The Generation Gap

‘Deny thy father and refuse thy name’: The Generation Gap in Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet is a play about young love, but it’s also a play about old rivalries. Strangely, we are never told the roots of the ‘ancient grudge’ between Montagues and Capulets, even though it is so central to the action. Romeo and Juliet are able to see past each other’s surname (as Juliet puts it, ‘What’s in a name?’), but the same cannot be said for those around them. As well as the feud between families, there is a sense that the play is concerned with the conflict between generations – it is an ‘ancient’ grudge, after all. The older order try to impose their will on their children, while the pair of star-crossed lovers struggle to overcome the strict social roles laid out for them. This is a case of teenage rebellion gone tragically wrong, and Shakespeare lets us decide for ourselves who is ultimately responsible.

The source for Shakespeare’s play is a poem called The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke. In this work, Juliet is a young girl of 16, while Romeo is somewhat older. Shakespeare cuts three years off Juliet’s age to make her the tender age of 13: as Old Capulet says to Paris, ‘she hath not seen the change of fourteen years’. This makes the leading lady into barely more than a child, discovering love for the very first time. At the time of Shakespeare’s writing, his own daughter Susanna was just turning 13 herself, so perhaps Shakespeare knew something about headstrong teenage girls.   Both Romeo and Juliet still live with their parents, meaning they must obey the house rules. In the Renaissance, children were expected to be obedient to their parents. As a male heir, Romeo would be expected to carry on the family name, while, with Juliet being an only child, her marriage was an important decision for the Capulet household. Old Capulet clearly feels that he has more wisdom than his child in such matters. At first he wants to find a match that Juliet is agreeable to (‘My will to her consent is but a part’), but soon the arranged marriage begins to look like enforced marriage. Eventually, he puts his foot down by telling Juliet, if ‘you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend’. This reduces his daughter to little more than a possession, a piece of property, to be traded for wealth and status for a rich Italian family.

 When Juliet suggests to Romeo that he ‘deny thy father and refuse thy name’, this marks a major breach of the social order. The balcony scene shows Juliet’s strength of character and determination, but also her willingness to disobey her parents. It is as if the scene is designed to provoke different reactions from the audience, depending on the age of the theatre-goer. The secret marriage of Romeo and Juliet may seem very romantic to us, but it also meant going against the wishes of both of their parents who were sworn enemies. Is this seen in a positive or a negative light by other characters in the play? How does it make you feel about the couple?

Shakespeare makes the young lovers even younger than his source, while exaggerating how old their parents are (Lady Capulet tells Old Capulet that what he needs is a crutch, not a sword). This widens the gap between generations, as hot-blooded youths hold very different ideas about love and passion than their seniors. Such clashes are as relevant today as they were in sixteenth-century England. Shakespeare’s skill lies in telling his story without coming down firmly on either side, leaving it up to us as audience members to think about how family ties and personal feelings can intersect and overlap, sometimes with violent results.