This lesson provides historical background for 'Romeo and Juliet,' including theatrical and social history. It also explains how the play critically addresses male power structures, street violence, and idealistic forms of love.
There are many names for the time that Shakespeare lived in. The late 1500s to early 1600s were part of what scholars call the early modern period of European history. Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616, and for most of his life, Queen Elizabeth I ruled England. For this reason, many scholars refer to most of Shakespeare's plays as Elizabethan drama.
England managed not to be involved in major international wars during much of Elizabeth's reign, with the exception of the Spanish Armada in the late 1500s. There was also a long history of war with France in England's recent past. These wars, including the 100 Years War, still loomed large in English society in Shakespeare's time, as did the subsequent War of the Roses, the English civil war upon which many of Shakespeare's histories are based, including Richard III and all of the King Henry plays.
Shakespeare's theatre was quite different from more modern theatre for several reasons. Many of his plays were performed in the open-air Globe Theatre. There were no artificial lights or blackouts. Plays at the time also utilized very few props and stage devices. There was generally a main level with columns, a raised platform or balcony above, and possibly a trap door leading below.
Romeo and Juliet was written in the 1590s and first printed in 1597. Romeo and Juliet would likely have been performed while Shakespeare was a member of a theatre company consisting solely of male actors, who played the parts of both Romeo and Juliet. Women were not permitted to perform on stage at that point, so young boys traditionally played the roles of women. A number of conservative religious sermons denounced the theatre at the time for this reason, among others, though it was generally very popular with the public at large.
Social Issues: Marriage and Family
Like most theatre, Shakespeare's plays grappled with pressing social issues of its time. It would be impossible to identify every way Romeo and Juliet does so, but there are several important themes that resonate with historical evidence about the time.
There are numerous comparisons from Shakespeare's time between the local family household, the kingdom, and all of creation under God. Each of these three models follows a similar patriarchal structure: one masculine leader, like a father, king, or God, maintains total control for the good of his subjects, who owe unquestioning allegiance to him. Many scholars argue that Queen Elizabeth very carefully managed her image to make her legacy more masculine. She also maintained her power in part by never marrying.
Lord Capulet is a strong example of this patriarchal model of the family as kingdom. He believes firmly that his wife and daughter owe him total fidelity and obedience. Though Capulet is somewhat permissive of Juliet's unwillingness to marry at first, when she finally refuses Paris, his choice for her, he responds with blistering curses:
Hang thee, young baggage! Disobedient wretch!
An you be mine, I'll give you to my friend.
An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets . . .
Some scholars believe that a portion of the original audience for Romeo and Juliet would sympathize with Capulet, believing that the young lovers got what was coming to them for disobeying the rightful powers.
Social Issues: Violence in the Streets
Dueling plays a pivotal role in Romeo and Juliet, and it also permeated English legal history at the time of the play's composition. The practice of deciding social quarrels in the streets with thin swords called rapiers was definitively illegal, and yet a number of famous manuals for dueling etiquette were popular among young gentlemen of the time. As opposed to hacking and slicing, rapiers are primarily stabbing weapons that require totally different, quick-paced fighting techniques.
Romeo and Juliet, like other Shakespeare plays, explicitly mentions rapiers as the weapons of choice. Romeo's fight with Tybalt after the death of Mercutio is a street duel at rapier point. The play's prologue prepares us for the play's engagement with the issue of family feuds and violent duels:
Two households, both alike in dignity
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene.
From ancient grudge bear to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
Social Issues: Courtly Love
Romeo is in many ways a prime example of the courtly lover, A man of noble lineage who follows strict rules of etiquette on romance. Such men dress, speak, and write according to a number of very popular love manuals available throughout the early modern period.
Romeo begins the play madly in love with Rosaline, a woman that we never see or hear from on stage. He pines bitterly about how 'heavy' he is with the burden of love, and how perfect and distant his lover is. These themes imitate Renaissance Italian love poetry, especially that of the poet Petrarch.
When Romeo tries these traditions on Juliet, however, they do not exactly work as planned. Many scholars argue that Juliet helps Romeo mature somewhat: he must confront her as a real person rather than a distant ideal. The famous balcony scene often serves as evidence for this.
In this lesson, we covered a number of key historical and cultural bodies of knowledge around Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's famous play from the 1590s. We identified Shakespeare's dramas, especially Romeo and Juliet, as products of their primarily Elizabethan heritage (which was during the era of Queen Elizabeth I), something that occurred during the early modern period in Europe (the late 1500s to early 1600s).
We then moved on to Shakespearean theatre and its conventions, identifying how theaters like the Globe (Shakespeare's theater of choice) were physically different from theaters of today (such as their natural lighting and lack of props), as were acting troupes (who were all men) and their writing conventions.
Finally, we discussed the ways that the play demonstrates the patriarchal (meaning one masculine leader, like a father, king, or God, maintains total control for the good of his subjects, who owe unquestioning allegiance to him) model of power while also being critical of dangerous street dueling with rapiers (which were thin swords popular at the time). It was also critical of early modern ideas of courtly lovers, or men of noble lineage who follow strict rules of etiquette on romance and likely inspired by the writings of the Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch.