Romeo and Juliet Historical Context

Written in the late 16th century, Romeo and Juliet was hugely influenced by the culture of the times.

While Shakespeare chose to challenge and explore cultural norms for Elizabethan England in Romeo and Juliet, he did not do this in a didactic way.

romeo and juliet context

The book is heavily influenced by what was an almost entirely patriarchal society. This is exemplified by the role of Lord Capulet, who (despite being a caring father) promises Juliet to Paris. One could interpret the play as a cautionary tale against rebelling against one’s father’s wishes as if Juliet had married Paris, she and Romeo both might have survived. Of course, there is much evidence against this reading as Juliet’s character is likable and sympathetic.

The play also takes its cues from the theatre at the time. For instance, near the conclusion of the play, there is a comedy scene where there is debate over what music should be played. In modern performances, this scene is always cut as it breaks the tension. However, that is how the scene was designed. Comedy interludes were common in Elizabethan England. In fact, because of the lack of newspapers, these were a way to discuss and share current affairs with the audience. However, this particular scene is not used in this way.

Publication and Legacy

When discussing texts of this age, talking about the publication of such titles seems superfluous. For a start, Shakespeare’s works were plays and were designed with performances, not sales in mind. Then there is the fact that the publishing industry was very different 400 years ago from how it works today.

Of course, there is a wide legacy when it comes to Romeo and Juliet. Let’s start from an educational perspective where the play is studied globally as a play and a work of literature. There are scores of scholarly articles disseminating the play and its numerous themes, and it is arguably Shakespeare’s best-known work.

As well as the impact it has had on education, one can comment on its cultural impact. There have been many retellings and reimaginings of the play, reframing it in both modern and futuristic contexts. The work has inspired literature, movie, art, and music.

The legacy of Shakespeare’s great tragedy is broad. It is certainly a topic worthy of discussion in its own right and that is without touching on its impact on language.

Adaptations

The joy of a play is that each new iteration will bring something new to it. There have been countless stage performances of this classic throughout the eras, and different directors will play certain scenes in different ways. For example, a quick YouTube search will reveal an RSC take on the balcony scene that is played for laughs. It is wonderfully done and a fresh take on the scene. Plus, there are various movie adaptations; perhaps the most famous is the Baz Lurhmann version, where the dialogue is mainly unchanged, but it is reframed in a ’90s context, with swords are replaced with guns.

FAQs

What was happening at the time Romeo and Juliet was written?

It was during the 1300s, after the development of the Italian city states and towards the beginning of the Renaissance.

What is meant by context in Romeo and Juliet?

Context is what’s going at the time the story was written or takes place in history. Readers can also consider Shakespeare’s personal context.

How old are Romeo and Juliet?

Juliet is thirteen and Romeo is older, likely somewhere around sixteen or seventeen

About Lee-James Bovey
Lee-James, a.k.a. LJ, has been a Book Analysis team member since it was first created. During the day, he's an English Teacher. During the night, he provides in-depth analysis and summary of books.
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