Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2007
Romeo and Juliet are very young. They are young to be married, and also young to be protagonists in a tragedy. Shakespeare made a special point of Juliet's extreme youth, first subtracting two years from the already tender age of Arthur Brooke's heroine (instead of sixteen, just under fourteen), and then having the characters disagree more than once over whether she is old enough to marry. Romeo, presumably somewhat older than Juliet, is nevertheless not yet grown up: still in the family home, fussed over by his parents, free to roam about with his friends but apparently not seen as ready for adult responsibility.
Why did Shakespeare insist on his tragic lovers as adolescents? To be sure, their youthfulness accentuates the generational conflict implicit in the story, the tragic disjunction that Franco Zeffirelli exploited so well in his compelling film version. But the extreme youth of Romeo and Juliet opens up a possibility beyond the traditional clashes of young and old. The very embeddedness in family that signals their tender years may itself be the point. It is surely significant that each of the two protagonists is introduced to us first as the object of parental concern. In the opening scene the Montagues worry about Romeo's solitary moping, fearing that some secret sorrow may blight their promising son before he ever arrives at maturity. In the scene directly following, Capulet is busy providing for his daughter's future by negotiating her marriage with Paris. It is important that each of these parental discussions takes place before we even meet the young person being discussed. Our initial view is of Romeo as a son, Juliet as a daughter.