Treated Like a Child: The Infantilised Individuals of Romeo and Juliet and Comus

Submission Reader Lucy Stewardson explores the nature of infantilisation within Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Milton’s Comus. 

Etymologically, the word child shares its roots with ‘servant’, implying subservience and lowly status. Contemporary writer Henry Cuffe stated: “an age is a period and tearmes of mans life, wherein his natural complexion and temperature naturally and of its owne accord is evidently changed” (qtd. Sparey 448). Cuffe’s depiction of a linear pattern supports Early Modern understandings of age as distinct and hierarchical. His reference to temperature is homogenous with temperance, highlighting humoral theory and variation of character between ages. However, this neglects to consider the individual differences and inconstancies of human life. Relationships between parents and children fluctuate as characters constantly move back and forth across the life cycle. Comus celebrates this constant motion, whereas Romeo and Juliet portrays hierarchical rigidity. This essay will attempt to establish the extent to which children are restricted, or permitted to escape boundaries and how this reverberates throughout both texts. Through analysing issues such as the rhetoric of ageing, the use of space and puberty, this essay will analyse how treating somebody like a child either blocks or enables individual development.

In Romeo and Juliet, Capulet uses the rhetoric of treating somebody like a child in a boisterous and virulent manner, forcing Juliet into the distinct ‘child’ category. Following an argument about Paris, Capulet shouts at Juliet:

Mistress minion you,
Thank me no thankings, nor proud me no prouds,

Hang thee young baggage! Disobedient wretch!” (Shakespeare 3.5.149-162). This speech is littered with short, sharp words, such as “hang thee” and “wretch”, the violence of which resembles expletives as Juliet is stunned to silence by their use. A key issue to note is that the shock factor of such words only remains with rare usage. Therefore, there is an element of tact apparent in the frequency with which language is used to treat somebody like a child. In this case, these piercing words reduce Juliet’s space on stage. This is presented in Kenneth Brannagh’s recent production at the Garrick Theatre, in which Lily James as Juliet finishes this scene lying face down on the floor. Distorting the childlike act of kneeling before a father, James condenses Juliet to an inanimate servility. Juliet’s over-exaggerated use of space compensates for lack of speech and displays a youthful understanding of the theatre as a place for entertainment and rebellion, both of which are ironically displayed in her bow.

Additionally, Juliet’s use of physicality is much better suited to the theatre’s physical modes of communication than Capulet’s rhetoric. Juliet’s appreciation of this, in Branagh’s production, enables her to use her youth to capture the audience, where Capulet’s use of old rhetoric fails. Juliet’s mature understanding of communication might, comparatively, reduce Capulet’s speech to a childish fumble. For example, the word “minion” has servile connotations, illustrating Capulet’s understanding of Juliet as a child. However, the Oxford English Dictionary cites Early Modern use of the word as primarily referring to the favourite of a sovereign. Showing favouritism even in moments of extreme anger displays love, disputing the arguments of contemporaries like Stone, who claimed “very cool parent-child relationships, in which obedience was commonly enforced with brutality” (qtd. Sharpe 69). In fact, Capulet refrains from the temptation of violence: “my fingers itch” (Shakespeare 3.5.164). He is acutely aware of his physical body, but Shakespeare’s text prevents him from excess movement. The violence of his desire to experience the physicality of youth suggests emotional upheaval, as well as distaste for the learned rhetorical expressions of Commonplace Books with phrases such as “thank me no thankings, nor proud me no prouds” (3.5.150). This dislike of repetitive rhetoric illuminates Capulet’s oppression of Juliet into silence. Her subsequent efforts to find new ways of expressing herself suggest that this distance from rhetoric was her father’s intention. There is a hint of desperation in Capulet’s rushed phrasing, as distorted words such as “thankings”, encourage action beyond the constraints of rhetorical discourse. Ironically, his monopolisation of speech and treating Juliet like a child free her for individual growth. Capulet’s constrained violence paradoxically shows his domination of dialogue to be of little value, as the text controls him and illustrates that his own opportunity for personal development is hindered by his infantilising of Juliet.

This tension and ambiguity surrounding regressive versus beneficial parenting is continued in Milton’s Comus. The second brother, eager for heroism and to save his sister from danger, is restrained by Thyrsis:

Alas good ventrous youth,
I love thy courage yet, and bold enterprise,
But here thy sword can do thee little stead,
He [Comus] with his bare wand can unthred thy joynts,
And crumble all thy sinews (Milton 610-616).

Despite his mature courage and adventure, the second brother is infantilised by the reductive word “youth”, suggesting his qualities are poor imitations of those held by fully-fledged adults. The lisping ending of the word youth is juxtaposed with the valour and masculinity of “venturous”. The brother’s subsequent inadequacy compared to the Thyrsis’ superiority, presents the harm of judging children alongside more experienced adults. Furthermore, the brother’s youth encroaches on adventure even as Thyrsis speaks, resulting in a shortened word form that, without the hovering pause delivered by the ‘a’ sound, dives in immediately with a rashness suggestive of inexperience. However, this youthful impatience is linked to death with the words “unthred thy joynts” and “crumble all thy sinews”. Threatening to unstitch the child, the phallic symbol of a “bare wand”, rejects its traditional creation role, instead linking to decay. It indicates that childhood is momentary and easily destabilised by aggressive parenting. This subtly oppressive style of parenting is made explicit by Abbott’s statement: “children were physically weak, inexperienced in the ways of the world, and morally unformed” (58). Abbott’s word “unformed” highlights the danger of subjecting children to the reductive effects of over-protective parenting. In comparison, the corruptive surrogate parent Comus is attractive in his acknowledgment that the child has an existence to be undone. While Thyrsis underestimates children, Comus is a tempting, less stringent alternative. The word “unthred” suggests loosening threads between child and parent, in addition to joints elongating with growth. Hence, Comus’ loosened grip on the child simultaneously promises an ability to grow. Curiously, parental Thyrsis reads this distancing growth negatively, whereas the child himself desires progress. Thyrsis’s words highlight parental concern with the idea that childhood must end, through puberty or death. Milton stresses the danger of parenting with such anxiety, as Comus tempts children away through his dangerous appeals, for example with his sexualised “bare wand”, to their desire for progression towards puberty and adulthood.

In contrast, in Comus the Lady approaches puberty and temptation away from the bonds of parental supervision. As she wanders blindly and alone through the woods in an extended metaphor for the disorder of adolescence, she says:
This way the noise was, if mine ear be true,
Of such late Wassailers; yet O where els
Shall I inform my unacquainted feet
In the blind mazes of thi tangl’d Wood? (169-180).
Reference to the “blind mazes of thi tang’d Wood” suggest darkness and movement without direction, reflecting the instability of puberty. The Lady shows a reluctant willingness to learn through a very physical experience: her “unacquainted feet” walking through the transgression of a pagan ritual of a cider orchard. Milton thus combines the physicality of youth, previously discussed in relation to Juliet, with ancient ritual. The reluctant Lady’s question, “O where els / Shall I inform my unacquainted feet”, imitates a child’s first steps, pulling her back to the beginning of her timeline in the anachronistic paganism of the wood. The unsteadiness suggested by first steps is heightened by sensory disorientation, the dark wood implying blindness. Linking puberty with infancy, Milton heightens awareness of the Lady’s solitude and vulnerability when separated from her parents. Abbot has noted that “while the child lived… it was the godly parents’ duty to set his feet securely on the narrow path to salvation” (65). In the absence of parental supervision, it is the Lady’s responsibility to find her path. Thus, in removing the dependent Lady’s sight, Milton recreates the first steps of independence, lacking parental guidance. This, combined with the concept that the Lady must move a step towards the past (the Wassailers), even as she moves a step forward into puberty, creates a complex timeline. Moreover, the wood’s “tangl’d” nature reflects the way puberty tangles age; children experience a new infancy in which they must re-learn to use their developing body. The Lady displays her discomfort with this new self-reliance with the words “if mine ear be true”. Distrusting the truth of her ear, the Lady seems nervous outside the family setting, having lost her brothers and still enmeshed in a struggle to find her way back home to her parents.

The Lady’s discomfort in puberty goes unnoticed by Comus, as he attempts to persuade her with temptations targeted at the broad group of children. He begins: “See here be all the pleasures / That fancy can beget on youthfull thoughts” (Milton 669-670). This passage corrupts the parental desire that their offspring remain childlike, as it is the Lady’s independence and mature rationality that protect her from Comus’ advances. The play actuates the dangers and temptations that permeate society beyond family protection. However, as with Capulet and Juliet, distinct lines are drawn between generations as Comus reveals a youthful lack of understanding in his approach to temptation, with his presentation of “all the pleasures”. The word “fancy” implies immature flippancy, through its roots in the word “fantasy”, the daring tales of young knights. Comus attempts to persuade the Lady with temptations more suited to her adventurous brother than herself. Moreover, choosing to group characters according to age, Comus fails to appreciate the diverse personalities of children and this reductive viewpoint contributes towards his failure to persuade the Lady.

Generalised age is complicated further in Romeo and Juliet, as Shakespeare subverts  `the parent-child continuum by casting the servile (child) Nurse as a surrogate parent. She confronts Capulet about his treatment of Juliet:

Capulet: And why, my Lady Wisdom? Hold your tongue, Good Prudence. Smatter with Your gossips, go!
Nurse: I speak no treason
Capulet: O, God-i-good-e’en
Nurse: May not one speak?
Capulet: Peace, you mumbling fool! (Shakespeare 3.5.170-175.)
In this scene, the Nurse grows from a subservient child into an outspoken adolescent, contesting parental authority. The phrase “may not one speak?” combines the necessary politeness of servility and childhood, with a maturity of mind that challenges injustice. The Nurse pushes back against her Master, forcing him into a short burst of stichomythia before Capulet again regains control. However, the Nurse uses this confrontational form to justify her speech, as opposed to furthering her argument (“I speak no treason”). This unusual ability to create adolescent argument with the patriarch and yet remain unable to utilise this advantage for progression, is supported by Kahn’s suggestion that the Nurse is “a surrogate mother within the patriarchal family, but one who is, finally, of little help in assisting Juliet in her passage from child to woman” (14). However, the Nurse’s combined surrogacy and child-like status, forces her to recreate the uncertainty of adolescence and it is this which limits her to match Kahn’s description. While the Nurse is a comedic figure, her support of Juliet is a distinct challenge to authority and a hallmark of adolescence. Age remains in flux as the adult Nurse challenges the repression of childhood servility to become a teen capable of independent thought and voice.

Despite these challenges to rigid age brackets, parent-child relationships are repeatedly characterised as incompatible through use of space. In Romeo and Juliet this is done through negative space, where characters miss meeting each other on stage. Following the initial street fight between the Montagues and Capulets, Lady Montague asks, “O where is Romeo? Saw you him today? / Right glad I am he was not in this fray” (Shakespeare 1.1.116-17). In a play in which Romeo never shares the stage with his parents, these multiple questions leave a palpable residue of parental concern. This heightens to panic as the Lady’s gladness appears absent-minded comfort, quiet following the heightened pitch of questions in quick succession. Furthermore, Lady Montague’s speech is marked by Shakespeare’s use of a rhyming couplet, creating a sing-song sound, ill-suited to Lady Montague’s concern for her child. Specifically, the words “today” and “fray” link together the present moment with a second meaning of the word fray: that of unravelling and decay. Cressy has noted that “people should be ready for death at all times” (381). Using a rhyming couplet, Shakespeare stresses the incompatibility of a child’s growth with the oppressive parental concern that demands a child’s constant observation. It implies that, to his mother, Romeo remains a small child to whom comforting rhymes can be sung. Where Comus presents the Lady as keen to find her family, in Romeo and Juliet, it is the parents who are left searching and the inability to accept a child’s development into adulthood is destructive to parent-child relationships. This idea of parental nurture is further corrupted and its damage heightened as

Shakespeare combines it with decay. Romeo talks to the tomb:
Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death,
Gorged with the dearest morsel of the earth,
Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open,
And in despite I’ll cram thee with more food (Shakespeare 5.3.45-48).
The image of a parent feeding their baby is transported from the beginning to the end of the life cycle. The “womb of death”, while at first appearing oxymoronic in its combination of a place of conception and death, loses this rhetoric when it is considered that death in the womb was a very real possibility. Furthermore, the small emptiness of a “morsel” within the womb is contrasted with the fullness of “gorged” and “cram”. These words are animalistic and contrast the tender “morsel”, conveying the love of something small and undeveloped, having detached from something larger. Although this can represent the potential of children to grow from their small childhood existence, there are disturbing cannibalistic undertones. The crumb broken from a larger whole can also be read as a detached part of the Mother. This cannibalism is furthered as the imagery of a baby’s jaws depict the opening of a tomb through which humans pass, overtly referred to as “food”. The resisting words “enforce” and “in despite”, while suggesting parental control, also highlight the destructive potential of over-nurturing children. Thus, the cannibalism of parent-child relationships, in which parents willingly sacrifice themselves for the progression of their children, demonstrates the unyielding love of a parent as self-destructive.

This tension between the adult and the child is examined further in Comus, as sex and childhood are brought uncomfortably together through the woodland location. It is said that:

Trip the pert Fairies and the dapper Elves;
By dimpled Brook, and Fountain brim,
What hath the night to do with sleep?
Night hath better sweets to prove,
Venus now wakes, and wak’ns Love (Milton 116-125).
The childish connotations of “Fairies” are combined with the pubescent suggestions of the word “pert” and its implications of young breasts and developing bodies. Furthermore, the “dimpled brook”, suggesting cherubic babies and dips in the ground, is quickly followed with the word “brim”, conversely threatening overflow from a container too small for its expanding contents, in analogy with the childish body approaching puberty. Thus, the instability of age is reflected in the uneven path of the woodland setting. This is underlined by the way fairies “trip” across the landscape. These metaphors for growing up are explicitly brought to a head as the passage turns to a discussion of night as symbolic of sex. The rhetorical question, “what hath night to do with sleep” is enticing, particularly with reference to “better sweets”. Disturbingly, Milton utilises the temptation most associated with children to directly draw youths towards sex. Moreover, Milton uses half-answers and draws a distinction between the experience of adulthood and the naivety of childhood, as he toys with the idea of answering a question that holds more rhetorical power when left unanswered. The long phase of growing up and the experiences of sex that go with it, here represented by the night, are soon minimised as “Venus now wakes”. Milton presents adult life as tempting to children but uncomfortably conceals the process of getting there. The importance of puberty and growth is emphasised as the childlike and the adult struggle to co-exist.

Shakespeare extends the parental trope of insistently treating offspring as children, to Romeo. He heightens Juliet’s youth by speaking of her in reverential terms:

They may seize,
On the white wonder of dear Juliet’s hand,
And steal immortal blessing from her lips,
Who even in pure and vestal modesty,
Still blush, as thinking their own kisses sin (Shakespeare 3.3.35-39).
The words “seize” and “steal” portray violence against an inferior. However, “their own kisses” creates unexpected authority as the virginal woman claims ownership of her kisses. Yet, Romeo’s use of the plural “their”, assembles virgins into a collective, grouped per their youthful sexuality, rather than as multi-faceted individuals; vestal fire is reflected in the imaginary blush with which Romeo colours Juliet’s cheek. It is important to highlight the contrast drawn between the red blush and Juliet’s “white wonder”, displaying the sin of knowledge even in the white purity of a youthful character. Sparey suggests that “the reddened face… was eroticised because it drew attention to unseen parts of the body… [and] confirms her physical readiness for generative sex” (455). However, Juliet’s young age sets her on the border between child and “young woman”. Furthermore, Romeo’s comment is at odds with Sparey’s suggestion that the blush implies physical readiness for sex, as he pities the childish idea that a kiss constitutes sin. According to Romeo, Juliet’s blush portrays youthful embarrassment and preoccupation with a morality which the older Romeo dismisses. Later in the same scene Shakespeare again refers to blood, this time having spilled from the confines of Tybalt’s body. Romeo states. “Now I have stained the childhood of our joy / With blood removed but little from her own” (3.3.95-96). Significantly, blood that is perceived as beautiful and symbolic of youth when under the skin, creates a “stain” when it is “removed” from the body. Furthermore, it is only with the spilling of blood, specifically the stain of blood thought to mark the loss of virginity, that Juliet can move from the bracket of childhood towards that of adulthood. Paradoxically, Romeo desires to keep Juliet in the safety of youth, even as he pulls her from this in becoming her lover.

Both Romeo and Juliet and Comus present parent-child relationships in which children are underestimated and must show strength and independence to grow up. The use of rhetoric is contrasted with youthful physicality and wild spaces mirror the uncertain progression of movement from child to adult. The parental struggle to maintain their
offspring’s youth by treating them like children, can be read as a test of character for young Early Moderns. Sharpe has noted that “there is a large body of opinion holding that relations between parent and child… were distant and unloving” (69). Both Romeo and Juliet and Comus display children with little parental interaction, and these rare instances are marked by anger and disagreement. However, this does not suggest that these relationships were “unloving”. Instead, distant relationships are displayed in recognition of the necessity for children to carve their own way and progress as autonomous characters, despite their youth. To be treated like a child in these texts is to be oppressed, alone and inferior, but ultimately it is these qualities that necessitate counter-action and progression along the life cycle. Had they not been treated like children, these characters could never become adults.

Works Cited

Abbott, Mary. Life Cycles in England 1560-1720. Cradle to Grave. London: Routledge, 1996.
Brannagh, Kenneth, dir. Romeo and Juliet. Garrick Theatre, London. 01 June 2016.
Cressy, David. Birth, Marriage and Death. Ritual, Religion, and the Life Cycle in Tudor and
Stuart England. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.
Kahn, Coppelia. “Coming of Age in Verona”. Modern Language Studies. Vol. 8, No. 1, 2014,
Milton. “Comus”.
editions/comus.html. Accessed 13 November 2016.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. London: Penguin Random House UK, 2015. Print.
Sharpe, J. A. Early Modern England. A Social History 1550-1760. London: Edward Arnold Ltd,
1987. Print.
Sparey, Victoria. “Performing Puberty: Fertile Complexion in Shakespeare’s Plays”.
Shakespeare Bulletin. Vol. 33, no. 3, 2015, pp. 441-467