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In William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, the title characters and their parents are of privileged birth, if not exactly members of the nobility as that term is usually understood. The two oldest women of the family are identified in the list of characters as “Lady Capulet” and “Lady Montague,” whereas each eldest man of the two families is identified simply as the “Head” of his house. Both men have large households and numerous attendants, and the two families also occupy very prominent positions in Verona and are expected by the prince to conduct themselves accordingly.
Three times the followers of the family have fought in the city’s streets, refusing to forgive or forget what the Chorus calls an “ancient grudge.” The word “ancient” may suggest a grudge passed down to them from previous generations, although the phrasing could simply refer to a long-standing antagonism involving currently living members of both families. The prince does not seem to imply that the quarrel has lasted over many generations, and the play lays no great emphasis on any ancient lineage of the two families.
Benvolio, it is true, at one point calls old Montague his “noble uncle,” but this phrase seems more a term of respect than a precise social designation. The one character in the play who is repeatedly defined as a genuine nobleman is Paris, the young man whom Juliet’s father wants her to marry. At one point the nurse refers to him as “a nobleman in town,” and Lady Capulet at one point describes him as
The gallant, young and noble gentleman,
The County Paris . . .
Later she calls him
A gentleman of noble parentage,
Of fair demesnes, youthful, and nobly train'd . . .
Paris himself addresses Capulet as “my lord,” which may indicate that he does indeed consider the Capulets members of the nobility. However, the word “lord” is used very often and very loosely throughout the play, as when Juliet refers to Romeo as her “lord,” a phrase also used by the nurse to describe him.
Whether or not the Capulets and Montagues should properly be termed “nobles,” they certainly have real responsibilities to the prince and to the city at large to exemplify ethical and orderly behavior. They are expected to set good examples for people beneath them in the social hierarchy – something they have not been doing, apparently, as the play opens.
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