Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: Context

Literary Tradition:

Adapting the Italian Novella:

Romeo and Juliet is NOT an original story.

  • Romeo and Juliet comes from a tradition of tragic romances:
    • The Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses
    • Mariotto and Gianozza by Masuccio Salernitano (1476)
    • Luigi da Porto adapted Salernitano’s story as Giulietta e Romeo – rival families of Montecchi and Capuleti, located in Verona (1530)
    • Matteo Bandello republished his version of Giuletta e Romeo in Novelle (1554)
    • Bandello’s Guiletta e Romeo is translated into French by Pierre Boaistuau (1559)
    • In 1562, Arthur Brooke translates Boaistuau’s work into the narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet
  • There was a trend for writers and playwrights to write works based upon Italian novellas, which were popular with theatre-goers at the time.
    • Shakespeare based many of his plays on Italian novelle eg. The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, Much Ado About Nothing, All’s Well That Ends Well
    • Shakespeare dramatised Brooke’s translation into Romeo and Juliet

Shakespearean Tragedy:

  • The use of the Chorus (the lone actor who narrates) in Act 1 and 2 comes from a  Greek tragedy convention.
    • In Greek tragedy, the Chorus exists to comment on what the audience can expect to happen, creating dramatic irony
    • In Romeo and Juliet, although a Chorus is used, not very much is revealed (except for beginning and ending), so the audience is still left to discover the irony themselves

Religious and Philosophy:


Romeo and Juliet reflects Elizabethan notions about fate and cosmology:

Protestant and Catholic:

  • During the Renaissance, there was a conflict between Catholics and Protestants
  • Protestant was the state-endorsed religion in England during the Elizabethan era (Elizabeth I was Protestant), but it was constantly challenged by Catholics and Puritans
  • Shakespeare reflects stereotypical views of Catholicism during his time:
    • Italy and Italians (a Catholic country and the home of the Pope) were viewed as quarreling, devious and lustful – consider how these traits are seen in Mercutio, Romeo and Tybalt.
    • Friar Lawrence (the priest who helps Romeo and Juliet marry) is also Catholic
      • He undermines the authority of the family/parents
      • He supplies drugs and poisons
      • His actions lead to the deaths of Romeo and Juliet

Social Context:

Role of Women:

  • English society was a patriarchal hierarchy
  • The husband/father controls the entire family
  • Women cannot hold property and are completely dependent upon their husband/father

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