« When we look at Shakespeare’s work, we discover a playwright who never loses sight of uncertainties, ambiguities, and imbalances of life »
(Barthelemy 2004: 141)
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was written in the late 1500's. Critics tended to disparage this play in comparison to the four great tragedies Shakespeare wrote in the first decade of the seventeenth century (Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and Othello). Assessed next to the Bard's mature works, Romeo and Juliet appears to lack the psychological depth and the structural complexity of Shakespeare's later tragedies. But over the past three decades or so, many scholars have altered this assessment, effectively upgrading its status within Shakespeare's canon. They have done this by discarding comparative evaluation and judging Romeo and Juliet as a work of art in its own right. Viewed from this fresh perspective, Shakespeare's tragic drama of the "star-crossed" young lovers is seen to be an extraordinary work. Indeed, Romeo and Juliet was an experimental stage piece at the time of its composition, featuring several radical departures from long-standing conventions. These innovative aspects of the play, moreover, reinforce and embellish its principal themes. The latter include the antithesis between love and hate, the correlative use of a light/dark polarity, the handling of time (as both theme and as structural element), and the prominent status accorded to Fortune and its expression in the dreams, omens and forebodings that presage its tragic conclusion he cultural mores of the day were reflected in his writing. He wrote in detail about the way that society functioned, in fact, he revealed the flaws in the way that society functioned by developing characters who acted outside the expectations of society. He is famous for creating strong female characters who stood up to social expectations to express themselves and attain their needs(Kate from the Taming of the Shrew). He laughed at the absurdity of love and relationships(Midsummer Night''s Dream), exposed lust and greed(Hamlet) and highlighted the dominance of the human spirit(Twelfth Night). Most importantly, he showed that often, a character's greatest strength is also his or her greatest weakness(Hamlet, or any character, for that matter).
A recurring theme, especially in his comedies, was love and marriage. Shakespeare reflected the culture and society of his day (and how it was changing) through his examination of the ways in which his characters decided or gained permission to marry and the ways in which love affected this choice. In Shakespeare's day, love was still pretty inconsequential a factor when it came to marriage. For the most part, marriages were still arranged by families as a sort of business deal or, if the families were important enough, a political alliance. Love was not, generally speaking, the motivating force for marriage in the world around Shakespeare, yet in many of his plays (and most all of his comedies) lovers are attempting to defy parential or societal conventions and make their own decisions about whom they will marry based upon love and not social or political connection. This was a very new idea at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century, and, as such, was a fascinating subject for Shakespeare to examine in his plays. Some of the examples of this in the plays that jump out are Romeo and Juliet in the play of the same title, Lysander and Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Helena and Bertram in All's Well That Ends Well (in this case, Helena tries to manipulate political connections in order to marry for love), Valentine and Silvia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Othello and Desdemona in Othello, and Bianca and Lucentio inThe Taming of the Shrew. The list could go on, but this gives you an idea of how pervasive the theme of marrying for love versus social convention was in Shakespeare's plays.
It is generally believed that the play is based on a real Italian love story from the 3 rd Century. The ‘real families’ are the Capeletti and the Montecci families. Shakespeare wrote his version in 1594 which was based on Arthur Brooke’s poem of 1562. This period was ‘The Elizabethan Era’ which was also known as ‘The Renaissance’. A time of significant change in the fields of religion, politics, science, language and the arts. Religion
Romeo & Juliet was set during a very religious period.
It was a ‘catholic’ society with a strong belief in damnation for mortal sin. Suicide and bigamy were both considered to be mortal sins.
Shakespeare was writing following ‘The Reformation’. This was when England became a protestant nation, having broken away from from papal control by Henry VIII. Society became more open and less oppressed.
Family- Many Shakespeare plays show conflict between parents and children. The father was the undisputed head of the household.
Women had no rights or authority in law. They could not own property or money but could influence their husbands. Children were regarded as ‘property’ – and could be given in marriage to a suitable partner. Often a political or financial transaction, to secure and retain wealth. It was not unusual to be married very young.
In high society, children were often raised by a ‘wet nurse’ and did not have a strong bond with parents. “One of the interests of teens is love-from frivolous to sensuous, from friendship love to romantic love” (Chance, 2002, p. 139). Romeo and Juliet is often recognized as the most renowned love story ever written. Its historical and literary significance commands its presence in the majority of schools’ curricula. The readers of this work are widespread, and it has impacted modern writers around the world. Much of what is written and said in American culture requires a basic reading and understanding of Romeo and Juliet and its language.
Much of Romeo and Juliet involves the lovers’ struggles against public and social institutions that either explicitly or implicitly oppose the existence of their love. Such structures range from the concrete to the abstract: families and the placement of familial power in the father; law and the desire for public order; religion; and the social importance placed on masculine honor. These institutions often come into conflict with each other. The importance of honor, for example, time and again results in brawls that disturb the public peace.
Though they do not always work in concert, each of these societal institutions in some way present obstacles for Romeo and Juliet. The enmity between their families, coupled with the emphasis placed on loyalty and honor to kin, combine to create a profound conflict for Romeo and Juliet, who must rebel against their heritages. Further, the patriarchal power structure inherent in Renaissance families, wherein the father controls the action of all other family members, particularly women, places Juliet in an extremely vulnerable position. Her heart, in her family’s mind, is not hers to give. The law and the emphasis on social civility demands terms of conduct with which the blind passion of love cannot comply. Religion similarly demands priorities that Romeo and Juliet cannot abide by because of the intensity of their love. Though in most situations the lovers uphold the traditions of Christianity (they wait to marry before consummating their love), their love is so powerful that they begin to think of each other in blasphemous terms. For example, Juliet calls Romeo “the god of my idolatry,” elevating Romeo to level of God (2.1.156). The couple’s final act of suicide is likewise un-Christian. The maintenance of masculine honor forces Romeo to commit actions he would prefer to avoid. But the social emphasis placed on masculine honor is so profound that Romeo cannot simply ignore them. It is possible to see Romeo and Juliet as a battle between the responsibilities and actions demanded by social institutions and those demanded by the private desires of the individual. Romeo and Juliet’s appreciation of night, with its darkness and privacy, and their renunciation of their names, with its attendant loss of obligation, make sense in the context of individuals who wish to escape the public world. But the lovers cannot stop the night from becoming day. And Romeo cannot cease being a Montague simply because he wants to; the rest of the world will not let him. The lovers’ suicides can be understood as the ultimate night, the ultimate privacy. The play distinguishes itself from its predecessors in several important aspects: the subtlety and originality of its characterization (Shakespeare almost wholly created Mercutio); the intense pace of its action, which is compressed from nine months into four frenetic days; a powerful enrichment of the story’s thematic aspects; and, above all, an extraordinary use of language.
One of the most powerful aspects ofRomeo and Juliet is Shakespeare's use of language. The characters curse, vow oaths, banish each other, and, in general, demonstrate great verbal dexterity through an overuse of action verbs. In addition, the play is saturated with oxymorons, puns, paradoxes, and double entendres.
In an age of virtual realities Shakespeare‘s Romeo and Juliet can seem like a hologram. From one angle it appears to dramatize a love- story which transcends time and place … from another angle the tragedy enacts a love-story shaped by the social and literary conventions of late sixteenth- century England … [and] sin ce the advent of modern psychology a third angle allows for a different construction formulated on change rather than absolutes