Historical Background

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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 writing comedies from about 1594 to 1603. During this period he produced such works as The Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, and Twelfth Night. Two of Shakespeare’s tragedies were also written during this time period. One was Julius Caesar and the other was Romeo and Juliet.

The play version of Romeo and Juliet was probably written early in his career around 1595 to 1596. The play is considered to be a tragedy and portrays the interplay of human character and motive. Much of Romeo and Juliet is written in blank verse, which is unrhymed iambic pentameter. Iambic simply means a metrical foot made up of an unstressed and stressed syllable, and pentameter means that each line has five metrical feet. While most of Romeo and Juliet is written in iambic pentameter, the characters of lower social position speak in prose.

The play is rich in rhyming words, word plays, and puns. Most of Shakespeare’s plays begin with a great deal of action designed to capture the attention of the groundlings immediately. Therefore, Romeo and Juliet begins with a street fight between the servants of the Capulets and the Montagues, the warring families in the play.

The plot of Romeo and Juliet was taken from an earlier version of the story. The theme appeared in the fourth century in a Greek tale and later in the sixteenth century as Luigi da Porto’s Hystoria di due nobili Amanti. In the later version, the city is Verona, and da Porto was the first to call the hero and heroine Romeo and Giulietta. Probably Shakespeare’s most direct source was a long English narrative poem written in 1562 by Arthur Brooke, called The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet. Shakespeare used the characters in Brooke’s poem but developed them in much greater depth and detail, thus transforming the story of star-crossed lovers into the most famous love story ever known.

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Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading