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The Historical Context of Romeo and Juliet
EXPLORING Shakespeare. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2003. From Student Resources in Context.
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Critical Thinking Questions

  • What factors contributed to the violent atmosphere of fourteenth-century Italy?
  • Which historical English feud may have been the inspiration for the rival Montague and Capulet families in Romeo and Juliet?
  • What role did astrology play in Italian society of the fourteenth century?
  • Why was the period in which Shakespeare wrote many of his plays called the Elizabethan Age?

When William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet in approximately 1595, England had a great deal in common with fourteenth-century Italy, the era in which the play takes place. As in fourteenth-century Italy, Elizabethan England experienced incredible violence and tragedy. In 1592 England was ravaged by the bubonic plague, a disease that had also swept across Italy in 1348. England was deeply enmeshed in a political and religious power struggle that resembled conditions in Italy 250 years before. Both societies, scarred by tragedy, subscribed to the philosophy formulated by the imprisoned Roman statesman and philosopher Boethius (c. 480-524), who asserted that Fortune—both good and bad—is part of life and, along with God, controls human destiny. Further, he insisted that Fortune is random and that adverse fortune is a greater teacher than good fortune.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

A history of violence

Verona is located near the northern border of Italy on the Po River, east of Venice. It was a very lively city in the fourteenth century. Culturally rich and commercially successful, it boasted a thriving artistic community and a robust business climate centered in international trade that rivaled that of Venice, the wealthiest city-state in Italy. But Verona, like all other regions of the country, was subject to rampant violence and war—a condition that had endured throughout Italy for centuries.

Since the Etruscan occupation of Italy in the tenth century B.C., the region had suffered from periodic epidemics of violence. Territorial battles between Romans, Etruscans, Gauls, Carthaginians, and a host of others occurred regularly through the founding of Rome in 753 B.C. until the Holy Roman Empire established its dominance after the Second Punic War in 201 B.C. The Roman Empire maintained control of Italy through 400 A.D., when it split into two distinct halves. The governmental faction established its capital in Constantinople and regarded the emperor as its supreme authority. The spiritual faction (often called "Christendom"), centered in Rome and was ruled by the pope. The result of the split was a long-standing and savage power struggle that bred deep-seated hatred between sides. In the absence of a united, central power, city-states emerged and their growth added to the competitive and hostile atmosphere. Territories competed for resources and political leaders clashed with religious leaders over control and influence.

By the fourteenth century, the division between supporters of the emperor and supporters of the pope was firmly established. As in other Italian city-states, a fierce rivalry existed in Verona between these two sides. Supporters of the pope, called Guelfs, and partisans of the emperor, called Ghibellines, grappled for control. They fought deadly battles over the most petty of differences: blood was spilled over such trivial issues as the proper method of eating garlic and the viability of wearing a feather on the left rather than the right side of the cap. The famed Italian poet Francesco Petrarch lamented this sad state of relations:


O my own Italy!—though words are vain

The mortal wounds to close

Innumerable that thy bosom stain—

Yet it may soothe my pain

To sing of Tiber's woes

And Arno's wrongs, as on Po's saddened shore

Mournful I wander, and my numbers pour.
(Durant, p. 45)

The bubonic plague

In 1348 the bubonic plague ravaged Europe. In Italy an estimated one-third of the population died from the disease. The plague sparked a cycle of famine and epidemic that lasted through the end of the century. It contributed to social instability that led to one hundred years of unending warfare and continual upheaval among Italy's citizens. Overcrowding in cities such as Venice, whose population by 1422 approached 200,000, led to fierce competition for few natural resources, further igniting the turmoil that already raged because of political and religious differences. The effects of all this turmoil are significant factors in the play Romeo and Juliet.

Boethius

In the sixth century an imprisoned Roman statesman named Boethius wrote Consolatione Philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy), a work in which he attempted, in part, to explain why tragedy is part of life. He proposed that life is governed by both God and Fortune, with Fortune serving as a sort of agent carrying out God's master plan for the universe. He further asserted that good and bad Fortune occur randomly and that:


You are wrong if think that Fortune has

changed toward you. This is her nature, the way she always

behaves. She is changeable. . . .
(Boethius, p. 21)

Boethius was imprisoned and later executed because he fell out of favor with the government. The Consolation of Philosophy, however, was the most popular and influential literary work of the Dark Ages and regained prominence in the fourteenth century when it was translated by Geoffrey Chaucer. Boethius's concepts of God, Fate, and Fortune seemed to shed light on the plague and the terrible wars that were destroying hundreds of thousands of innocent lives; he even went so far as to claim that misfortune was a greater teacher than good fortune.

In fourteenth-century Italy, just as in the Elizabethan Age and later, people sought to understand the extent to which human beings are in control of their lives. Romeo and Juliet reflects fourteenth-century notions of God and Fortune as figures that work together to control the fate of human beings.

Astrology

Astrology was an influential part of Italian society as well. In the 1300s many people believed that the positions and aspects of heavenly bodies such as stars influenced the course of human events. The concept of astrology was seen as supporting Boethius's philosophy. Virtually every noble family in Italy had horoscopes drawn for their children upon birth, and most government leaders employed court astrologers to advise them on important issues of state. The newly developing science of astronomy was still closely linked to astrology and further indicated a close relationship between the stars and planets and events on earth. Many people believed that the conjunction of certain planets gave rise to different religions, and most believed that the stars dictated the outcome of wars.

Throughout Romeo and Juliet, references are made to supernatural forces at work, and suggestions are continually put forward that Fate is inextricably linked to the stars. Premonitions abound in the play, and there is evidence of widespread belief—as there was generally during that historical period—in unseen forces that control the characters' destinies. At the play's outset we are told that the lovers are "star-crossed," and soon Juliet foresees Romeo's death:


O God, I have an ill-divining soul!

Methinks I see thee, now thou art so low,

As one dead in the bottom of a tomb.

Either my eyesight fails, or thou lookest pale.
(Romeo and Juliet, 4.5.54)

Romeo, too, foresees his death and links it to a predetermined fate, "hanging in the stars."


. . . my mind misgives

Some consequence yet hanging in the stars

Shall bitterly begin his fearful date

With this night's revels, and expire the term

Of a despised life clos'd in my breast

By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
(Romeo and Juliet, 1.4.106-11)

The Play in Focus

The plot

Written in the lyric style of Shakespeare's sonnets, Romeo and Juliet begins with Romeo brooding over a woman whom he thinks he loves. But when he meets Juliet at a masquerade, he realizes he "ne'er saw true beauty until this night" (Romeo and Juliet, 1.5.54). Unaware that their families are mortal enemies, the pair exchange a kiss at the ball and set events in motion. When the lovers discover they are from rival families, they renounce their familial associations and vow their undying love for each other. They affirm that family names are trivial in and of themselves and "that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet" (Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.43-44). But while the young lovers recognize the folly of their families' feud, they cannot help being dragged into it by an unenlightened society that is unwilling to make peace.

Juliet is a Capulet and Romeo is a Montague. From the outset of the play, it is established that their families have a long-standing feud. Romeo is pulled into the conflict when Juliet's cousin Tybalt, kills Romeo's friend Mercutio. To avenge his friend's death, Romeo stabs Tybalt and is exiled from Verona by the prince. But Romeo and Juliet have already made plans to marry. Juliet meets Romeo at Friar Laurence's, and the two are wed in secret. They spend one night together and then Romeo flees for Mantua, where the two hope they will soon be reunited.

Because Juliet's marriage to Romeo is secret, her father unknowingly arranges for her to marry Count Paris. Juliet frantically seeks help from Friar Laurence to avoid bigamy (the legal offense of marrying one person while still legally married to another). The friar devises a plan to avert the second wedding. He gives Juliet a sleeping potion to make it appear as if she has died, for he has designed a strategy wherein Juliet can be reunited with Romeo in two days, after the effects of the potion have worn off. His plans are foiled, however, when a message to Romeo that informs him of the sleeping potion scheme does not get delivered. Instead, Romeo believes the news that Juliet has died. He rides to her tomb and, desperate with grief, kills himself. When Juliet awakens, she finds Romeo dead beside her. Heartbroken, she stabs herself with his dagger and dies at his side. The terrible tragedy of the two young lovers convinces the Montagues and Capulets to finally end their feud.

Shakespeare illustrates Boethius's concepts of Fortune by showing how events beyond Romeo or Juliet's control led to tragic consequences. Friar Laurence blames "unhappy fortune" when Romeo and Juliet are found dead and concludes that "a greater power than we can contradict / Hath thwarted our intents" (Romeo and Juliet, 5.2.153-54).

Sources

The story of Romeo and Juliet is based on a long line of tragedies, beginning with Ephesiaca by Xenophon, written in the second century A.D. In that version the lovers are called Anthia and Habrocomes; the plot is fundamentally the same as that of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet but with one crucial difference: the lovers are reunited in the end. The tragic ending and the familial rivalry were introduced by Masuccio Salernitano in Cinquante Novelle, written in 1476. Luigi da Porto retold the story in 1530, set it in Verona, and named the lovers Romeo and Giulietta. He based the family conflict on a well-known feud between the Capelletti family of the Guelfs and the Montecchi family of the Ghibellines.

Though all of these authors and several others wrote versions of the Romeo and Juliet story, the only source Shakespeare appears to have used is Arthur Brooke's The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet. Written in 1562, the narrative poem was the first English translation of the story. As was common practice for writers in the Elizabethan Age, Shakespeare began with Brooke's model but enhanced it, creating an original work of his own. His version—the first that was produced as a stage play—makes significant modifications to Brooke's poem. Shakespeare condensed the time-frame of the story from nine months to four days; expanded the roles of several characters, including Mercutio, Paris, and Tybalt; added several minor characters, including Samson, Balthasar, Gregory, and Potpan; killed off Paris; anglicized some of the characters' names; and employed a variety of literary styles, including the sonnet form and blank and rhyming verse—a significant change from Brooke's use of "Poulter's Measure" (alternating lines of twelve and fourteen syllables).

Shakespeare's play more fully develops all of the characters and enhances their personality traits. For example, the Nurse in Shakespeare's version is bawdier than her counterpart in Brooke's tale, while Mercutio is more cunningly combative, witty, and mercurial. Hardly mentioned in Brooke's poem, Mercutio becomes a central and pivotal character in Shakespeare's play.

In Shakespeare's more conversational version, Juliet's father becomes a full-bodied, frustrated father who tries to understand his teenage daughter but is exasperated nonetheless.

The influence of Petrarch

Written between 1594 and 1596, Romeo and Juliet was one of Shakespeare's early tragedies. Its style is more closely linked to his romantic comedies, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream, than to his dark tragedies, such as Othello or Hamlet. The play's lyric style reflects the influence of the Italian poet Petrarch, who wrote his love sonnets during the fourteenth century. Petrarch did not invent the form, but he made it famous. Using his verse as a model but modifying the structure, Shakespeare wrote his own collection of sonnets in the early 1590s and incorporated the style into Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare was influenced by Petrarch in content as well as form. In Romeo and Juliet he echoes Petrarch's lament over the violence and tragedy so prevalent in both fourteenth-century Italy and Elizabethan England. Just as Petrarch decried "the mortal wounds" inflicted on his country by constant civil war, Shakespeare's Friar Laurence observes how war devastates all concerned.

Puns

Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet employs some literary devices traditionally found only in comedies or farces. Such devices are especially prevalent in the first half of the play. The drama features a substantial amount of punning and wit combat (a favorite style of the Elizabethans), suggesting that Shakespeare wanted the characters to have a playful quality and to show them given to frequent misunderstandings. Miscommunication, a major theme of the play, is often conveyed through constant punning. For example, the play opens with servants carrying on a conversation in which they play on each other's words but misunderstand what the other is saying:


Samson: Gregory, on my word, we'll not

carry coals.

Gregory: No, for then we should be colliers.

Samson: I mean, an we be in choler, we'll draw.

Gregory: Ay, while you live, draw your neck out of collar.
(Romeo and Juliet, 1.1.1-4).

The puns on "collier" (a coal miner), "choler" (anger), and "collar" (a band around the neck) illustrate how easily language can mislead and establishes at the outset of Romeo and Juliet the absurdity of wars and feuds based on simple misunderstandings. Through his use of puns, Shakespeare shows the folly and potentially tragic consequences of miscommunication and seems to suggest that this has been a major cause of violence throughout history.

Wit combat, punning, and satire were commonly used in both the Elizabethan Age and in fourteenth-century Italy to make political statements. Because blatant attacks on the church or on the government were punishable by imprisonment or even death in both eras, wit was used as a covert weapon. The well-known fourteenth-century Italian satirist Dolcibene remarked to the French King and to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV: "You fight with the sword, the Pope with his bulls, and I with my tongue" (Burckhardt, p. 117). Similarly, Shakespeare commented on British society with his pen, articulating serious messages behind a veil of wit. In Romeo and Juliet he slyly condemned the infighting between the royal Stuart and Tudor families, a feud that proved deadly during Shakespeare's time. At one point the Tudor Queen Elizabeth even had her cousin Queen Mary Stuart executed because she posed a threat to the throne.

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

Shakespeare was profoundly influenced by the events that occurred around him while he wrote Romeo and Juliet. Episodes of extreme violence and bitter clashes of ideologies created a sometimes dark atmosphere in England. In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare illustrated the tragic consequences of feuding and war between rival factions, a message that his Elizabethan audience could surely understand. Perhaps this relevance to its audience explains why Romeo and Juliet emerged as one of Shakespeare's most popular plays. It was staged often during his lifetime; only Hamlet was produced on more occasions.

England in the Elizabethan Age

Queen Elizabeth I set the tone for the Elizabethan Age, which was both a violent and a progressive era in English history. Under Elizabeth, the third Tudor monarch, England achieved prominence as a world power and its citizens brimmed with national pride. In 1588 the Spanish Armada mounted an invasion against England but was destroyed with the help of a sudden storm in the English Channel. The unlikely defeat of Spain's powerful navy bolstered Elizabeth's popularity and suggested to some of her supporters that her reign was divinely ordained.

But not all citizens supported the Queen. Although a thirty-year feud between rival royal bloodlines, the Yorks and Lancasters, had ended in 1485, a new rivalry between the Stuarts and Tudors emerged. Elizabeth, a Protestant, was challenged by both the Catholic Stuarts and the Puritan reformers and was beset by plots to unseat her from the throne. Her cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was beheaded because she posed a threat to Elizabeth. The Earl of Essex, a one-time court favorite, was similarly executed for plotting her overthrow. Because Elizabeth was unmarried, the question of succession loomed large during her reign and pitted rivals to the throne against one another.

The Danverses and the Longs

Another well-known feud of Shakespeare's time involved the Danvers and Long families of England. Some scholars have speculated that this rivalry might have been yet another source of inspiration for Shakespeare's drama. The animosity between the two families began when Charles and Henry Danvers killed their neighbor Henry Long during a heated dispute. With the aid of the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron, the Danvers brothers escaped to France to avoid prosecution. When they returned to participate in a plot to overthrow Queen Elizabeth, Charles was beheaded for his earlier crime.

The plague

The bubonic plague struck England in 1592 and destroyed ten percent of the population. The plague, coupled with revolts in Ireland and Scotland and challenges to the throne by rival political and religious groups, produced tragedy and death on a broad scale. Shakespeare lived in London during this time and was forced to leave the city for at least one year when the epidemic hit and all theaters were closed. His knowledge of the deadly impact of the plague, coupled with his understanding of the family rivalries at court, where he often performed, allowed him to comment with authority on similar events that took place in fourteenth-century Italy.

Romance and tragedy

In addition to violence and intrigue, the Elizabethan Age was marked by romance. As a young unmarried woman in a position of great power, Elizabeth was constantly surrounded by suitors. She had an abundance of court favorites who competed for her affection, and her love life generated speculation and interest throughout Europe. Because of her unmarried status and her great achievements in office, Elizabeth was highly romanticized by the English, and it was said that she came to regard the country as her spouse. Her beauty (though apparently exaggerated) and political shrewdness were greatly touted. Many named their children after her, and some even constructed their homes in the shape of an "E" in her honor. An avid patron of the arts, Elizabeth was appreciated by artists and playwrights such as Shakespeare, who staged performances at court for her regularly. Her interest in romance, tragedy, comedy, and history greatly influenced the literature of her era.

Boethius and Astrology

In the sixteenth century, Queen Elizabeth had Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy translated into modern English. This revived interest in his philosophy, which provided an explanation for much of the tragedy England was experiencing at the time. As in fourteenth-century Italy, Boethius's conception of Fortune as a controller of human destiny supported a common belief in astrology in Elizabethan England. Queen Elizabeth herself employed a court astrologer who advised her on matters of state. Shakespeare thus illustrated the Elizabethan view that certain elements of life are beyond human control. But he also concluded that hate was a controllable emotion and that it had ultimately caused the tragic events depicted in Romeo and Juliet. The Prince of Verona summarizes this view at the play's end:


Where be these enemies? Capulet,

Montague,

See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,

That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
(Romeo and Juliet, 5.3.291-93)

RELATED INFORMATION
Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"The Historical Context of Romeo and Juliet." EXPLORING Shakespeare, Gale, 2003. Student Resources in Context, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FEJ2115513492%2FGPS%3Fu%3Dclov94514%26sid%3DGPS%26xid%3Deef81d55. Accessed 16 Dec. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2115513492