How old is Romeo?
In the Such Shakespeare Stuff blogspot, the question is asked – Romeo and Juliet : How old is Romeo? From the text, we know Juliet’s age but not Romeo’s.
It is important to note that Shakespeare wrote his girls’ parts for boys, for boys prior to their voices breaking & in the case of Juliet, for a boy or boys competent enough for such a complex & demanding part (not one where they could be boys again for part of the play). According to Shakespearean experts, due to such boys only having five or so years ‘lifetime’ as capable of playing female characters, Shakespeare & other playwrights of the time might have a relatively small ‘pool’ on which to draw & therefore wrote for specific boys. This is a practicality determined by circumstances. His acting company would have had much more scope when it came to casting Romeo, Mercutio, Paris, Benvolio & Tybalt. At the same time, Romeo is referred to as ‘young Romeo’ four times – once by Benvolio suggesting that Romeo is younger than him. Mercutio asks Benvolio if Romeo is ‘man enough to meet with Tybalt?’ Tybalt also addresses him as ‘boy’. I would therefore see Romeo as in his late teens with the other four young men in their early twenties.
There’s a version of the story by Luigi da Porto published in 1530 & certainly one of Shakespeare’s sources. In it, Giulietta is eighteen (as she is in an English translation by Painter c. 1580). Later versions (Bandello in 1554 & Brooke in 1562) keep or reduce this age. Juliet’s age is trimmed down by Shakespeare from Brooke’s sixteen to thirteen – although she is just over two weeks short of fourteen. –
Lady C. She’s not fourteen –
Nurse. I’ll lay fourteen of my teeth –
But I must count some out, I have just four –
She’s not fourteen. How long can it be now
To harvest day?
Lady C. A fortnight & odd days.
Nurse. Even or odd, of all days in the year,
Come Harvest Day at night she’ll be fourteen.
but the audience is frequently reminded that she is regarded as too young.
Cap. Just saying over what I’ve said before.
My child is still a stranger to this world,
She has not seen the age of fourteen years.
Let two more summers wither in their pride
Before we think her ripe to be a bride.
Later plays have Marina marrying at fourteen & Miranda at fifteen but again it is emphasised that they are young. Viola & Beatrice – in their late teens – are much closer to what historians regard as the norm. In contrast Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway was twenty-six (he was eighteen) when they married.
It is also necessary to be aware of the social conditions of Elizabethan London – the context within Shakespeare wrote. As Peter Ackroyd says in ‘Shakespeare – The Biography’:
…the miracle of late sixteenth-century London lay in the fact that it was renewing itself. Its vigour & energy came from a fresh access of youthfulness. It has been estimated that half the urban population was under the age of twenty years…The average expectancy of life in the parishes of London, rich or poor, was very low…The expectation of a relatively short life must have affected the conduct & attitude of many Londoners. They were all consigned to a short burst of existence with the evidence of disease & mortality all around them.
So, what we may have is the part of Juliet, aged almost fourteen, written for a specific boy who was around twelve years old (giving him some time to play her before his voice deepened & the part of Romeo, aged around eighteen written for a young man of about the same age. None of this can be proved – but it’s a lot of fun to speculate!
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