Romeo and Juliet - impulsivity or family strife?

‍In June at the Royal college of Psychiatrists annual congress, Dr Trevor Turner and I debated this issue

‍I proposed that the situation that Juliet in particular was in propelled her behaviour rather than an intrinsic flaw in her personality.

Here are the detailed arguments:  

What is the quote that you know best from Romeo and Juliet ?

"Romeo, Romeo,  wherefore art thou Romeo?"

 That is a good place to start because the dilemma for Juliet really is the circumstance that she finds herself in.    She is a thoughtful girl living in a family  that wants to control her and a society that fuels violence.

She is a tragic figure, she does take her own life; but in a different situation she could have blossomed.  Her suicidal end was not an inevitable part of her personality makeup-  she does not come onto the stage as a high risk suicide case.  If you had met her at the beginning of this play you would not have been concerned about her at all.  

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name; Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, And I'll no longer be a Capulet.

This speech holds the key.   Her life is ruled by her family  and their feud.  She goes on to the quote you will also know well:

"That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet; So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd"

The problem is their names – by which she means their families.   Juliet is not an impulsive girl who looks for trouble.   She meets Romeo at the party and is smitten with him.  Its only later that she finds out that he is a Montague

"My only love drawn from my only hate"

What do psychiatrists look for when we are deciding that someone has a personality problem:   Can they think things through?   And can they understand what others are thinking?

Juliet is thoughtful,   she gets straight to the point.  She understands that the family feud prevents her pursuing her love.   She could submit – accept the family logic and reject Romeo.   She could comply – but she doesn’t;  she is wilful, and she is wooable.   And Romeo is also not willing to comply with the feud.

So what is the rest of the balcony scene about ?  Its Romeo wooing and Juliet testing him out.   She’s young but she’s not naïve.  She knows what teenage boys are thinking and how their hormones can drive their behaviour.  She is not just going to submit  - she wants some commitment from him

Thou may prove false; at lovers' perjuries They say, Jove laughs. O gentle Romeo, If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully:

She not only understands herself and her situation but she also understands what others think, at this point Romeo.    She knows this romance is high risk.  She has  no time to develop this relationship slowly.  She  wants some commitment,  she is not going to risk all for a brief flirtation.

But if he will commit then she will too  – they are going to have to be quick because her parents have just told her that she is going to have to marry someone else – of their choosing.  She could comply but she wants to make some choices for herself.


I will return to Juliet and indeed to Romeo.   But let us consider the society in Verona that  they are living in and then consider  her  family.

The  play starts with a fight; a fight between the men of the Capulet clan and those of the Montagues including the clearest psychopath in the play – Tybalt.  Tybalt  wants a fight.  He is going to cause a lot of trouble.  Benvolio is trying to stop the fight, Tybalt weighs in – Turn thee Benvolio look upon thy death…Talk of peace ?  I hate the word.

The citizens are fed up with this – Down with the Capulets Down with the Montagues they shout.  The prince stops the fight – enemies of peace –Will they not hear? The prince knows how impervious to argument or even threat these families are – he threatens them again to keep the peace on pain of death.  

Romeo as a male is caught up directly in this violence –but he does not want to fight.  He wants things to be better –when Tybalt is provoking him, Romeo calls him his cousin and wants the fighting put aside.  He even calls on his best friend Mercutio not to fight Tybalt

Gentle Mercutio – put thy rapier down  but he cannot stop the fight and Tybalt kills Mercutio.   Mercutio in his dying gasp lets you know his real feelings for these families .  A plague on both your houses!  He repeats this,  exactly what the citizens and the prince have been saying

A plague on both your houses – they have made worms meat of me – Your houses!

From the heart of the Montague retinue we hear what to make of this pernicious feud.   This is the atmosphere that these two teenagers in love have been brought up in but they want to reject it .  Romeo and Juliet are not the disordered ones in Verona .  

But Juliet can get suicidal and we cannot ignore that.    You could just dismiss it as a melodramatic device that Shakespeare adds on to his females in love to indicate that this love really is powerful. 

Friar Laurence is the priest who has helped the couple  and wed them.  Juliet does threaten Friar Laurence with suicide when Romeo is banished and her family tell her to wed Paris

Give me some present counsel, or this bloody knife Shall play the umpire…I long to die,  If what thou speak'st speak not of remedy.

She does not want to die, she wants remedy.  She wants help  but she needs the Friar to help.  Her family will not help nor even listen.    She knows the Friar will – he has married them .    There must be a good reason why the Friar did this.    He knows his place in society  would he really go against the Capulets?

Yes he would and he did because

For this alliance may so happy prove, To turn your households' rancour to pure love

He is also finding this feud desperate and it needs a radical solution, perhaps these two young lovers can change the whole dynamic of the City.

So later with Romeo banished and Juliet who is about to be dragged up the aisle begging him for help the Friar does provide a potion that will send Juliet to sleep and appear dead for two days.   This is a radical solution

Would you take his potion ?  You would have to be in a desperate situation -  Like already secretly married and about to be forced into bigamy!

But she doesn’t just swig the potion, the thoughtful Julia thinks hard before she takes it

She is good at getting in other people’s heads,  she thinks what could be the Friar’s motive

What if it be a poison, which the friar Subtly hath minister'd to have me dead, Lest in this marriage he should be dishonour'd, Because he married me before to Romeo?

Juliet can get inside others heads she can work out what others think.   Any way she decides to trust him – she is in a corner.

We have considered Juliet’s case  – she is only young but she has character and thoughtfulness  and wants things to be better for them all.

We have considered the society and family feud but what about her parents?   How awful are they that she has had to rely on the care of her nurse?  However I suspect that this  devoted nurse has given Juliet the consistent and caring love that her parents have been incapable of.

Her father speaks clearly of his approach:  

Hang thee, young baggage! disobedient wretch! I tell thee what: get thee to church o' Thursday, Or never after look me in the face: Speak not, reply not, do not answer me; My fingers itch.


If she is not there then: 

hang, beg, starve, die in the streets, For, by my soul, I'll ne'er acknowledge thee, Do you need more evidence that Juliet understands very well everyone around her and do you think that her actions are a sign of dysfunction on her part? 

Comply or resist – there’s no discussion in her situation.


The other person in the debate is Romeo but we do not know so much about Romeo.  We know the society he is living in, but less about his family.  However we do actually have a description of his character

Verona braggs of him to be a virtuous and well governed youth

That sounds like a rather partial witness, but actually it is Juliet’s father.  We know that Romeo is a bit fickle  - he is chasing Rosaline at the start of the play.  And we know that he is a bit impetuous in love like many teenage boys.    But like other good Elizabethans we do believe in love at first sight.  We also know that Romeo tries to stop the fighting. 

Romeo does kill Tybalt – but Tybalt is a known killer who comes back purposefully to kill Romeo.

Romeo does also kill Paris but he does try to get Paris to leave him

Go Gentle youth – fly hence

Be gone I love thee better than myself


Romeo is not a man of violence - and we know that he is loyal to Juliet.    But they both kill themselves -   Mistreated, misled and mistaken.   But the blame does fall on the family and the society – a society that also has weapons available to all and apothecaries that hand over suicidal potions to youths for money. 

Making suicidal means available is what we need to change in Verona . Changing the families looks a hopeless task only the deaths of this couple will do that. 

These lovers are not dysfunctional characters.   In another situation they would have lived happily ever after – the ending the Victorians gave this play.  It is what we all want and we see that they are capable of this.


For never was a story of more woe – than this of Juliet and her Romeo


And  as an afterword for psychiatrists :  what is the acid test for us ?  if Juliet was saved from her suicide and delivered to your care – would you be looking to treat her for her personality disorder ?

Or are you going to be calling the parents in?

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