Joseph Pearce answers a reader's question concerning the age of Shakespeare's heroines.
The Age of Shakespeare's Heroines
I've received a good and interesting question about the age of Shakespeare's heroines and its significance. The question is below; my response follows:
If I recall, you felt that Juliet's extreme youth in Romeo and Juliet (just under 14) was one way of Shakespeare implicitly criticizing their romance. (Makes sense to me!) But I was recently reading (listening to, actually) The Tempest and The Winter's Tale, where Miranda and Perdita are, respectively, around 15 and 16, which isn't that much better. Does the fact that the latter two plays are not tragedies make a difference, do you think?
The first thing I would say is that the difference between thirteen and fifteen or sixteen is seismic in significance, far greater than the passage of two or three years would suggest. A thirteen-year-old is a child approaching adolescence; a fifteen or sixteen-year-old is an adolescent approaching adulthood.
The second thing is to consider what Shakespeare does with these characters. Miranda is wide-eyed with innocence and wonder, almost like the unfallen Eve, whose purity is protected by her father in the manner in which he tests Ferdinand's own virtue as a means of ensuring that he is worthy of his daughter's hand in marriage. This includes the carrying of logs, symbolic of the taking up of the cross (of marriage), a sacrifice that Ferdinand embraces with willing obedience - in stark contrast to the anarchic disobedience of Romeo. Prospero's faith in the chastity and purity of Miranda and Ferdinand is rewarded when he finds them in flagrante delicto - playing chess! It is hard to imagine anything further from fornication symbolically than a game of chess, a fact which inspired Eliot to use it as an ironic image in "The Waste Land" in a clear intertextual reference to The Tempest.
Perdita in The Winter's Tale is also depicted as being chaste, as is her betrothed, and, as you say, she is sixteen-years-old, significantly older than Juliet.