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How Do Romeo and Juliet Relate to Hunter-Gatherer Societies?

Andrea Lawrence has a master's in creative writing. She studied fiction, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting.

Read on to learn more about Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and how the play relates to hunter-gatherer societies.

Read on to learn more about Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and how the play relates to hunter-gatherer societies.

Romeo and Juliet Is an Allegory for the Problems of Society

William Shakespeare's famous play Romeo and Juliet is a commentary on the foils of society. It's not so much the decisions Romeo and Juliet make that lead to their death but rather the conditions of society and the expectations that were put on Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet are both very young; therefore, they have little if any agency over their lives. Romeo is around 16 and Juliet is 13. As Juliet's 14th birthday approaches, her parents conspire to have her married off to Count Paris.

Both teenagers are coming out of their lily-white childhoods and into the rigorous callowness of adulthood. Both people come from rich families, so they were given every privilege and luxury imaginable in 16th-century Verona. Even still, both Romeo and Juliet are unhappy with their lives; they seek romanticism and idealism in hopes that it will liberate them from the constraints of their society.

Side Note: A list of references used for this article is listed at the bottom of the page. The article combines academic sources from literature and anthropology.

Gender Roles Burden Both Romeo and Juliet

Romeo wants to be a pacifist, but he is drawn into battle with his wife's cousin, Tybalt. After killing Tybalt, Romeo goes through a powerful and painful metamorphosis into adulthood: his first steps into manhood are as a murderer and outcast. In the last act of the play, Romeo blames Tybalt for his loss of innocence:

Tybalt, liest thou there in thy bloody sheet? Than, with that hand that cut thy youth in twain, To sunder his, that was thine enemy? Forgive me, cousin! (Romeo)

Young Romeo didn't want to appear as a coward. He thought Juliet's love for him had made him weak. He played with toxic masculine thoughts before killing Tybalt.

The other protagonist, Juliet, is forced to take on the challenges of her gender role. Her parents want to marry her off to someone with good social standing and wealth. They select for their teenage daughter a man who is 25 years old. The age difference is jarring for contemporary audiences, but in the past men in their mid-20s often married younger brides.

Juliet is expected to get married and have children. She has very little in the way of choice, considering her parents are arranging her marriage. Her choice was to be with Romeo, but this option was denied to her.

Born Into Families That Hate Each Other

Romeo and Juliet had the misfortune of being born into "two families, both alike in dignity," those two families, the Capulets and Montagues, harbored an ancient grudge against each other. The young protagonists know the weight of the family grudge and its boundaries. They challenge norms by getting married in secret. Horrifyingly, their matrimonial protest of everything Verona ends in death.

The play takes a hard look at the disastrous actions of politics, religion, gender roles, wealth, and family. Verona isn't a paradise; it's ruled by chaos.

So what does this famous play have to do with hunter-gatherer societies?

The bulk of human history hasn't taken place in cities and towns. To be honest, many of the things we adhere to are relatively new, this includes politics, religion, literacy, technology, etc. Hunting and gathering were humanity's original way of life. It was the most enduring successful competitive adaptation, occupying 90-95% of human history.

The advent of agriculture changed everything. Instead of foraging, people started farming; they had found ways to manipulate land and water. In contemporary times, only a few groups are classified as hunter-gatherers.

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Romeo and Juliet can be taken as a play about two teens who wish to abandon society to start their own path. They're tired of the constraints of their hometown, often seeking each other's company under the veil of night. Even though they want their own freedom, Romeo’s exile is seen as deeply serious: What life could one possibly have outside the walls of Verona? It's a grim reality: Romeo and Juliet have been institutionalized by society to the point that they no longer believe they can make it on their own in the wilderness.

Society is an obstruction to the characters' growth and dreams: Romeo and Juliet are infantilized by their city. When Romeo is exiled after killing Juliet’s cousin, he becomes deranged by grief. Juliet considers suicide to avoid her parents’ plans to have her marry Count Paris and forget Romeo. Juliet is momentarily relieved of her unhappiness by Friar Laurence who helps her come up with a way to get back to Romeo. Juliet fakes her own death, but she does it so well that Romeo kills himself out of grief for her.

Neither Romeo nor Juliet could face the idea of wilderness alone. Both people felt so strongly about the other that they were willing to die rather than be alone. Both teens felt understood in the presence of their lover, and for that rich understanding to be taken from them and then be forced into roles that they didn't want was a death sentence.

Not only did Juliet not want to marry Count Paris, but she also didn’t want to become a devoted nun to the church. Friar Laurence's plan to have Juliet become a nun to protect her was insulting. She wanted freedom with Romeo. She wanted to be her own person, but society, and her family, wouldn’t let her do that. The lovers thought they found a remedy to their suffering in each other, but fate would have it that the two would part.

Before There Were Cities

The play hints at the memories of a world before people began living in cities and towns. There once was a world where people didn’t work for money but spent their time exploring the planet and foraging for food.

Anthropologists have found that hunter-gatherers were happier and healthier than their contemporary counterparts. Hunters and gatherers didn’t have to deal with the demands of a job and managing money. They ate fresh food that they found and prepared. They were constantly moving, so they got plenty of exercise. They weren’t living in gross conditions with landfills, flooded sewers, pandemics, deadly traffic, pollution, technology addictions, and wealth inequality.

Sure, hunters and gatherers had their fair share of problems. They didn’t have the amenities we have today. They had little if any medical knowledge. Many didn’t have shelter from inclement weather or robbers. But they did have something that people don’t have today: the freedom to explore the planet and move anywhere from day to day without fear of breaking rules.

From anywhere on the planet, they could look up at the sky and see the stars. There were no obstructions to the sky. They were one with nature, and they looked to the sky and pondered many beautiful things. They'd look to the stars to imagine what was beyond them.

There is something wrong in our present time: many of us do not have access to a vivid night sky. There is so much light pollution that our night sky is dim. If we can't see the stars, we can't be in awe of them. And in losing our sense of awe, we‘ve lost our sense of nature. And by losing our sense of nature, we‘ve lost our sense of self.

In our collective world literature and memories, there is a prevailing idea that the planet was a paradise in the past. We can look to our oldest stories, such as Adam and Eve. They lived in the Garden of Eden and named the animals. They enjoyed the fruits of the trees. Then one day, they were kicked out and forced to live their lives outside the comforts of a lush garden.

Their needs were covered while in the garden, but they ate forbidden fruit and it gave them epiphanies. They no longer belonged in paradise. They were forced to leave and toil with the land. In many ways, the popular Genesis story depicts the change from hunter-gatherer societies to pastoral and then horticultural and agrarian societies.

Romeo and Juliet represent the deep desire of people to return to a garden, a world like the one the hunters and gatherers shared. But Romeo and Juliet don’t know how to find and secure providence. They find it for a moment in each other, but it’s unsustainable because he is a Montague and she is a Capulet, a social burden they were born into.

L'ultimo bacio dato a Giulietta da Romeo by Francesco Hayez. Oil on canvas. Created 1823.

L'ultimo bacio dato a Giulietta da Romeo by Francesco Hayez. Oil on canvas. Created 1823.

They Fall in Love Because of Their Similar Wavelength

Romeo and Juliet instinctively understand each other’s idealism, this is revealed in their first encounter when they exchange rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter that form a sonnet. The sonnet ends with their first kiss. It took 14 lines for the two teens to reveal to each other that they were soul mates.

Had Romeo and Juliet fallen in love in another place and time, their love could have worked. They would have been happier in a hunter-gatherer society than in cruel Verona.

The dreams and memories of our prior societal structures as humans have stayed with us into the present. In part, the desire to move to Mars and colonize it has to do with the hope that we could return to a paradise. Unfortunately, Mars isn’t a tropical rainforest with bountiful fruit, so it’s not the kind of place to be free of work and social burden. If there was another planet like Earth in our solar system, everyone would want to explore it.

Oppression in Society

Romeo and Juliet prove that humans are more than puppets for society. We’re meant to move freely and to trust that we’ll find food. Humans aren’t supposed to live their lives as targets for merchandise. You’re meant to go out into the wild to make choices, but in a gridlock society, you’re often manipulated to make choices.

Romeo and Juliet attempted to break away from the narrative chain they had been forced into by their feuding families. The barely ripe revolution ended in sorrow. Shakespeare seems to suggest that young protests are futile against the clout of corruption inevitable in any society.

When Shakespeare had something serious to say about the world he lived in, he would set his plays in other parts of the world rather than in England. It's far easier to put the audience's fears at bay when you don't make it seem like you're criticizing your country. Italy comes off as exotic with its warm and pleasant weather compared to England's dreary skies, rainstorms, and miserably cold days. England is supposed to be regal and an example for the world; Italy is seen as impulsive and hotheaded.

The bard knew exactly who was his audience. He knew they'd understand that the conflicts people think are so important are but trivial compared to the death of two young lovers. They were teens with no siblings leaving their parents with no heirs, and they were teens who should have had every beautiful occasion possible until their final days in old age.

If society cannot guarantee that its citizens have happiness and good health, then society is more interested in using people as a means for production. Society squeezed Romeo and Juliet like oranges. The punishment for not following their designated roles was death.

Romeo was supposed to take up the sword and fight; he's supposed to inherit wealth and aptly protect it. He's meant to be misogynistic, crude, and obsessed with status. Violence for boys was often seen as a rite of passage, one that the fictional city of Verona couldn't stop.

Juliet is supposed to get married and have as many children as possible to create heirs for her husband.

Watercolor by John Masey Wright of Act II, Scene II. The image depicts the balcony scene.

Watercolor by John Masey Wright of Act II, Scene II. The image depicts the balcony scene.

Comparing Romeo and Juliet's Romance to Hunter-Gatherer Societies

In most parts of the world, hunter-gatherers were conquered by farming or shepherding groups. At some point, living in a hunter-gatherer society was vulnerable. It's harder to consolidate goods, and it's harder to stockpile weapons. Hunter-gatherer societies were defenseless to groups that could manage and construct powerful items.

In this way, Romeo and Juliet who are in many ways aloof, are defenseless to the more powerful constructions of formalized society. The couple would have been spared if they had exited Verona after their wedding.

Egalitarian Ethos

The couple shared an egalitarian view of the world, unlike their peers. Romeo desired pacifism instead of having to prove his rank and might to Tybalt. He fell for Tybalt's trap after Mercutio was murdered.

Anthropologists argue that hunter-gatherer groups tend to have an egalitarian ethos. There is agreed upon social equality, all people are prioritized instead of one individual or a handful of individuals. Romeo and Juliet wanted fairness and harmony between the Capulets and Montagues. Friar Laurence had hoped their marriage would bring peace to the two families.

There are some anthropologists who believe hunter-gatherers' resistance to domination by their peers was a factor that led to the evolution of human consciousness, language, and social organization. Consider the fact that Romeo and Juliet have some of the most advanced, flowery parts of language in the play, and how they show their desire to be with each other through complicated symbols and metaphors. The couple is drawn to a kind of consciousness that's actively repressed in Verona.

Consider the following lines from Act 2 Scene II. The lines indicate the kind of poetry both people could communicate, and their desire to deny their current status:

ROMEO: O, speak again, bright angel! For thou art
As glorious to this night, being o'er my head
As is a winged messenger of heaven
Unto the white-upturned wondering eyes
Of mortals that fall back to gaze on him
When he bestrides the lazy-pacing clouds
And sails upon the bosom of the air.

JULIET: 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.

Abandoning Material Security

In order for the couple to have left the city, they would have had to abandon their material comforts. Quick mobility in an open and uncultivated space requires that travelers carry as few things as possible. The couple didn't have the chance to prove whether they could leave behind their rich families; darkness had already gathered before Romeo was exiled.

The Desire for Leisure Time

According to Marshall Sahlins, hunter-gatherers enjoyed more leisure time than their contemporary counterparts. They spent less time working, but they had plenty to eat.

Sahlins argued that their "affluence came from the idea that they were satisfied with very little in the material sense." Could it not be argued that what Romeo and Juliet desired more than anything was leisure time?

Consider the following moments that depict leisure time:

  • Because of Romeo's idling after the Capulet ball, he comes across Juliet at the window. (Technically, the play mentions a window and not a balcony. Directors who came after Shakespeare started using a balcony for the famous scene.)
  • Instead of spending time with his family on the last day before he must leave, Romeo spends an intimate night with Juliet. Both teens wish for more time, and they curse daylight and the morning lark.
  • Romeo is first seen in the play daydreaming and lovesick for Rosaline. He has the luxury of time to ponder his unrequited feelings.

Shorter Life Expectancy

Not everything is perfect in the hunter-gatherer world. Life expectancy is cut short. 57% of people who lived in these societies made it to the age of 15. Those who made it to 15 had a 64% chance of making it past the age of 45. The life expectancy was somewhere around 21 to 37 years of age.

Considering Romeo died at 16 and Juliet at 13, it seems they were very vulnerable to the whims of their idealism. Their attempts at independence from their parents, government, and the church put them in a dangerous sphere. They swapped their good fortune for dice loaded with sorrow.

As beautiful as Romeo and Juliet's dream was to challenge their families' tension, it didn't have the right factors to be sustainable in Verona. This is the tragic part of the play: Their love for each other couldn't work because of factors outside of their control. They were too idealistic, dreaming of a world of romantic freedom, but they ignored all the signs of danger that come with a free world. They were fated to die, not to spend endless nights together.

Hope ultimately betrayed them: Their youthful proclivities spoiled them with fantastical and unreasonable dreams. Their bright, cheerful hope for love ironically denied them entry into adulthood, maturity, and stability. Hope was corrupted because of society.

References

  1. Boehm, Christopher (2001). Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  2. Cashdan, Elizabeth A. (1980). "Egalitarianism among Hunters and Gatherers". American Anthropologist. 82 (1): 116–20.
  3. Codding, Brian F.; Kramer, Karen L., eds. (2016). Why Forage? Hunters and Gatherers in the Twenty-first Century. Santa Fe; Albuquerque: School for Advanced Research, University of New Mexico Press.
  4. Erdal, D.; Whiten, A. (1994). "On human egalitarianism: an evolutionary product of Machiavellian status escalation?". Current Anthropology. 35 (2): 175–83.
  5. Gintis, Herbert. 2013. “The Evolutionary Roots of Human Hyper-Cognition.” Journal of Bioeconomics 15 (1): 83–89.
  6. Guenevere, Michael; Kaplan, Hillard (2007). "Longevity amongst Hunter-gatherers" (PDF). Population and Development Review. 33 (2): 326.
  7. Halio, Jay (1998). Romeo and Juliet: A Guide to the Play. Westport: Greenwood Press.
  8. Kahn, Coppélia (1977). "Coming of Age in Verona". Modern Language Studies. The Northeast Modern Language Association. 8 (1): 5–22.
  9. Richard B. Lee & Richard Daly, “Introduction: Foragers & Others,” in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters & Gatherers (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 1–20.
  10. Rubinstein, Frankie (1989). A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Sexual Puns and their Significance (Second ed.).
  11. Sackett, Ross. 1996. "Time, energy, and the indolent savage. A quantitative cross-cultural test of the primitive affluence hypothesis". Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles.
  12. Sahlins, M. (1968). "Notes on the Original Affluent Society", Man the Hunter. R.B. Lee and I. DeVore (New York: Aldine Publishing Company) pp. 85–89.
  13. Stephens, Lucas; Fuller, Dorian; Boivin, Nicole; Rick, Torben; Gauthier, Nicolas; Kay, Andrea; Marwick, Ben; Armstrong, Chelsey Geralda; Barton, C. Michael (2019-08-30). "Archaeological assessment reveals Earth's early transformation through land use". Science. 365 (6456): 897–902.
  14. Widlok, Thomas; Tadesse, Wolde Gossa (2006). Property and Equality. Berghahn Books. pp. ix–x.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrea Lawrence

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