Key contextual features for Shakespeare’s play ‘Romeo & Juliet’ to encapsulate some contemporary views and issues that are relevant to the reading of the play.
It is generally believed that the play is based on a real Italian love story from the 3rd Century. The ‘real families’ are the Capeletti and the Montecci families. Shakespeare wrote his version in 1594 which was based on Arthur Brooke’s poem of 1562.
The play is a tragedy which means it reveals how extreme passion can lead to disaster: “violent delights have violent ends.” – Friar Lawrence
Many aspects of Shakespeare’s plays would have been very familiar to Elizabethan audiences: street fights and brawls; violence and death; masked balls and dances; potions and medicines in apothecaries’ shops; strong male friendships. Patriarchal attitudes and authority; the roles and responsibilities of children and attitudes towards family; the Plague, religion and attitudes towards death are all significant throughout the play.
Romeo and Juliet is part of an Elizabethan appetite for revenge tragedies which was a very popular form of entertainment. Shakespeare included many conventional aspects of tragedy but expanded it further. The young lovers are tragically separated and destroyed by powers outside of their control: linked to superstition and fate, common beliefs at the time.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays deal with family relationships, particularly fathers’ oppositions to their daughters’ desires to marry. Feuding families are also a common theme in Shakespeare’s plays. This reinforces the strong Patriarchal views or the era.
The story contains a number of stock characters or stereotypes which were common in literature: meddling friars; an old nurse; young lovers and feuding young men. The Malcontent is a common character is Elizabethan drama and similar to Don Juan in Much Ado about Nothing.
Religion was an important part of many people’s lives and religious language and imagery can be seen throughout the play. Modern, more secular, audiences have much less knowledge than Shakespearean ones about the influence of religion. Setting the play in Catholic Italy would have made the double suicide at the end very shocking. More than a ‘love story’ R&J would have been seen as a scandalous and avant-garde blend of romance and tragedy.
Several sonnets are spoken in the play. Traditionally sonnets had love as their main theme and focus. Shakespeare’s audience would have been very familiar with the sound, language and rhythm of sonnets. The audience would know that they are associated with love and lofty ideals. Petrarchan sonnets always elevated the female subject to almost a position of idolatry. Shakespeare was a celebrated master of writing sonnets.
Shakespeare re-defined the classical genre of Greek Tragedy but the conventions remained: Nobles falling from grace and experiencing suffering and death. Yet instead of kings, powerful nobles, Romeo and Juliet are young, innocent and in love. They have no power against fate, fortune or in Juliet’s case her position as a female and this is the very nature of their tragedy. Tragedy always draws on pity and fear. For an Elizabethan audience, they would have pitied their innocence but feared their recklessness and how they broke society’s rules.
Throughout the play Romeo is presented as the epitome of a Petrarchan lover. He idolises first Rosaline and then Juliet, describing their physical attributes in long lists and extravagant depth. Even at the moment of death Romeo follows this typically Blazon form in his language. After Mercutio’s death, Romeo laments that love has made him effeminate and lacking in the brawling nature of his counterparts. Shakespeare compellingly comments on the typical contemporary presentations of gender and the strict roles people are bound by. Beyond the remit of the play, Shakespeare also mocks the Blazon form in his own poetry, Sonnet 130.
Sons and daughters were expected to be obedient to their parents, particularly their fathers in their typically Patriarchal society. There is some evidence that children had some say over their choice of husband or wife however, Lord Capulet threatens to disown Juliet should she refuse the match to Paris. Juliet was particularly young in the play perhaps to emphasise the tragic circumstances and her lack of options. This is a common theme in Shakespeare’s plays and could easily be compared to Brabantio’s reaction in discovering Desdemona’s secret marriage to Othello in his eponymous play. Similarly, Egeus implores the Duke Theseus to allow him to exercise the “sharp Athenian law” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream whereby is Hermia does not marry Demetrius as he wishes her to do, he has the right to kill her. The Duke encourages him to consider a nunnery as a solution rather than championing Hermia’s own hopes in marrying Lysander. Women do not have complete agency over their lives and noble women were arguably more cloistered in attempts to protect their virtue and “merchandise” which was their currency in marriage.
Mercutio’s curse of “A plague on both your houses” would have had particular resonance for an Elizabethan audience. An outbreak of the plague had closed all theatres in London in 1593-4 and the plague was a constant threat. Children dying before their parents on and off stage was always a tragic event that audiences would have well-understood as England and Europe’s populations were decimated by the plagues.