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Essay: Dissenters: Romeo, Juliet and Holden to Expose Society’s Values and Beliefs

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  • Published: 23 March 2023*
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  • Tags: Romeo and Juliet essays

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Dissenting voices offers challenges to existing values and beliefs. Part of being a dissenting voice is the refusal to conform to society. Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet from the play by William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1597) and Holden Caulfield from Catcher and the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951), all go through the harsh realities of growing up as a teenager, but how they deal with their situations is what determines their character. While each character lives in very different worlds, they all question and challenge the ideas of their restrictive social systems. The theme of maturity and loss of innocence is a central theme in Romeo and Juliet and Catcher in the Rye.

Juliet Capulet is of an age that stands on the border between immaturity and maturity. To highlight the idea of dissention, there is heavy emphasis on Juliet’s transition that she undertakes. At the play’s beginning she is merely an obedient, protected, naïve child. This is shown at the introduction of Juliet to the play when Juliet attracts the attention of Count Paris and her father, Lord Capulet, says that Juliet “is yet a stranger in the world”. After her encounter with Romeo, Juliet is willing to desert her family in the name of love. Juliet seems uninterested in loving anyone. But, after she meets Romeo, her opinion changes. She confesses her love to Romeo on her balcony by saying, “Take all myself”. She develops into a self- efficient and independent woman acting on her own accord at the plays ends. Juliet establishes her dissension through her confession of loving Romeo; “Refuse thy name… And I shall no longer be a Capulet.” In this scene, she is resisting the restrictions of her parents by offering to renounce her name because of her deep love for Romeo. She breaks away from her parents who offer her a prestigious marriage, securing a future with Paris. These characteristics portray a dissenting character as it wasn’t the expected features for the Elizabethan era. Women were expected to be submissive to their husbands and families, specially their fathers. Juliet however goes against these standards by disobeying her father’s wish and marries his arch rival. She makes the decision that her loyalty and love for Romeo must be her guiding priorities. Essentially, Juliet cuts herself loose from her prior social engagements—her nurse, her parents, and her social position in Verona—in order to try to be with Romeo. Juliet challenges society’s beliefs, by flourishing into a strong-minded woman who is in deep love with an antagonist.
Romeo’s defiance of gender roles placed on him by society encourage Romeo to defy social norms. Men in Verona is based and judged solely upon violence, sexual domination, and conquest. Sampson, a servant of the Capulets, boasts to another in the opening scene, “’Tis true, and therefore women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall” This distinctly shows the enforced concept of dominance men have over the women in Verona. Sampson also challenges, “Draw, if you be men” reinforcing upon standards and teasing his opponent with the idea that he is less than a man than he is, if he does not respond and fight. Romeo however challenges these stereotypes of masculinity and is portrayed with more feminine and submissive traits. He speaks in poetic melancholy. Romeo is in love with the idea of love, and this way of thinking is teased by both his friends and enemies as it differs from them. When with Juliet in scenes, his male role is increasingly declines. He puts himself below her both, literally and figuratively, as a gesture of submission, during the balcony scene. “As glorious to this night, being o’er my head” is a clear example of Romeo assuming the submissive role in the relationship, challenging the traditional dominant role of the men. A man in the society in Verona would never consider himself below a woman or put her on a pedestal to worship and respect. Romeo is the first to revoke his name: “…I’ll be new baptiz’d;” and “Henceforth I never will be Romeo” This act of giving up his name for Juliet is non-traditional, even in the society we live in today. By defying gender roles set on him by society, Romeo becomes a clear character of dissent.

The portrayal of Holden Caulfield captures a discouraged teenager with offensive attitudes, discouraged language, and erratic behaviour which confronted society in the 1950s. Values of the 1950s were very conservative but were abandoned with the rebellion of teenagers. The Catcher in the Rye portrays the role of a teenager as a person, Holden, but also as an idea. The novel centres around Holden’s rebellion against the physical, moral and spiritual restraints in 1950s, America. Holden values innocence and associates growing up as a loss of innocence. “I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff… I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.” Holden wants to protect the children from falling off the cliff in the ‘real world’ of adulthood. Holden also challenges society through his beliefs on sex. Holden doesn’t understand the status that comes with having sex. “Sex is something I just don’t understand. I swear to God I don’t”. Salinger sets up sex as an entry into adult world. Holden is torn between his innate belief that sex should be linked with love and the social pressure that it’s part of status.

In conclusion, all the protagonists, Romeo Montague, Juliet Capulet and Holden Caulfield, are strong and young voices that dissent against the values and expectations on the expected adult society. Juliet’s transformation from a naïve and innocent child to a brave and independent woman, Romeo’s rebellion against gender roles and his abandonment on his suspected roll, and Holden’s challenges on the American society, all demonstrate how dissenting voices challenge existing beliefs and values.

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