Historical Background

Historical Background
The first permanent professional theater in England was built around 1576 and was called the Theater. Other theaters soon opened, including two called the Curtain and the Rose. Not only was Shakespeare working as a playwright and an actor for the Theater, he was also a stock holder.

Another theater soon opened and became one of the most famous of the London public playhouses. It was completed around 1599 and was called the Globe. It was perhaps the largest theater in England and derived its name “from the sign painted above its door, a picture of Atlas holding the world on his shoulders” (Kittredge). Shakespeare also owned stock in the Globe and performed as an actor in many of his own plays. The Globe was an enclosed theater without a roof. The spectators who stood or sat on the ground around the acting area were called “groundlings.” The wealthier playgoers sat in galleries surrounding the stage area. There was no curtain, and sunlight provided the lighting for the performances; therefore, the performances were held during the day. Because there were no sets or scene changes, Shakespeare’s characters wore extravagant costumes to provide the beauty and pageantry that was expected on the stage. Plays were usually fast-paced and colorful productions. The actors, as a rule, played more than one part in a play, and all of the women’s parts were portrayed by young boys.

Shakespeare began...

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Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Romeo and Juliet is a five-act tragedy about the protagonists’ ill-fated love. By chance, Romeo, the son of Montague, learns of the annual Capulet party, and he allows his kinsman Benvolio to persuade him to attend, even though the Capulets are mortal enemies of the Montagues. Romeo hopes to see his disdainful love, Rosaline, while Benvolio hopes that Romeo will find another woman there.

At the party, Romeo indeed falls in love with another, Juliet, the only daughter of old Capulet. She also falls in love with him. After the ball, Romeo enters the Capulet garden, where he and Juliet converse in the famous balcony scene. She proposes to marry him, and, before they part, she tells him that in the morning she will send her nurse to learn his answer.

That morning, Romeo tells the nurse to instruct Juliet to meet him at Friar Lawrence’s monastery in the afternoon, and there they secretly marry. Before the lovers can consummate their marriage that night, however, Juliet’s cousin Tybalt meets Romeo and challenges him to a duel. Romeo, now related to Tybalt by marriage, refuses the challenge, but Romeo’s friend Mercutio accepts. As Romeo tries to separate the two combatants, Mercutio is slain. Romeo must now choose between the masculine code of revenge and the feminine code of love. He chooses the former and kills Tybalt in a fair fight. The Prince of Verona, who has ordered the Montagues and Capulets to avoid fighting on pain of death, banishes Romeo. After a night with Juliet, Romeo flees to Mantua.

Thinking that Juliet grieves for Tybalt’s death rather than Romeo’s banishment, old Capulet quickly arranges a marriage for his daughter with Paris, a nobleman. Desperate, Juliet consults Friar Lawrence, who gives her a sleeping potion that will make her appear dead; she will then be placed in the Capulet vault. Meanwhile, Friar Lawrence will send a message to Mantua to tell Romeo about the plot. Romeo will come to the vault, meet the reawakened Juliet, and together the couple will flee Verona.

The friar’s potion works, but the plague prevents his messenger from reaching Romeo. Instead, Romeo hears that Juliet has died. Buying a dose of poison, he hastens to Verona and Juliet’s tomb. When Paris confronts him there, Romeo kills him in a duel. He then drinks the poison just before Juliet awakens. Friar Lawrence has come to the crypt too late to save Romeo, but he tries to convince Juliet to leave. Instead, she takes Romeo’s dagger and stabs herself. At last, the feuding families abandon their quarrel and agree to build a statue to the two lovers above their single grave.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Capulets’ orchard

Capulets’ orchard. Walled orchard overlooked by Juliet’s window. A place where domestic comfort meets wild nature, the orchard is the place where the play’s star-crossed lovers pledge their troth, and through which Romeo enters Juliet’s chamber to consummate their secret marriage. There, too, the higher and lower aspects of love are contrasted: Juliet, above, representing true romance; and the lane by the wall, below, where Mercutio taunts Romeo with lewd jests.

Friar Laurence’s cell

Friar Laurence’s cell. Sacred place where the lovers repair from the cruel world to find solace and intimate counsel from their sympathetic priest. There the lovers privately confide in the friar their determination to commit suicide. There too the crucial elements of the tragedy’s plot are devised: plans for the secret marriage, the sleeping potion Juliet takes to avoid marrying Paris, and the miscarried letter to bring Romeo back from banishment in Mantua.

Capulets’ tomb

Capulets’ tomb. Place where love and death conjoin in a double suicide on holy ground. Seeming to be dead, Juliet is placed in the tomb, there to awake and find that Romeo has dealt Paris a bloody death and poisoned himself, thinking she is dead. When his lips afford her none of the poison, she plunges his dagger into her bosom. Significantly, the play ends there, not with their deaths, but with the families and townspeople crowding into the holy place to end their feud and honor the dead lovers.

Modern Connections

(Shakespeare for Students)

One of the most prominent features of Romeo and Juliet is the love the two title characters have for one another. In a number of ways...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

*If available, books are linked to Amazon.com

Brown, John Russell. Discovering Shakespeare: A New Guide to the Plays. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Campell, Lily B. Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1973.

Craig, Hardin, Ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1961.

Erickson, Peter. Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama. Berekely, CA: University of California Press, 1985.

Evans, Bertrand. Shakespeare's Tragic Practice. Oxford: Clarendon Press,1979.

McLeish, Kenneth. Longman's Guide to Shakespeare's Characters. Harlow: Longman House, 1985.

Granville-Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965/1978.

Kittredge, George Lyman, Ed. The Kittredge-Players Edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. New York: Grolier, 1936.

Pitt, Angela. Shakespeare's Women. London: David & Charles, 1981.

Prentice Hall Literature: Gold. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1989.

Ribner, Irving. Patterns in Shakespearian Tragedy. London: Methuen, 1960.

Seward, James H. Tragic Vision in "Romeo and Juliet". Washington, DC: Consortium Press, 1973.

Stauffer, Donald A. "The School of Love: `Romeo and Juliet'," Shakespeare the Tragedies: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Alfred Harbage. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1964, pp.28-33.

Toor, David. A Life of Shakespeare. New York: Kenilworth Press, 1976.

Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1939.

Wells, Stanley. (Ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Battenhouse, Roy W. Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969. Argues that in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare shows a mistrust of carnal love, which leads the protagonists to suicide and damnation; the suicides in the tomb at the end of the play are an inversion of the Easter story.

Cartwright, Kent. Shakespearean Tragedy and Its Double: The Rhythms of Audience Response. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991. Examines how audiences respond to Shakespeare’s tragedies. Shows how an audience of Romeo and Juliet usually identifies strongly with the lovers, although the play compels detachment.

Evans, Robert. The Osier Cage; Rhetorical Devices in “Romeo and Juliet.” Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1966. Explores the style of Romeo and Juliet, particularly Shakespeare’s use of opposites such as love and violence, darkness and light, and appearance and reality.

Watts, Cedric. Romeo and Juliet. Boston: Twayne, 1991. One of the best starting places. Contains information on the history of the play and discusses its themes, sources, and characters.

Wells, Stanley, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986. All studies of Shakespeare should begin with this book. Includes excellent chapters on the poet’s life, the beliefs of Elizabethan England, and reviews of scholarship in the field.