What's the context of Romeo and Juliet?
Updated: Mar 13, 2019
Wow. That's a question. Let's focus on the stuff that's specific to this play instead of just general Shakespeare, shall we?
For a start, Shakespeare robbed the plot from a traditional medieval tale which first appeared in this book in 1562. It's more of a morality tale: If you ignore your parents' warning you will inevitably face an ‘unhappye deathe’. I guess that means I shouldn't have forgotten to feed the cat when I was house sitting! The original stretched over nine months, but Shakespeare cut it to five days, as well as cutting Juliet's age from sixteen to fourteen. Tybalt's swordfights were an adition too. Paris' role was expanded and the comedy elements from Mercutio and the Nurse were squeezed in to counteract the misery.
Let's think a bit more about everyone's favourite Queen-Mab-quoting, D-joke-making trickster, Mercutio. His banter with Romeo includes vocabulary that could be considered romantic or sexual, but in the Elizabethan era platonic male friendships were expressed in this way.
Let's talk a bit more about love:You didn’t marry for love, you married for social standing and to legitimise your children. It was legal for 14 year old males and 12 year old girls to get married but the 'age of consent' (i.e. when you're considered an adult legally) was age 21. However, if you were of noble birth, you might be engaged much younger.
Marriages were arranged by families to make their lives better, and as a girl you wouldn't have much of a say, if any in your future husband. Divorce was pretty much impossible, but men could be prosecuted if they harmed their wives TOO MUCH. While a wife would legally be her husband's property, that was sometimes better than being a drain on your own family. And, don't forget, you were more or less immune to accusations of witchcraft!
To be engaged, you basically just had to kiss the other person (so when Romeo and Juliet kiss on the balcony they are considered engaged!). Rings took off as a trend in this time, but they weren't for everyone. Engagements could always be broken off without much hassle.
In terms of violence, the other big theme in 'Romeo and Juliet', Shakespeare was totally playing on current affairs. The year before the play was written, a rebellion broke out when a thousand apprentices took to the streets in London to protest about how rubbish the social conditions were. Tybalt's fancy Italian style of fighting like his Passado was fashionable but divisive. Some people loved it, some hated it, but swordfights were incredibly common.
What about Juliet's potion? Well, there was a chance it was real. A plant called ‘sleeping nightshade’ which has would make you sleep so soundly that you'd appear dead, and the author of this book warns that many people had taken it and died.
The 'plague on both your houses' that the dying Mercutio wishes on the feuding families was a real and present danger to Shakespeare's audience. In 1563 a single outbreak of the Bubonic Plague killed 80,000 people in England. This included 20,000 Londoners, or around 25-35% of the whole population of the city. People died at the rate of a thousand a week.
Let that just sink in for a minute.
Everyone would have been affected in some way by this. And for Mercutio to wish it on the families? That's terrifying and disgusting. The Globe itself was closed three times to avoid the spread of contagion.