? (of course, Luhrmann goes one better, and gives the “And so did I” line to Lady Capulet herself)

Compared to the Capulets, the Montagues are boring enigmas… ah, the Capels… the performance possibilities are incredible…