What is the historical and cultural context of Romeo and Juliet?

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The societal status of women in this period is crucial to fully understanding Juliet 's character. Women were not allowed to own property or establish monetary claims in their own names. (Remember that women were not even allowed to act in Shakespeare's time, so even Juliet's role was played by...

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The societal status of women in this period is crucial to fully understanding Juliet's character. Women were not allowed to own property or establish monetary claims in their own names. (Remember that women were not even allowed to act in Shakespeare's time, so even Juliet's role was played by young boys.) Passed from their fathers (or oldest brother in his absence) to a husband, women of noble ranks often had no determination in whom they would marry and were often used as financial or political pawns.

Juliet is expected to marry Paris. This has been decided by her father and is a decision Paris is in agreement with. To disobey the authoritative men in her life is no small decision--particularly for a young girl of 13. (Although it was common for girls to be married fairly young, this is an exceptionally young age.) Juliet's character is often dismissed as a flighty young girl almost mindlessly following the "fate" of the stars, but her willingness to circumvent societal expectations and marry a man whom her father did not support shows both her courage and her willingness to risk everything for Romeo. Thus, this context highlights the certainty she must have felt in their relationship.

Also of cultural significance is that the play was written somewhere around 1595 and during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The arts flourished during this time period, and Shakespeare was invited to her court more than once. Queen Elizabeth I was required to be a courageous and tenacious ruler; she remained on the throne for more than 40 years, one of the longest reigns in England's history.

Perhaps there is a bit of this independent spirit, standing tall in her own right instead of aligning to the wishes of the men in her life, in Juliet. Although the "Virgin Queen" chose to be married only to her country (while Juliet chooses marry and spend a honeymoon night with a man she has only known for about 24 hours), they both show an independence in making their own sexual decisions, regardless of how they are judged by societal standards.

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Most of William Shakespeare's stories were inspired by other sources, and in this sense Romeo & Juliet is no different. The narrative of these two "star-crossed lovers" was borrowed from The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, an epic poem by Arthur Brooke in 3020 lines which was based itself off of an Italian novella by Bandello.

While Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet was written thirty or so years later, (the poem was written in 1562, while Shakespeare's play was written at some time between 1594 and 1596), the cultural context remained much the same as it did when the story was first devised. Romeo and Juliet's foremost transgression is that they put their own individual interests above that of their family name. This would have been seen as out of keeping with the time, as families exercised a great deal of control of their children. Marriages were often not made for love but instead were used as a means by which to accumulate money and/or power. As a result, contemporary audiences of the play would have felt the same at the end of the century as they would have reading the poem thirty years earlier. Having transgressed social norms at the time, Romeo and Juliet's end could have been seen as moralistic in addition to being tragic.

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Shakespeare has set Romeo and Juliet in European society of the late sixteenth century, a cultural context familiar to his audience.

For example, the play highlights the cultural importance of family. A great obstacle to the love Romeo and Juliet share lies in the privileging of kinship ties over individualism in sixteenth-century society. In other words, in the eyes of their families and the larger culture, Romeo and Juliet are a Montague and a Capulet before they are a Romeo and a Juliet. They know very well that they are expected to put the needs of their extended families ahead of their personal desires, and they know how transgressive their behavior is in defying their families.

The play also takes place within a cultural context of patriarchy. Fathers had a high degree of control over their children. We see this especially in Juliet's case: her father has the right to impose a marriage partner on her against her will.

As for historical context, Shakespeare, although he may never have travelled to Italy, understood that the country was divided into a number of city-states. This is reflected in Verona having a prince, Escalus, who lays down the law. This also mirrors the sixteenth-century reality across Europe of a hierarchical society in which people were ruled by someone who was usually a powerful hereditary leader from a royal or aristocratic line.

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It would take a great deal of time (and space) to sufficiently analyze the historical, social and cultural context of Shakespeare's vast body of work, but in "Romeo and Juliet" a couple of things are easily identifiable.  The concept of "courtly love" which flourished in English literature during this time is well-entrenched in the story of the young Italian lovers.  In the concept of courtly love, two people fall in love immediately, experiencing great anguish until they are sure that the love is reciprocated, and then at some point, performing extreme deeds to prove their love of this other person.  It is a highly melodramatic endeavor to be involved in, with every emotion portrayed in extremity.  Another characteristic of the society in which Shakespeare wrote was the idea of an arranged marriage, exemplified in "Romeo and Juliet" by the Capulets' wish that their daughter marry Paris, which becomes most inconvenient when Juliet falls in love with Romeo,.  Arranged marriages at this time were the rule rather than the exception, particularly in the upper range of the social classes, enabling Shakespeare to create a lovers' triangle around which to base his play. 

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