Harper's Bazaar (UK)


Revisiting past portrayals of Shakespear­e’s ill-fated heroine, Sophie Duncan finds we have consistent­ly underestim­ated her strength of voice and purpose


From the discograph­y of Taylor Swift to Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake and the Nineties kitsch of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Shakespear­e’s ‘star-crossed lovers’ are ubiquitous. Everyone recognises their story – as the artist Ben Cowan’s parody book covers put it, ‘Romeo Dies; So Does She’. But who exactly is ‘she’; do we truly know Juliet? And what does it mean that our ultimate love-story icon is a 13-year-old girl who meets a boy at a party and kills herself four days later?

When I started researchin­g Juliet’s four centuries as theatre’s patron saint of romance, I quickly saw how our obsession with teenage tragedy has justified exploiting young girls. In 1740s London, 14-year-old Jenny Cibber had to play love scenes opposite her own father, Theophilus Cibber, to rescue his slumping career; in 1968, the actress Olivia Hussey, then aged 15, was manipulate­d into appearing topless in Franco Zeffirelli’s now-controvers­ial film.

Rediscover­ing Shakespear­e’s original heroine showed me a rebellious adolescent who’s far more than a doomed darling atop the wedding cake of Western romance. A child so sheltered she can only leave her family home for church, in Shakespear­e’s play Juliet orchestrat­es a clandestin­e marriage, blackmails her priest into drug-dealing and loses her virginity under her parents’ noses – with her nanny as lookout. Then, she informs the audience how much she’s looking forward to sex with Romeo, in a frankly astonishin­g rhapsody whose eroticism was censored for hundreds of years.

Juliet justly tells Romeo that her passion is ‘as boundless as the sea’. But as the biographer of literature’s most famous teenage girl, I discovered that, actually, her courage and resourcefu­lness are equally limitless.

‘Searching for Juliet’ by Sophie Duncan (£25, Hodder & Stoughton) is out now.

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 ?? ?? Left: Claire Danes in ‘Romeo + Juliet’ (1996)
Left: Claire Danes in ‘Romeo + Juliet’ (1996)

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