What is the social, cultural and historical context in Romeo and Juliet, with reference to act 1, sc. 1, and act 3, sc. 1?

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Noelle Matteson | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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As the prologue states, Romeo and Juliet is set “In fair Verona, where we lay our scene.” The subject of star-crossed lovers dates back for thousands of years, and the plot itself at least for decades. Shakespeare drew from a number of sources specifically referring to Romeo and Juliet (or any variation on the names, such as Romeus or Guiletta), including English poet Arthur Brooke, the French Pierre Boaistua, and the Italian Luigi Da Porto.

The play’s first and third acts are important in terms of setting because they both begin in “a public place.” In fact, characters commit violence in a public space, their private brawls spilling onto Verona’s streets. This example of a private affair becoming a communal problem is one of the play’s central themes.

In the first act, the Capulets and the Montagues spar, and even the old patriarchs attempt to jump into the fray. The prince states that these “civil brawls … Have thrice disturb'd the quiet of our streets,” forbidding further violence in Verona’s communal spaces. It is one thing to fight privacy, and it is another to endanger and disrupt the lives of innocent citizens with brawling.

In the third act, more violence erupts in Verona’s streets, in spite of Benvolio’s urges to retire and “withdraw unto some private place.” As a result, a Montague is banished and one Capulet and one of the prince’s kinsmen die. Just as personal quarrels can cause civil disputes, the romance between Romeo and Juliet eventually leads to love between enemies. The lovers “Do with their death bury their parents' strife,” the personal passion between youths delivering a public peace.


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