What does Juliet mean by "a wonton's bird" in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet?

3 Answers

shxpersdarklady's profile pic

shxpersdarklady | College Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

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I'm so happy to hear that the old-fashioned idea of a book-club or literature club is still alive!  And that you are reading Shakespeare is even happier news!  You GO, girls!!

In Shakespeare's day, the word "wanton" was used variously. It generally meant a female who doesn't follow the rules, so it tended most often to be used to denote women of ill-repute, prostitutes, or women who were said to be engaging in behavior bad enough to make them prostitutes.

Strangely enough, it was also used to denote little girls and teens who were merely spoiled and wanted their way.  (This probably tells us a LOT about Shakespeare's culture's attitudes toward women's behavior, eh?  Any kind of misbehavior could be assumed to lead to sexual misbehavior, it seems.)

So, this phrase, "a wonton's bird" literally means a little girl who is spoiled enough to have the luxury of a pet bird.  The usual practice was to take a piece of string and tie the bird's feet to her finger or wrist, so that it wouldn't fly away. As you can imagine, this usually didn't result in very healthy conditions for the poor bird.

The image here is that Juliet is admitting she is petulant and childish enough to want to tie Romeo to her like a cruel little spoiled girl.

hgarey71's profile pic

hgarey71 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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Juliet's use of the phrase "wanton's bird" comes in Act II Scene II of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, which is the very famous balcony scene. Romeo has climbed the outer walls of Juliet's home to catch a glimpse of her and finds her on the balcony pouring out her love for him. When Romeo hears this, he is overcome with emotion and responds to her. During their exchange, Juliet realizes it will mean death for Romeo if he is caught, so she tries to urge him to go. 

"'Tis almost morning. I would have thee gone.
And yet no further than a wanton’s bird,
That lets it hop a little from his hand
Like a poor prisoner in his twisted gyves,
And with a silken thread plucks it back again,
So loving-jealous of his liberty."
She is expressing her conflicting feelings. She wants Romeo to leave because it's dangerous for him to be there, but she really wants him to stay. This is characteristic of young love---knowing what the right thing to do is but being so caught up in emotion that the world and all reason just falls away. She doesn't want to let Romeo out of her sight. Romeo has said that he will stay there forever, so he has in a way placed himself in her hands, like the little bird. She wants to release him but doesn't want him to go, either. She compares her desire for him to go to a child who steals a bird's liberty because of his/her own desire for it. Gyves were shackles. The imagery here is of a silken thread--the bonds that hold Romeo to her are gentle and soft, but they are bonds nonetheless because she desires to have him as her own. 
 
Shakespeare used the word wanton in many plays and with several different meanings. In this instance, it means a young rogue or scamp, a rascal. It could also refer to a spoiled child that doesn't want to relinquish his/her treasures. 
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