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Unshakeable Daughters Versus Unshakeable Fathers: Questioning Inhuman Patriarchy or a Feminist Critique of Inhuman Patriarchy in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Margaret Afuh’s Born before her Time


patriarchy/old school, anti-patriarchy/new school, feminist, critique, inhuman, questioning and child, forced or arranged marriages.

Research Identity (RIN)


LJRMB Volume 17, Issue 3, Compilation 1.0




This paper analyses two texts, one English and a play, and the other Cameroonian and a novel, similar in the theme they treat; the conflict between patriarchy or the Old School and anti-patriarchy or the New School. The Old School argues or thinks that the father is the one to choose a husband for his daughter whereas the New School argues that it is the daughter who must choose her husband. From the classical period through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance period, the Old School prevailed. This is seen in Shakespeare's plays where the roles of women actors were played by men as women had no voice in the society and were not considered as men's equals. They were seen as inferior to men. The Cameroonian society of the 1960s which Margaret Afuh presents in her novel was also the one in which the Old School reigned. This paper argues that although these works were written when the Old School prevailed, we see authors who present heroines who fight to overthrow this Old School by promoting the New School and as such revealing their authors as anti-patriarchal or feminist. The paper reveals that in Romeo and Juliet and Born Before Her Time we see girls who reject the choices of husbands by their fathers and choose their own husbands even at the risk of death or being dispossessed as heiress.

Research Paper

Unshakeable Daughters Versus Unshakeable Fathers: Questioning Inhuman Patriarchy or a Feminist Critique of Inhuman Patriarchy in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Margaret Afuh’s Born before her Time 

Ignatius Nsaidzedze



This paper analyses two texts, one English and a play, and the other Cameroonian and a novel, similar in the theme they treat; the conflict between patriarchy or the Old School and anti-patriarchy or the New School. The Old School argues or thinks that the father is the one to choose a husband for his daughter whereas the New School argues that it is the daughter who must choose her husband. From the classical period through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance period, the Old School prevailed. This is seen in Shakespeare’s plays where the roles of women actors were played by men as women had no voice in the society and were not considered as men’s equals. They were seen as inferior to men. The Cameroonian society of the 1960s which Margaret Afuh presents in her novel was also the one in which the Old School reigned. This paper argues that although these works were written when the Old School prevailed, we see authors who present heroines who fight to overthrow this Old School by promoting the New School and as such revealing their authors as anti-patriarchal or feminist. The paper reveals that in Romeo and Juliet and Born Before Her Time we see girls who reject the choices of husbands by their fathers and choose their own husbands even at the risk of death or being dispossessed as heiress.

Keywords: patriarchy/old school, anti-patriarchy/ new school, feminist, critique, inhuman, questioning and child ,forced or arranged marriages.

Author: Ph.D, Lecturer of English Literature, Department of English, Faculty of Arts, University of Buea, Cameroon.


Using the feminist critical theory, this paper argues that Romeo and Juliet and Born Before Her Time present a fierce fight or conflict between the Old School and the New School, with the New School as the winner in the end. This is also the opinion of Ambanasom’s analysis of Born Before Her Time:

Afuh’s approach essentially entails the juxtaposition of two broad categories of characters: The progressives or those who represent modernity versus the conservatives, defenders of tradition. The upholders of modernity are  Abo and John, heroine and hero respectively, including the Rev. Sisters of the Catholic Church and the Younger generation, the conservatives include the parents of the young lovers as well as the fated Worewum and his wives. By the time the novel ends, the scale of the argument will be tipped in favour of the progressive forces who support mutual respect between man and woman. But before then, Afuh effectively demonstrates the functioning of gender hierarchy in its cruel treatment of the women folk (Ambanasom ‘Woman Writes’9) .(192)

Summarizing the novel Born  Before Her Time under the title of “About the Book’’ in 2005, Linus T. Azong writes “ In the background Lurks, John, a kind of Romeo to whom Abo has given both her heart and a promise of marriage. Against all odds she fights her way into freedom and marries John”. Like Linus T. Azong above, this researcher also sees something common in the two texts. Shadrach A. Ambanasom in his seminal work on Anglophone Cameroon Writing summarizes Born Before Her Time when he writes:

Set in Batibo, in Momo Division in the early 1960s, this female Bildungsroman is the story of a brave girl, Abo, betrothed to an old man,Worewum, before she was conceived. When she is born, her marriage to Worewum becomes a fact accompli, the fulfilment of a pledge made by her father Mbacham, in gratitude to Worewum for saving his life, during a boyhood incident, from a  swarm of stinging bees. Thus at the tender age of 14, Abo is forced into the house of Worewum, a man in his early sixties. However, she successfully and courageously fights her way through obstacles, that would have daunted many, to eventually marry John, the young man of her choice, putting for the significant defiance against an age-old practice that had dehumanized women (191).

The novel Born Before Her Time depicts a heroine (Maria-Theresa) Abo who fights with all her energy to liberate herself from an arranged marriage by her father Mr Mbacham to a grandfather husband Mr Worewum. In her fight for freedom, she is helped by the feminist John, Tasama the hunter and above all by the Catholic Reverend Sisters who pay back her bride price to Worewum and as such liberate her from the claws of inhuman patriarchy. These Reverend Sisters give her a job as a house girl and send her to school which is what she needs most. This fight against forced marriages and the victory opens the way for young boys and girls to choose their partners in marriage ending the age old inhuman patriarchy. The victory of young boys and girls as see in John and Abo over old people as seen in Mbacham and Worewum is facilitated by two factors: Christianity and Western or Modern education. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare equally depicts the concept of child, arranged or forced marriage in old Capulet, the patriarch, or one of the patriarchs in Verona who obliges his daughter Juliet to marry an earl, the young County Paris. This concept of forced marriage is also seen in Shakespeare’s other play titled A Midsummer Night’s Dream where patriarchal Egeus tells the Duke of Athens Theseus to oblige or force his only daughter Hermia to accept his choice of husband (Demetrius) or face death as the old Athenian patriarchal law stipulates. Hermia instead loves Lysander and the two run away from Athens into the forest to free themselves from this inhuman patriarchal Athenian law. In this paper we shall analyse the two works from three angles:the first part will dwell on the patriarchal nature of the two worlds in the two works, the second part will dwell on the fight by the heroines to liberate themselves from this inhuman patriarchy and the third and last part will focus on the price the heroines pay at the end for this freedom fight.

This paper intends to answer the following questions: What pushes fathers to choose husbands for their daughters? This choice of husbands, is it for the interest of their daughters or for their own interest? What pushes young girls to refuse the choice of their fathers? Can they like their mothers accept their fathers’ choices as their mothers accepted those of their fathers? Above all what do their mothers say about these choices of husbands for the young girls by their husbands? Do they support or oppose these choices?

When we look at the title of the paper some key words call for clarification: unshakeable, questioning, inhuman. critique, patriarchy and feminist. Unshakeable according to The Free Dictionary is an adjective which means firm, staunch, resolute, sure, certain, fixed, secure, constant, absolute, unassailable, well-founded, steadfast, unwavering, immovable and unswerving. Dictionary.Com defines inhuman as lacking quality of sympathy, pity, warmth, compassion, or the like, cruel, brutal. Critique is a careful judgement in which you give your opinion about the good of something according to Merriam Webster.

It is also an article or essay criticizing a literary or other work: detailed evaluation, a review. Critique is an act of criticizing especially a critical estimate or discussion. Critique according to The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary is a report of something such as a political situation or system or a person’s work, or ideas, that examines it and provides a judgement especially a negative one. Questioning in the context of the above title and paper is criticizing or assessing. Feminist comes from feminism which is a doctrine advocating social, political and all other rights of women equal to those of men according to Dictionary.Com. According to Cambridge English Dictionary feminist is a supporter of feminism which is the belief that women should be allowed the rights, power, and opportunities as men. In Studying Literature: The Essential Companion, Old English Dictionary described the word feminist as rare and defined it as the qualities of females but from the end of the nineteenth century the word was applied to those committed to and struggling for equal rights for women including men. Woolf argues that the word feminist was applied to those who fought the tyranny of the patriarchal state and points out that the word was imposed on rather than chosen by women fighting for the rights  of women (193).Toril Moi, differentiates feminism, from femaleness and  femininity. “Feminism is a political position, femaleness a matter of biology and femininity a set of culturally defined characteristics” (193). Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of their Own also uses the three terms differently “The feminine stage of women’s writing involves a prolonged phase of imitating the prevailing models of the dominant tradition and internalizing its standards of art, the feminist stage involves the advocacy of minority rights and values and the female stage is the phase of self-discovery and search for identity” (193). Patriarchy is a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is reckoned through the male line. It is also a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it. In The Theory of Criticism: From Plato to the Present “De Beavoir shows with great erudition that man’s dominance has been secured through the ages by an ideological power: legislators, priests, scientists and philosophers have all promoted the idea of women and subordination “(521). Kate Millett used the term “patriarchy” to describe the cause of women’s oppression in Sexual Politics (521). Aristotle declared that the female is female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities (521). Patriarchy is responsible for binary philosophy opposition of: masculine/feminine, good/evil, light/dark, positive/negative, cultural/native, inside/outside, presence/absence, form/meaning, literal/ metaphorical, mind/body etc. As Mary Klages says in Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed  “All the things on the right side of the slash and things Western Culture works to control, to suppress, or to exclude, positing them as disruptive or destructive to the concepts on the left side of the slash” (96). This reveals then a phallogocentric culture which is one which argues all the left-side terms as the valued ones, and consigns the right – side terms to the position of “other” or undesirable (98). In Post Modernist Literature men are therefore advised to cultivate masculine traits or roles which are the avoidance of all feminine behaviours and traits, the acquisition of success, status and breadwinning competence, strength, confidence and independence and aggression, violence and daring (112). Helene Cixous following Freud calls women “the dark continent”. She points out that these same binary systems which structure gender also structure imperialism: women are aligned with darkness, with otherness, with Africa against men who are aligned with lightness, with selfhood, and with western civilization ‘’(101). In Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide the concept of patriarchy is well explained and defined:

I consider myself a recovering patriarchal woman. By patriarchal woman I mean of course, a woman who has internalised the norms and values of patriarchy which can be defined, in short as any culture that privileges men by promoting traditional gender roles. Traditional gender roles cast men as rational, strong, protective, and decisive; they cast women as emotional (irrational), weak, nurturing, and submissive. These gender roles have been used very successfully to satisfy such inequalities which still occur today as excluding women from equal access to leadership and decision making positions (in the family as well as in politics, academia, and the corporate word), paying men higher wages than women for doing the same job ( if women are even able to obtain the job), and convincing women that they are not fit for careers in such areas as mathematics and engineering.Patriarchy is thus, by definition, sexist which means it promotes the belief that women are innately inferior to men. This belief in the inborn inferiority of women is called biological essentialism because it is based on biological differences between the sexes that are considered part of our unchanging essence as men and women (84 – 85) ..... While all women are subject to patriarchal oppression, each woman’s specific needs, desires, and problems are greatly shaped by her race, socio-economic class, sexual orientation, educational experience, religion and nationality. For one thing, patriarchy operates differently in different countries. There are significant differences between patriarchy in the United States and patriarchy in, say, India, Mexico, or Iran (95).


In Romeo and Juliet and Born Before Her Time men dominate, rule and decide for everybody including themselves, their wives and their children, male or female. In these two texts the men are the centre of the universe, the sun of their universe and everything rotates around them. They are the only cocks crowing in their societies. Patriarchy is also called “male supremacy” or “rule by men ”.  As N. Patrick Tata writes in the  ‘’Introduction’’ to Born Before Her Time “Whatever the theme, feminism is clearly an issue at almost all points of the novel’’ (Afuh 2). Ambanasom in The Cameroonian Novel of English Expression: An Introduction says:

Anyone in today’s globalized world, who seriously reads Margaret Afuh’s Born Before Her Time, if he is not a rare Neanderthal man, must readily concede that feminism is an issue in the text, and that the latter, an imaginative product of a contemporary woman, has been constructed within the context of feminist awareness. There is , therefore, no doubt that Afuh must be numbered among feminist authors who in the words of Goodman “have a political agenda in the writing of their work” (x) (190).

According to Lizbeth Goodman, “Feminism is a politics: a recognition of the historical and cultural subordination of women ( the only world –wide majority to be treated as a minority), and the resolve to do something about it’’ (X) (190). Afuh’s feminism in her novel is seen within the armpit of patriarchy and her critique of it. The author presents a patriarchal order and women’s revolt against it, even men especially the younger generation influenced by Christianity/Roman Catholicism and Western education.

In Born Before Her Time patriarchy is the order of the day as seen in the conversation between the two  main patriarchs in the text: Mbacham and Worewum:

… I have always planned to give you my daughter as a token of my gratitude to you –someone to cement our friendship. But the gods seem to delay things. I promise you that my first daughter no matter when she comes, shall be your wife, if you are not there, one of your sons will marry her “declared Mbacham, matter-of – factly (Afuh 11).

Mbacham gives his only daughter to his friend Bah Worewum to cement their friendship. We know that he is doing this because Worewum saved his life in the bush when they went to harvest honey from the bee hive and the bees nearly killed Mbacham but was saved by Worewum. He therefore promised him a wife who had not even been conceived. Mbacham has two wives: Ebod Atud his first gave him a boy before giving Abo the heroine of the novel. Patriarchy dictates that even if Abo does not marry Worewum, she will marry only one of Worewum’s sons. That is why Abo who is hardly fourteen marries Worewum at his early sixties who already has five wives and is the richest man in the village and no woman ever resists him except Abo and with his male pride, he wants to subdue her. Women in patriarchy are property whose ownership is decided by the men. Women in patriarchy have no say even in affairs which concern their lives. John’s father reveals to John that:

…. Do I not feel it for your mother? It is true that our marriage was arranged by our  fathers. We were still very young and had never been closed enough to know each other. Fortunately for us, as in many other homes, it has worked out well. I have come to love and respect her so much that I will give everything not to lose her. Things have relaxed a little and boys and girls can go around together on their own (Afuh 53).

John’s mother’s sister tells us of an incident where her husband’s first son knocks at her door at night to marry her because “ I know he only wants to marry me because of my own share of the property that Ata left and he can only get those raphia farms by marrying me” (Afuh 70). “ The age does not matter. The boy has to continue his father’s family. It is the tradition (Afuh 70). Tradition and patriarchy even go very far as we see in this conversation between John and his mother:

My sister’s husband was old, in fact, bed ridden by the time my sister was taken to him. He could barely stand up from bed, a place which he never left at all, except when he went to relieve himself or sat up to eat. He died just months after her marriage. “My God! . Then, why did they take her auntie to him as a wife?” queried John flabbergasted. “ To take over a family sister’s child and the property”.

“ I cannot understand mother, would you explain what all these mean?”

“ Well Nig Atah’s wife was from our family”, she gave birth to one child and died. Someone had to go and take care of him and his property”.

“So, my aunt was the sacrificial lamb? Not only was she forced to marry a man she did not want but a dying old man who could not take care of her. Who is the father of her children?”.

“ Nig Ata of course. What a question to ask?”

“But you said he could barely stand up from bed and died shortly after marriage”.

“He paid the bride price on her, is that not enough?”

John had shaken his head in disbelief and nothing was ever said about the matter. There was no use. Their way of looking at things was different. (Afuh 71)

From what is revealed from the above quotation, patriarchy in some African societies allows a man to take in another wife from that same man or house if the first daughter is barren. He can make children with her sister and even marry her, maybe because of the huge bride price he paid or because as in the case of Abo the father was saved by a man or made a promise. In this African patriarchy, a man who has not paid a bride price on a woman, if he makes a child with that woman, that child does not belong to him but to the father of the girl.  If you take a girl and stay with her and she dies, she will be buried in her father’s compound because you never paid any bride price on her. If the man dies, the brothers of the woman will come and send her away because their brother never paid her bride price. This is tradition and African patriarchy. This African tradition and patriarchy allow the man to beat his wife well if she makes a mistake or disrespects him. In Born Before Her Time Worewum beats his first  wife Ebod ndam well because he thinks she allows Abo to run away. He beats her with a horse whip.

In Romeo and Juliet the patriarch, Old Capulet decides who his daughter will marry,  when, gives instructions to his wife to tell the daughter and prepare her and of the sanctions which await her if she dares disobey him. The girl Juliet, of course, refuses this choice as she has chosen her own “enemy” husband as can be seen in the following conversation:

Capulet: Sir Paris, I will make a desperate tender of my child’s love. I think she will be rul’d in all respects by me -nay, more, I doubt it not. Wife, go you to her ere you go to bed; acquaint her here of my son Paris’ love; and bid her mark you me, on Wednesday next. But, soft! What day is this?.

Paris:         My Lord, I would that Thursday were tomorrow.

Capulet: Well, get you gone: o’ Thursday be it then, Go you to Juliet ere you go to bed; prepare her, wife against this wedding-day. Farewell, my Lord. Light to my chamber, ho! Afore me! It is so very late, That we may call it early by and by .good – night (Act 3, Scene 4, Lines 12-35)

When Lady Capulet takes the instructions or information to Juliet, she does not like it, she says:

Juliet:         Now, by Saint Peter Church, and Peter too, he shall not make me there a joyful bride!

I wonder at this haste, that I must wed

Ere he that should be husband comes to woo.

I pray you, tell my Lord and father, madam, I will not marry yet; and when I do I swear it shall be Romeo, whom you know I hate, Rather than Paris. These are news indeed!

Lady Capulet:        Here comes your father, tell him so yourself and see how he will take it at your hands (Act 3,Scene 5 Lines 116-125)

Capulet: How now, how now? Chop – Logic! What is this? ‘Proud’ and ‘I’ hand you not and yet “not proud”? Mistress mind you, thank me no thanking, nor proud me no proud, But fettle your fine joints against Thursday next, to go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church or I will drag thee carrion out, you baggage!  

You tallow – face!

Lady Capulet:        Fie, Fie! What, are you mad?

Juliet:        Good father, I beseech you on my knees, Hear me with patience but to speak a word

Capulet: Hang thee, young baggage! Disobedient wretch! I tell thee what, get thee to church o’ Thursday, or never after look me in the face.

Speak not, reply not do not answer me, My fingers itch. Wife, we scare thought us bless’d that God had lent us but this only child; But now I see this one is one too much and that we have a curse in having her.

Out on her hiding!

Nurse:        God in heaven bless her!

You are to blame, my lord to rate her so,

Capulet: O, God ye good e’en.

Nurse: May not one speak?

Capulet: Peace, you mumbling fool!

Utter your gravity o’er a gossip’s bowl;

For here we need it not

Lady Capulet:        You are too hot

Capulet: God’s bread! It makes me mad day, night, hour, tide, time, work, play alone, in company- still my care hath been to have her match’d. and having now provided a gentleman of noble parentage of fair demesnes, youthful, and nobly lin’d stuff’d, as they say, with honourable parts,

Proportion’d as one’s thought would wish a man and then to have a wretched puling fool,

A whining mammet, in her fortune tender, to answer’ I’ll not wed, I cannot love, I am too young, I pray you pardon you:

Graze where you will, you shall not house with me

Look to it, think on’t I do not use to jest. Thursday is near. Lady hand on heart; advise and you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend.

And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the street. For my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee, nor what is mine shall never do thee good.

Trust to’t, bethink you. I’ll  not forsworn (Act 3, Scene 5, Lines 147-196).

From the above conversation, Old Capulet threatens to use force against Juliet ‘’Or I will drag thee on a hurdle”, she should not even talk to him or when he talks or even answer, or look at him on the face “get thee to church o’ Thursday/Or never after look me in the face. Speak not, reply not, do not answer me.” If she refuses to marry Paris, he will send her out of his house ‘’graze where you will you shall not house with me”. She knows that he is serious on this matter because he has never joked or played with her in the past. If she refuses the marriage, of course she will “hang, beg,, starve, die in the street” when he throws her out of his house and will never “acknowledge thee” and lastly she will never inherit his property “I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee; nor what is mine shall never do thee good”.

As we have seen in Born Before Her Time where Abo’s father gives her to his friend, in line 194 of the above conversation, Old Capulet tells Juliet “ I’ll give you to my friend” . The friend here is the young wealthy earl, county Paris. An earl in English society is a title of nobility which is equivalent to a count in other European countries. It is a title which is above a baron but is below a duke. Other titles of British nobility include the viscount and the marquis/marquess. An earl is above the viscount and below a marquis precisely. Old Capulet as a good patriarch believes as it is said in the bible that children are to be seen and not to be heard. He does not want or will not listen to Juliet or allow her talk. Also, he cannot understand how Juliet can refuse such a rich, youthful and noble man whom he has spent all his life looking to make her happy. When one looks at Romeo and Juliet, one can say that Old Capulet made a good choice for his daughter unlike Abo’s father because County Paris proves to be a good man in the play unlike Worewum in Born Before Her Time. The question we ask at the end of Romeo and Juliet is that who is Juliet’s real husband, Romeo who marries her secretly or County Paris who receives the blessings of Old Capulet to marry Juliet but the marriage does not take place? The father knows only County Paris as the husband but the church as represented by Friar Laurence knows Romeo; who therefore is Juliet’s real or final husband – Romeo or Paris?.


William Shakespeare and Margaret Afuh present heroines who fight for their freedom by demonstrating anti- patriarchal attitudes. In Born Before Her Time this is seen in a conversation between Abo and her mother who first supports patriarchy as her own husband was chosen for her but when Abo is abused, she changes to support her daughter:

“Mother you called for me?”

“Yes sit down!” she ordered, hardly looking into her daughter’s eyes. Abo sat down and waited quietly.

“Well Worewum has sent an ultimatum for us to bring you to him at once or pay back his bride price. The last time you ran away you remember?”

“Mother, I remember very well but I’m not going to marry him. He is old enough to be my grandfather. I won’t.

“Listen child! We have talked over this matter time and again. You should have put it into your head by now that we are not rich enough to pay back to Worewum, the bride price, we received. Besides, he is a fine man. He is rich and has a lot of farmland. We are your parents. We know what is good for you and we’ve chosen Worewum as a husband for you. You think you are more beautiful that all the other women in his compound?

“Mother, I am sorry but I shan’t marry this old man. You shouldn’t choose a husband for me. I have to make my own choice. After all, I’m the one to marry him and live with him and …

“Hei! Stop that nonsense! That’s why your father never wanted you to go to school. Is  that what they teach you in school? To go against your parents’ wish? My own father chose my husband for me and that has been the custom: Parents choose husbands for their daughters. You are not going to change the order of things” Abod Api fumed.

“Mother let me warn you! If you force me to marry this old man I’ll kill myself before he lays his hands on me.”

“Get out of my house, you wicked child! First you turn down a husband chosen by your parents and now you want to bring a curse upon my home by killing yourself.Come o-o every one! Come and see my own bad luck? I have laboured in vain in Mbacham’s house. Oh, oh … I”

Abo could bear it no longer, she had fled to the back of the house and let the torrent of tears pour down freely.

“Why me, why me? And I was doing very well in school. The teacher had promised to include my name in the list of those to write the Teacher Grade Three Examination.  And there is John. No, I must not let them know about him now. It will make things worse. No, I will not marry Worewum, come what may. “This decision took root in her mind and grew into a firm resolution. “I will fight till the end . I must! She made up her mind. (Afuh 16 – 18).

Abo above mentions John who is the man she loves and has chosen him as her husband and lover. The parents have chosen for her Worewum. John as we said earlier is a feminist character. Ambanasom confirms this: “here john is a feminist serving as an important mouthpiece for the author’’[197). He says in his fight:

This is not possible. How could parents do this to their own child? Because of a childhood whim. So what ? If Worewum saved Mbacham’s life must Abo pay for it with her own? No, not why I live.”

He thought of other thousands of Abos who had gone the same way to their slaughter house of a marriage to Old and weak grandfathers while they were yet children. They were deprived of their natural right to drink from the pure spring of carefree childhood and tender parental love pushed prematurely, into adulthood before they become full children. They were forced to carry out the enormous tasks of womanhood on the bruised shoulders of childhood.

“No Abo will not suffer such fate! I will see to it. Dear God, give back my love to me! You know I love her I will make her one of your children by converting her from her heathen gods. She shall be one of your flocks” (Afuh 47).

In his deliberate and bold steps to free Abo and all women from bondage, John says:

It is high time men treated women in this village like human beings. When a man is going to a birth or death celebration, he marches majestically empty handed while his wife follows humbly behind at a respectable distance carrying her baby and a basin of food with a jug of wine in the centre. From her shoulder blades hangs the man’s gun and sheathed cutlass. At the place of celebration the man sits on the only available chair while the woman stands up breast feeding her baby or prowls on cocoyam leaves. The best food and wine is for the men.

Every day, girls and children are handed over to old men on platters as gifts or payment for one old debt or another. I could go on and on with incidence of such injustice. For God’s sake, these women are your mothers and your children’s mothers. They have souls and feelings equally as men. I hope a time will come when women will live hand in hand with their husbands as two complimentary parts and not like master and slave. Slave, you hear that? That’s what these helpless creatures have been reduced to. Well, I thought Mbacham was different. He sent Abo to school when girls were condemned to remain uneducated. Yet he has fallen back into the dark abyss of ignorance and male chauvinism. He gives his baby, his little girl to her own grandfather. This is a case I won’t stand by and watch. I must help Abo. She needs me.(Afuh 55 – 56).

John observes and wishes:

“they were many women in this village whom life had passed them by, not Abo. He hastened on at the thought. He would not live to see her ruined. He longed for a time when wives will live in love and understanding with their husbands, discussing their problems and sharing ideas as he read in books in  father’s house.” (Afuh 72)

John concludes:

“By marring Worewum, Abo was simply moving into widowhood. He would show Pa and his in-laws that times had changed with the advent of education and Christianity in the clan. It was high time they knew that women had feelings and could love just as passionately as the few white couples around. It’s just that these feeling had always been forced into abeyance by the clan. Now he could understand the plight of his aunt Ebod Emang (Afuh 69).

Chapter Ten of Born Before Her Time is titled “Freedom” and refers to Abo who has fought and obtained her freedom from the marital claws of Worewum and her parents. She now works for the Reverend Sisters as a house girl who pay her school fees and who’ve already accepted to pay back Worewum’s bride price money. Abo goes to a Teacher Training College and graduates as a trained teacher and marries John who has also gone to school and is now working at the DO’s house in Bamenda. This is a marriage of equals. Take note Abo is the one who proposes marriage to John just like Juliet is the one who proposes  marriage to Romeo. In A Level Study Notes and Revision Guides: Romeo and Juliet: Advanced York Notes the author writes “Juliet exhibits a determination, resolution, and circumspection rather beyond Romeo. It is she, rather than he, who is in charge.  On the other hand it is her love for a man (and not her friendship with the nurse) which gives her this strength. La’ken Brazzle and Dr Deiter in English 3000 18 November 2015 in Reverse Roles of Romeo and Juliet: Romeo and Juliet Feminism writes that Romeo defies the classic function of masculinity within the play”, there are several scenes inside the play where Juliet takes on the opposite gender role of being the leader and more dominate sex in her relationship with Romeo”, “Both Romeo and Juliet acquire reverse gender role through out the majority of the play” and “the feminist reading of Romeo and Juliet holds profoundly, established patriarchy and patriarchal ideas liable for the catastrophic female”. These two authors say that Romeo dies like a woman drinking poison and Juliet dies like a man killing herself with a dagger.

Unlike John who is a feminist character, Romeo is not a feminist character as he does not want to liberate her from any bondage like John does. It is true that Romeo and Juliet are against the patriarchal order but it is Juliet who does the real fighting. Juliet fights for her freedom alone.  Romeo does not help or support her. Juliet in her own fight for freedom unlike Abo is a strategist and a “liar”. Juliet tells her nurse:

Juliet: Amen

Nurse: What?

Juliet: Well, thou hast comforted me marvellous much. Go in, and tell my lady I am gone, Having displeas’d my father, to Laurence’ cell

To make confession and to be absolv’d.

Nurse: Marry, I will and this is wisely done (Act 3, Scene 5, Lines 27-33)

When she comes back from Frair Laurence’s Cell, she tells her father:

Capulet: How now, my head strong! Where have you been gadding?

Juliet: where I have learn’d me to repent the sin of disobedient opposition

To you and your behests; and am enjoin’d

By holy Laurence to fall prostrate here,

And beg your pardon, pardon, I beseech you;

Henceforward I am ever rul’d by you.

Capulet: Send for the county; go tell him of this:

I’ll have this knot knit up tomorrow morning

Juliet: I met the youthful lord at fairness cell,  And Gave him What become  love I might,

Not stepping over the bounds of modesty.

Capulet: Why, I am glad on’t; this is well. Stand up:

This is as’t should be. Let me see the county.

Ay, marry, go I say, and fetch him hither.

Now, afore God, this reverend, holy friar

All our whole city is much bound to him (Act 4, Scene 2, Lines 16-32)

Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet is a play which takes place in five days. Shakespeare compresses Arthur Brooke’s story of nine months into five days. Brooke’s story is in his famous poem titled The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet published in 1562. Capulet initially put Juliet’s marriage to County Paris on Thursday. When Juliet who first opposed it pretends to accept it after going to Friar Laurence’s cell, the marriage is brought forward to Wednesday. When the Nurse who is Juliet’s second mother tells her to marry County Paris and abandon Romeo whose marriage the Nurse witnessed, Juliet no longer has confidence in the Nurse and decides to act secretly and independently. Friar Laurence is Romeo’s Confidant. Juliet now goes to Friar Laurence’s cell (her new confidant?) to seek advice in the problem she now faces. Friar Lawrence married her to Romeo in his secret cell. Now Juliet’s father, the Old Capulet has fixed another marriage on Thursday to County Paris. Will she marry twice? That is when Friar Laurence comes up with a master plan to counter the marriage, make Romeo and Juliet run away and above all reconcile the two enemy families. He gives Juliet a drug which will work for 42 hours and which will make her look like dead and when they bury her, Romeo will come and take her from the tomb where she will be buried when she wakes up. Friar John who is sent with a letter to inform Romeo of the plan which Juliet does not know, fails or is prevented from giving the letter to Romeo on time so that Romeo only hears of the death and burial of Juliet from Balthasar, a servant of his house in Verona. There in Mantua where he was exiled because of killing Tybalt, he buys poison and secretly comes to Verona at Juliet’s tomb where he kills himself. Juliet wakes up after Romeo has killed himself. When Juliet goes to the extent of taking this potion which is death-like, that shows the extent to which she wants her freedom and hates this arranged marriage. She is similar to Abo who prefers death to marrying  old Worewum. She leaves her village at midnight running away from Worewum’s house passing through an enemy village and is stung by a snake before she is saved by the hunter, Tasama who in turn when he says and threatens Abo he will not let her leave and marry her, Abo runs away in a storm and goes to see the Reverend Sisters who help her. Juliet is not helped by anyone. She fights her own fight alone to death but her death serves as a lesson to the two warring families to change.


In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s fight for freedom against the patriarchal order ends in her death. In Born Before Her Time Abo’s fight for her freedom does not end in her death but in happiness, but this happiness passes through a death-like road. Unlike Juliet she ends up marrying  John she chose. Juliet does not marry Romeo the man she chose. One thing which is similar in the two heroines is that, they prefer to die than to marry husbands chosen for them by their fathers/parents. Symbolically the two plays signal the end of patriarchy in Juliet’s and Abo’s societies as no father will ever think of choosing a husband for his daughter again. In Born Before Her Time this end is very explicit or overt but in Romeo and Juliet it is very implicit or covert.


In this paper using the feminist literary criticism we set out to prove that Romeo and Juliet and Born Before Her Time present a conflict between patriarchy and anti- patriarchy won by anti-patriarchy and as such revealing the authors of the two texts as feminists. The idea of Shakespeare as a feminist in this text is contradicted by emilyrumstadt, Clarkston and Mi who conclude, “the author of this play, William Shakespeare, was obviously not a feminist based on the actions and dialogue of his different characters. He shows the men saying rude things to the women, and also makes the women take orders from the men.’’1 The above paper uses the feminist criticism to Romeo and Juliet like that of Eva Richardson which in Feminist Criticism Applied to Romeo and Juliet says:“Feminism is an evolving philosophy. Feminism in literature is an even newer area of study and , the basis of the movement, both in literature and society, is that the western world is fundamentally patriarchal                   (i e created by men, ruled by men, viewed through the eyes of men and judged by men”2. This started in the 1960s. Before then literature was also seen and judged using male standards. Joseph McFadden in The Feminist Approach in Romeo and Juliet says Shakespeare’s women are represented in three ways: the Bawdy woman who is usually risque and sexual in her speech often used for comic relief, the tragic innocent woman who is a pure woman who tragically dies once her innocence is lost and lastly the scheming fatal female who manipulates men only to die a fatal death3   .Juliet will in my opinion belong to the second category. Professor Levin has of recent annoyed the feminists when he posits or challenges the idea that Shakespeare’s plays can be primarily seen as crucibles of sexual identity and conflict. Professor Levin is a traditionalist4. After reading and applying the feminist theory and criticism to Romeo and Juliet and Born Before Her Time this researcher is of the opinion that Shakespeare would have titled his play in the reverse order:  Juliet and Romeo as Juliet plays a very important role than Romeo in this play and that Born Before Her Time like Romeo and Juliet should have been entitled as Abo and John to resemble Romeo and Juliet which it resembles. This will tie in with Ambanasom who says that Born Before Her Time ‘’is a twin bildungsroman, for while it is the story of the education , growth  and development of young Abo, it is equally that of the teenage John, thus the narrative of two young people who fall in love and go to discover their mutual historical mission; that of breaking with the traditional past, of carrying out an onslaught against a monstrous tradition long sustained by a callous patriarchy’’[199].


  1. The writers of this article made a serious mistake. To know whether a writer is a feminist or not, we need to judge the whole book, not to select one passage and draw far reacting conclusions. It is true they argue that Capulet decides the marriage of his daughter alone and sends his wife to go and tell her and not tell her himself. This is in their paper titled Romeo and Juliet: A Feminist View. 
  2. Richardson has done a marvellous job with the publisher Prestwick House INC. in Teaching William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet from Multiple Critical  Perspectives in the section Feminist Criticism Applied to Romeo and Juliet and Activity one: Examining Juliet’s Role as Wife and Daughter in a Patriarchal Society is very enriching in criticism and how to teach the text.
  3. Joseph McFadden’s article does not use or cite any Shakespearean text to show the three types of Shakespearean woman he identifies. This is very bad. He has other titles like How women are understood at the time, How Gender Roles are Examined and The Feminist Approach says useful things .
  4. In an article A Traditionalist Takes on Feminists over Shakespeare  by Richard Bernstein published March 1990 Professor Levin’s arguments against feminists is well spelt out.

Richard Bernstein writes:“His argument, which reflects sentiments held by many traditional critics, is that the feminists, in putting the role of sex above all else, are sifting through Shakespeare’s play in search of echoes of their own political beliefs. The main belief is that male domination itself and the suppression of feminine influences are the root cause of tragedy in both theatre and real life. In the process Professor Levin says, the feminists ignore a great deal of contrary evidence in the play, evidence supporting a more traditional motion of Shakespeare: that the plays are about individuals making fateful and fatal errors as they confront such immemorial issues as ambition, greed, vengeance, vanity and jealousy”.


  1. Afuh, Margaret. Born Before Her Time. Bamenda: FEWPAC, 2013
  2. Ambanasom, Shadrach. A.The Cameroonian Novel of English Expression: An Introduction.
  3. Bamenda: AgWecams Printers, 2007.
  4. Bernstern, Richard. A traditionalist Takes on Feminists over Shakespeare. March 1990. 25 May2017 theater/a-traditionalist-takes-on-feminist-over-shakespeare.htme?pagewanted=all .
  5. Brazzle, La’ken and Dr. Deiter. English 3000 18 November 2015. 25 May 2017 at https:// and-juliet-feminists.
  6. Chinweizu. Anatomy of Female Power:A Masculinist Dissection of Matriarchy. Lagos: Pero Press, 1990.
  7. Emilyrumstadt et al. Romeo and Juliet: A feminist View. 25 May at nonfiction/academic/article/846767/Romeo-andJuliet-a-Feminist -View/
  8. Goring, Paul et al. Studying  Literature: The Essential Companion: London: Arnold, 2001.
  9. Cregson, Ian et al.Postmodern Literature. London Arnold, 2004.
  10. Lederer, Wolfgand. The Fear of Women. New York: Crune & Stratton, 1968
  11. Klages, Mary. Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed: NewYork: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006
  12. MCFadden, Joseph. The Feminist Approach in Romeo and Juliet. 25 May 2017 at https/éityhjhu/thefeminist-approach-in-romeo-and- Juliet
  13. Richardson, Eva. Teaching William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet from Multiple Critical Perspective: Feminist Criticism Applied to Romeo and Juliet: Activity One: Examining Juliet’s Role as Wife and Daughter in a Patriarchal Society.25 May 2017 at. https://www.prestwickhouse. com/samples/302929.pdf
  14. Selden, Raman. The Theory of Criticism From Plato the Present. London: Longman, 1988
  15. Shakespeare, William: Romeo and Juliet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982
  16. ........... A Mid Summer Night Dream. Oxford: University Press, 1999
  17. Tyson, Lois. Critical. Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide: New York: Galand Publishing Inc, 1999.
  18. Romeo and Juliet from Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia, 25 May 2017 at https://en.
  19. Sparknotes on Romeo and Juliet, 25 May 2017 at Sjhakespeare/romeojuliet/
  20. A Level Study Notes and Revision Guides: Romeo and Juliet: Advanced Yorknotes. 25 May 2017 at level/romeo-and-juliet/
  21. Women’s Rights in Romeo and Juliet.  25 May, 2017 at


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Ignatius Nsaidzedze
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