Was Shakespeare a Feminist? Juliet Gives Us a Clue.

A new production of Romeo and Juliet in London peels back layers of misogyny, racism and sexism. It’s a lot.

Was Shakespeare a Feminist? Juliet Gives Us a Clue.
Illustration by Natalie Newsome.

The news earlier this year that Romeo and Juliet would have a 12-week run at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London started out auspiciously, but quickly turned sour.

Fans celebrated the casting of Tom Holland (of Spider-Man fame) in the role of Romeo, and tickets for the run sold out within hours. But a torrent of online racist abuse was also directed at Francesca Amewudah-Rivers playing Juliet because Juliet—who is a fictional character and supposed to be 13—the trolls argued, is not traditionally Black.

Excuse me?

(If you’re detecting a parallel with the time that Halle Bailey’s casting in the title role of The Little Mermaid drew criticism because Ariel—who is a fictional character—isn’t traditionally Black; well, yes.)

The Jamie Lloyd Company, the production company behind this staging of Romeo and Juliet, put out a notice condemning the barrage of “deplorable racial abuse,” on X and its Instagram feed (the bio for which proudly declares Holland will play Romeo and…does not mention Amewudah-Rivers at all. Last I checked there’s no Romeo without Juliet, but I digress.) 

Meanwhile over 800 Black actors signed a letter of solidarity calling out the racist and misogynistic abuse. 

It was against this backdrop that Juliet—played by the unequivocally excellent Amewudah-Rivers—would step onto the stage. For the story of a young woman buffeted this way and that by the lowest human instincts, it felt very on point. Off I went to see it for myself. 

I must admit, some years have passed since I last pored over the text of Romeo and Juliet. It's a love story, sure; some teenage angst; a pile-up of bodies. But it took this production to peel back the sheer monstrosity of what Juliet endures.

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Star-crossed lovers

We begin with our pair of “star-crossed lovers,” whose families are fighting. (Over what? Eh, nobody knows. Maybe one guy insulted another guy’s girl. Maybe one guy got in another guy’s face.)

Things escalate as they always do: A look here, a slight there, a comment, a sneer, a threat, a killing, a payback. 

Into this atmosphere of macho one-upmanship between the Capulet and Montague men, Juliet flies like the pragmatic poet she is. She is accompanied by her nurse. (Always the nurse, for who else will stand beside her?) They cling to one another, two shipwrecked travelers on an island in an ocean of testosterone. 

Other than the nurse—ridiculed, dismissed and belittled, lest a woman should get ahead of her station—is there anyone Juliet can truly rely on? Of course not. Romeo is adoring, but stupid. Juliet’s mother is persona non grata in this production. (No really, where is she?) And Juliet’s father is a transactional tyrant desperate to see Juliet married off to the dreaded Count Paris. When Juliet—already secretly married to Romeo—pushes back on his plans, her father tears into her: If you don’t marry Paris, he says, then “hang, beg, starve, die in the streets / For, by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee.” 

Meanwhile the guys continue their pissing contest about, well, does anyone even care? Mercutio (from Romeo’s family) is killed by Tybalt (from Juliet’s family). Tybalt, enraged, needles Romeo, who declares he shan’t fight because he is full of love, but kills Tybalt anyway. Romeo has all the self-possession of a teenager. Which—oh, right—he is.

Between the demands of her father and the irreparably bad decisions of her lover, there aren’t many choices left for Juliet. Is it strength that brings her to plunge the “happy dagger” into her body, or simply the logical denouement of her agency being stripped away?

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A little bit feminist?

We may no longer be living in a world of daggers and friars and nursemaids, but Juliet’s plight, even in 2024, is so convincing. It makes you wonder whether anything has really changed at all. How did Shakespeare do it?

Some posit Shakespeare was a woman. It’s a bold idea, with artfully laid arguments that have angered many. Others stop at least part-way down that road, confident that Shakespeare was a man, but granting that women had a hand in writing many of the plays. The simplest explanation is that Shakespeare—for sure a man—just wrote really insightfully about women

With Romeo and Juliet, we simply don't know—and may never know—if some words were written by a woman’s hand; or whether a plot twist came from a woman’s mind; or whether Shakespeare just got it really right. 

What I do know is that it takes a feminist to know a patriarchy. It takes a feminist to strip a girl of power and still give her strength. It takes a feminist to put the ordinary life of a teenage girl on stage and make us weep over it. 

Poor Juliet. 

As morning breaks over the final scene, Romeo and Juliet lie dead together in a tomb. And that is when you see it: there in the final lines, like a slant of bright morning sun slipping into the death chamber. A tiny act of rebellion, a flicker of feminism, barely noticeable. Can you see it?

For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

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Romeo & Juliet directed by Jamie Lloyd is playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London through August 3.  

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