Romeo and Juliet Essay - AQA English Literature Exam - June 2017
This is an exemplar Romeo and Juliet essay, at GCSE standard, based upon the AQA English Literature June 2017 exam question. The essay analyses aggressive male behaviour in the play. The Romeo and Juliet essay has been well structured and achieved full marks. The Romeo and Juliet essay was written by a student (aged 16) in exam conditions, taking approximately 45-50 minutes to complete.
Starting with this conversation, explore how Shakespeare presents aggressive male behaviour in Romeo and Juliet. Write about:
• how Shakespeare presents aggressive male behaviour in this conversation
• how Shakespeare presents aggressive male behaviour in the play as a whole.
Throughout the extract and in the play as a whole, Shakespeare presents male aggression through every male character, with the exception of Benvolio.
In Act 1 Scene 1 of the play, the servants of the two quarrelling households (the Montagues and Capulets) share a conversation underpinned by male bravado and displays of masculinity. During the 14th century, when the play was set, men had superior status over women and as a result, often showed this by fighting or making sexual puns. By Sampson joking how his “naked weapon is out” before engaging in a “quarrel”, illustrates the two ways that men, in the context of the play, displayed their masculinity.
Similarly, the short sentences, dotted with pauses from commas, exclamation marks and question marks as they partake in a duel of words, mirrors the way in which they would physically duel, if the law was on their “side”. By talking in this manner of playful aggression, it is clear that they were accustomed to fighting and violence, as they swapped between puns and light-hearted mockery to insults such as biting “your thumb”.
Gregory and Sampson, the Capulet servants, who provoke the fray, “frown” at the opposing men, but state that they will take it “as they list”, “nay” as they “dare”. The way in which Sampson corrects Gregory illustrates how they encourage each other, increasing the tension of the situation and forcing more and more aggression. The noun “dare” suggests that to react would be dangerous and risky and to refuse would be cowardly. In the context of the play, a Shakespearean audience would think it a great dishonour to be branded a coward or effeminate, so to those watching the play, the use of the word “dare” would have been seen as an aggressive challenge proposed by Sampson.
The effect of this subtle teasing is notably displayed when Abram – a servant of the Montagues – repeats the same questions “Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?”. The syntactical repetition creates the feel of a pulse, as if Abram’s heart is racing with anger. It also clearly shows how his aggression is rising towards the two other men. The comma before the pronoun “sir” indicates that he paused before using the phrase to give it an ironic feel. When spoken aloud, it would have sounded as if he uses the polite phrase mockingly, or perhaps the pause could have been to steady his nerves and calm his obvious aggression.
In the entirety of the play, we encounter other characters of higher status, who intentionally show the same level and frequency of male aggression as the characters of lower status and wealth do, which emphasises that it was extremely common. Typically, during the Shakespearean era, there were two types of masculinity: the first was self-control coupled with love for a woman (which we see so clearly in Romeo), and the second was violent male patriarchy (which is prevalent in Tybalt, Mercutio and Lord Capulet in particular). The act of balancing these is ultimately what causes death in the play.
Tybalt, the “fiery”, testosterone-powered, “saucy” man, is perhaps the clearest example of male aggression, because all of his interactions result in arguments or fatal injury. For instance, we are first introduced to him as he joins the street brawl in Act 1. When the Prince and Benvolio attempt to soothe and remedy the situation. Benvolio states, “Part, fools!” and to put down their weapons. Tybalt reacts with disgust at the notion of “peace”. He says he “hates the word”, which is untrue as he hates the actions that would come about if set into motion between the two families. The hyperbolic phrases that he “hates the word” only highlights how rage and passionate aggression can cloud thoughts and opinions – especially in the young men in the play.
Similarly, in Act 1 Scene 5 when Capulet holds an “old accustomed feast” to better acquaint Paris with Juliet, Tybalt spots the “villain Romeo” by his “voice” and recognises him as a “Montague”. Due to fierce loyalty and obvious anger, Tybalt is enraged and immediately calls the order “Fetch me my rapier boy”. The use of the imperative verb “Fetch” shows that in the midst of aggression, he uses authority and power to display his outrage. He “holds it not a sin” to end Romeo’s life on such a small discrepancy as trespassing, which shows how his aggression far outweighs his practical judgement in the situation.
Although we see Lord Capulet calm Tybalt, he uses the imperative sentence “You will not endure him” and refers to Tybalt as “boy”. The use of the noun “boy” emasculates Tybalt, making him seem like a child who needs discipline, which annoyed him further.
In addition to this, Lord Capulet also displays feverish aggressive behaviour when Juliet ignores his will for her to marry the “man of wax”, Paris. He refers to her as “baggage” and threatens that he will “drag” her through the streets on a “hurdle”. The use of word “baggage” indicates that he thinks she is a nuisance – a weight on his shoulders that is preventing him from entering higher social circles. The use of the phrase “hurdle” reiterates this, as although it was a device designed in the middle ages to deliver public humiliation, it could also be seen as a metaphor for Juliet. Lord Capulet sees Juliet as something as an annoyance in his path, and as a result his “fingers itch” at the sight of her. This demonstrate how, despite Juliet being his daughter, he would still express his ferocity through physical violence – something that was not uncommon in the context of the play.
Despite the frequent examples of aggressive male behaviour in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the audience also see how this can be diminished through love and tragedy. After the “star crossed” death-fated lovers are announced as dead, the parents of both Romeo and Juliet react with no aggression or anger as one might expect of men with prior history. Instead, Lord Capulet – perhaps the most aggressive of the two – says “o brother Montague”, “give me thy hand”. To hold hands is, and was, a universal symbol of peace; so, by suggesting that the heads of the two households would hold hands, indicates that the aggressive tension has diminished, as if all anger has dissipated from “fair Verona”, as the light of the fatal lovers was snuffed out.
Although Romeo doesn’t display much physical aggression, aside from his revenge on Tybalt, Shakespeare does present him as a Petrarchan lover, comparing the battle of attaining Rosaline’s unrequited love to winning a battle. She cannot be penetrated by “Cupid’s arrow”, so will not succumb to Romeo’s love. In a way, he is emotionally aggressive and volatile as opposed to demonstrating physical male aggression.