Romeo and Juliet: historical context

Romeo and Juliet: historical context

Historical Context: Understanding “Romeo and Juliet”

Shakespeare: The playwright and his Work

  • “Romeo and Juliet” is a tragedy play by William Shakespeare, written early in his career around 1594-1596.
  • The play is set in the city of Verona, Italy during the renaissance period. However, it is important to note this setting is a romanticised version of Italy and its culture, coloured by Elizabethan perceptions.
  • An understanding of the historical context can provide insight into why characters behave the way they do and can deepen our understanding of themes and symbols present in the play.

Elizabethan Society and Its Influence

  • In Elizabethan society, children were often expected to obey the will of their parents, even in matters as significant as marriage - this is reflected in the Capulet’s insistence on Juliet marrying Paris.
  • Family feud, such as the animosity between the Montagues and Capulets was also prevalent among nobility in 16th century Italian society, a period known for political instability.
  • Elizabethan society placed importance on the idea of fate and destiny which is drawn upon in “Romeo and Juliet”, as demonstrated by the frequent reference to stars and omens.
  • The Catholic church was a dominant presence during the time, its values therefore are woven throughout the play. However, it is important to remember that during Shakespeare’s lifetime, England was predominantly Protestant, after breaking away from the Catholic Church under Henry VIII.
  • The concept of ‘courtly love’, where a man shows devotion to a woman who is usually of higher social status and often married, was common during the Elizabethan era. Romeo follows this notion initially expressing his ‘love’ for Rosaline early in the play.

Elizabethan Theatre: The Stage and the Audience

  • Elizabethan theatre was a popular form of entertainment, and plays were open to all, regardless of social class. However, different social classes had specific sections in the theatre.
  • Female roles were played by young boys in Elizabethan theatre since women were not typically allowed to perform on stage.