Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet


William Shakespeare

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Romeo and Juliet Study Guide

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Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare was born in 1564. His father was a glove-maker and assemblyman in Stratford-upon-Avon, and his mother was the daughter of a well-to-do landowner. At 18, Shakespeare wed a woman eight years his senior, Anne Hathaway; just six months after their marriage, Hathaway gave birth to a daughter. She later bore two more children—one of whom, Hamnet, died at the age of 11. There is a gap in the historical record between the birth of Shakespeare’s twins and his first recorded appearance on the London theater scene in 1592. His theatrical career likely began in the mid-1580s, and between then and 1613, he composed such works as Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, the Henriad, Julius Caesar, Othello, and many more. In 1609, he published a book of sonnets, and released other long poems in the mid-1590s while London’s theaters were closed due to the plague. Shakespeare died in 1616 of a rumored “fever” just a month after creating a will in which he declared himself to be in good health. His surviving works include nearly 40 plays and over 150 sonnets, and his body of work is widely performed, analyzed, studied, and reinterpreted to this day.
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Historical Context of Romeo and Juliet

In the early years of the Renaissance, Italy was divided up into several smaller city-states which often warred with one another. Rome was mostly ruins—but Padua and Verona came under Venetian control, and cities like Florence and Milan (sometimes called the “cradle of capitalism”) flourished under early financial innovations spearheaded by the Medici clan of bankers and politicians. In the cities, politically powerful wealthy elites became patrons of the arts and a luxury class emerged quickly—but social inequality throughout the majority of the country was profound, and most of Italy belonged to the peasant class. Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy—but the play knowingly wags its finger at the warring Capulets and Montagues, wealthy families who can’t look past their own insularity and haughty self-importance to be good to one another, or to allow their children the chance at real love. Shakespeare drew on many poems, novels, and myths in the construction of Romeo and Juliet—but the play also may very well have been a timely critique of Renaissance-era social inequality and the trivial concerns of the upwardly mobile elite.

Other Books Related to Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare drew on many sources—both ancient and contemporaneous with his own era—in the writing of Romeo and Juliet. The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells the story of two Babylonian lovers forbidden from marrying one another by their feuding parents. Pyramus and Thisbe, much like Romeo and Juliet, meet their tragic ends when a miscommunication leads them each to commit suicide upon believing (or realizing) the other is dead. Luigi da Porto, adapting the Pyramus and Thisbe myth while drawing on autobiographical elements of his own life, wrote the story of “Giulietta e Romeo” in 1524—his version of the tale includes warring Italian families whose strife prevents two young lovers from realizing their passion for one another. A 1592 poem by Arthur Brooke called The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet—reportedly translated from an Italian novella by Matteo Bandello—follows the same arc as Shakespeare’s play, but the ending differs in that the nurse, apothecary, and friar are all punished for their involvement in the young lovers’ deaths. Just as Romeo and Juliet represents Shakespeare’s having drawn upon a mélange of previously written texts, the play itself has inspired many new adaptations and retellings of the star-crossed lovers’ story throughout history. Some of the most notable contemporary reimaginings of the tale include young adult novels by Rachael Lippincott (Five Feet Apart) and Sharon M. Draper (Romiette and Julio), as well as West Side Story, a musical by Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim in which the Montagues and Capulets become the Sharks and the Jets, rival gangs on the Upper West Side of 1950s New York.
Key Facts about Romeo and Juliet
  • Full Title: Romeo and Juliet
  • When Written: Likely 1591-1595
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: “Bad quarto” (incomplete manuscript) printed in 1597; Second, more complete quarto printed in 1599; First folio, with clarifications and corrections, printed in 1623
  • Literary Period: Renaissance
  • Genre: Tragic play
  • Setting: Verona, Italy
  • Climax: Mistakenly believing that Juliet is dead, Romeo kills himself on her funeral bier by drinking poison. Juliet wakes up, finds Romeo dead, and fatally stabs herself with his dagger.
  • Antagonist: Capulet, Lady Capulet, Montague, Lady Montague, Tybalt

Extra Credit for Romeo and Juliet

Tourist Trap. Casa di Giulietta, a 12-century villa in Verona, is located just off the Via Capello (the possible origin of the anglicized surname “Capulet”) and has become a major tourist attraction over the years because of its distinctive balcony. The house, purchased by the city of Verona in 1905 from private holdings, has been transformed into a kind of museum dedicated to the history of Romeo and Juliet, where tourists can view set pieces from some of the major film adaptations of the play and even leave letters to their loved ones. Never mind that “the balcony scene,” one of the most famous scenes in English literature, may never have existed—the word “balcony” never appears in the play, and balconies were not an architectural feature of Shakespeare’s England—tourists flock from all over to glimpse Juliet’s famous veranda.

Love Language. While much of Shakespeare’s later work is written in a combination of verse and prose (used mostly to offer distinction between social classes, with nobility speaking in verse and commoners speaking in prose), Romeo and Juliet is notable for its heady blend of poetic forms. The play’s prologue is written in the form of a sonnet, while most of the dialogue adheres strictly to the rhythm of iambic pentameter. Romeo and Juliet alter their cadences when speaking to each another, using more casual, naturalistic speech. When they talk about other potential lovers, such as Rosaline and Paris, their speech is much more formal (to reflect the emotional falsity of those dalliances.) Friar Laurence speaks largely in sermons and aphorisms, while the nurse speaks in blank verse.