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Romeo and Juliet | Context

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The World of the Renaissance

Romeo and Juliet was performed during the Renaissance, a time of considerable cultural, religious, political, scientific, and artistic change across Europe. The movement centered on the concept of humanism, which sought to use education to empower citizens—and not just their rulers—to be virtuous and to influence others' virtue.

Shakespeare's audiences lived within a strong patriarchal, or male-controlled, community with strict moral values that often conflicted with the individual's wills and desires. The patriarchal structure meant that the father was the lord of his household with legal authority over everyone in it. Children were considered property and were often given in marriage as part of a political or financial transaction. Indeed, Lord Capulet's arrangement with Paris is partially a business deal in which the marriage will enhance both men's prestige.

Women, whether wife, mother, daughter, or servant, were powerless outside of their household roles. The roles of female characters in Romeo and Juliet reflect the boundaries of their historical setting. Lady Capulet's influence, for example, is restricted to how much she can affect her husband's thoughts and behaviors. Lady Montague has little visible impact and dies parenthetically offstage in the final act. Her character can be seen as a comment on the powerlessness of women. A young daughter like Juliet, her family's wealth and prestige notwithstanding, would have had no direct authority over others and only minimal control of her own life.

Renaissance Theater

Renaissance theaters drew enthusiastic audiences from across economic classes and social status, from peasant to royalty, all of whom saw themselves exposed—and sometimes ridiculed—in Shakespeare's dramas. The theaters gave playwrights and actors the opportunity to critique social and political realities by embedding them in entertainment. Romeo and Juliet, one of the first plays to combine tragedy and comedy, delivers some astute criticisms of authority and abuses of power as it engages, even distracts, its audience with suspense, romance, and violence.

Theater mostly took place in open-air spaces. A simple platform stage was surrounded by a multiple-story structure with seats. A roof supported by pillars usually protected at least part of the stage. These were simple venues without artificial lights and with minimal props and sets, so the play's language had to evoke in the imaginations of the audience much of the detail that modern theatergoers are used to seeing onstage. Shakespeare's extraordinary poetry made it possible for the audience to visualize Juliet's incomparable beauty, for example, even when her part was played by a boy. Women were not allowed to act in Shakespeare's day, so males played all female roles.

Influence

Shakespeare's play has been published in different versions. An unauthorized edition, called the first quarto and probably pirated, was published in 1597. Two years later a longer version, the second quarto, was published. It is considered a more accurate text and was used as the basis for Romeo and Juliet in the First Folio, the first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays, published in 1623.

Romeo and Juliet is so widely known and well loved that the two doomed lovers have become an archetype, or recurring symbol. Even in the early 21st century, when young lovers face obstacles to their happiness, they are often likened to Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet has also been reenacted in other art forms, such as a ballet by Sergei Prokofiev and an opera by Charles Gounod.

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