Historical Context in Romeo and Juliet
Shakespeare based the story of Romeo and Juliet on “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet,” a narrative poem written by Arthur Brooke in 1562. Brooke’s poem was, in turn, adapted from a novella by Matteo Bandello, making Romeo and Juliet one of four Shakespeare plays based on Bandello’s work (Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Cymbeline). Bandello adapted the story from Luigi da Porto’s 1524 novella Giulietta e Romeo, which was adapted from a 15th century play by Masuccio Salernitano. The literary history of the Montague and Capulet families goes back to the Divine Comedy, in which Dante condemns the “Montecchi” and the “Cappelletti” families for feuding and disrupting the peace. The events of the story are also generally dated to beginning of the 14th century when Dante was writing. Though Romeo and Juliet was first published in 1623, Shakespeare likely wrote and produced the play in the early 1590s.
Historical Context Examples in Romeo and Juliet:
The Prologue 1
"Chorus..." See in text (The Prologue)
In Greek tragedy, a chorus was a group of actors that would comment on or interpret the main action of the play for the audience. They usually did so by speaking and moving together. In the Early Modern period, this role was reduced to a single actor who would deliver the prologue and epilogue to a play. The presence of a chorus at the beginning of the play establishes a connection between the audience and the players on stage and commands them to pay attention to the story.
Act I - Scene I 5
"this humour prove..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Montague describes common characteristics associated with love sickness. Love sickness was a commonly accepted malady in Shakespeare's time that would infect lovers who experienced unrequited love. It was believed to be a serious illness that could lead to serious health issues, even death.
"bite my thumb..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
In Shakespeare's time this was a serious insult, similar to showing someone your middle finger in modern times. While Gregory threatened to frown, Sampson escalates the insult towards the Montagues. Here we see not only the intensity of the hatred between the two families but also the competition among kinsmen that continuously escalates the feud.
"Draw thy tool..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Penis jokes were common in the theater of Shakespeare's time. Notice that the penis and the sword here are conflated. Shakespeare begins his play showing the intense hatred between the two houses in this feud. Notice that the feud is discussed using sexual organs and sexual violence. This clownish word play begins to introduce a main theme explored in this play about how love and violence problematically exist in the same space and influence each other.
"take the wall ..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Elizabethan streets sloped down away from the wall towards a central canal where refuse flowed. Socially superior members of society would walk against the wall where it was safer and cleaner. With this assertion, Sampson claims that he is socially superior to the Montagues. There is also a violent sexual innuendo that implies raping the men and women of the Montague clan as a woman's virginity was referred to as the "wall."
"carry coals...." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
"Carry coals" was a popular phrase used by dramatists in Shakespeare's time that meant to put up with insults. Coal carriers were considered menial workers, meaning that calling someone a coal carrier was a way of insulting their social status.
Act I - Scene II 1
"nets..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Shakespeare often uses minor servant characters to provide comic relief and poke fun at both upper and lower classes. The servant assigns the wrong tasks to each tradesman (ie. a fisher meddling with a pencil rather than a fishing net) because he cannot read. He has been given a task that is above his abilities because Capulet, a representative of the upper class, overestimated him. This would have been funny to Shakespeare's audiences.
Act I - Scene III 1
"I can tell her age unto an hour...." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
The Nurse asserts her knowledge of and close relationship with Juliet. Most wealthy women would give birth then give their child to a nurse or governess to raise. The Nurse has acted as Juliet more than Juliet's mother; however, as her mother, Lady Capulet still has power and control over Juliet's life. Notice how the Nurse asserts her importance and closeness with Juliet throughout this scene.
Act I - Scene IV 4
" Queen Mab..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
This is the first reference to Queen Mab in English literature. She is a fairy that originated in Irish legends and was once the Queen of all fairies. Under her reign, Kings ruled with the support of the fairy kingdom and left out honey and cakes for fairies. However, when she was dethroned by her son Oberon (who is a main character in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream) humans stopped believing in fairies. Mercutio's famous speech establishes him as a fanciful character.
"dun..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
"Dun" refers to a dark or gloomy color. But it also occurs in a then common phrase "dun is in the mire," in which dun means horse. This colloquial phrase was used to say that something was at a stand-still or dead-lock. Mercutio invokes this saying in order to contradict Romeo's outlook: even if the "dun is in the mire" and the situation is hopelessly at a stand-still, Mercutio and Benvolio are determined to pull him out of the "mire," metaphorically his lovesick, gloomy disposition.
"prolixity..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
"Prolixity" means longwinded or wordy spoken or written language. It was custom in this time period to send a messenger ahead of one's party if they were going to show up in masks and wished to remain anonymous. The messenger was supposed to beg apology from the host with rhetoric. Romeo asks if they should send this messenger, and Benvolio tells him that such formalities are now out of date.
"Maskers; Torchbearers..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
"Maskers" are people on their way to a masquerade, or party in which all participants wear masks. "Torchbearers" were needed at night so that people could see their way through the streets before street lamps existed. While these men are marked Maskers and Torchbearers they can be considered part of Romeo's party on their way to the Capulet's ball.
Act II - Scene II 1
"vestal livery..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
A "vestal livery" is the outfit worn by virgins who serve Diana. The "sick and green" to which Romeo refers is the green sickness, or virgin sickness. It was believed in Shakespeare's time that a girl going through puberty suffered from anemia and could only be cured of this disease if they were relieved of their virginity. Here Romeo chastises Diana's virgin outfit and thus makes an argument against Juliet's virginity.
Act II - Scene IV 7
" if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am done; for thou hast more of the wild goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five. ..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Mercutio compares the rapid fire banter he has just shared with Romeo to a "wild-goose chase." This was a game in which a horseman would perform complicated maneuvers in rapid succession, much like the verbal tumbling tricks within the banter of these lines. The game was named after the erratic flight patterns of wild geese who blindly follow a single leader. While the phrase has come to mean the pursuit of an impossible or illusory goal, Mercutio uses the phrase to refer to the task's difficulty and rapidity here. Mercutio's lines are our first record of this now common colloquial phrase, though its presence in this play suggests that the game it refers to or its function as a colloquial phrase predated Shakespeare's writing it down.
"Thisbe..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Pyramus and Thisbe is a myth from Ovid's Metamorphosis about two tragic lovers separated by a wall in Bablyon. Pyramus and Thisbe fall in love but are forbidden to wed because of their parent's rivalry. They whisper to each other through a crack in the wall and arrange to meet in front of Ninus' tomb. Thisbe arrives first and runs away when she comes across a lion, dropping her scarf as she runs. Pyramus sees her scarf and the lion, assumes that Thisbe has died and impales himself on his sword. When Thisbe returns, her grief over Pyramus's death causes her to kill herself with the same sword.
"Hero ..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Hero and Leander is a Greek myth in which Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, falls in love with Leander, a young man from Egypt. Hero lives in a tower across a straight from Leander. Every night she lights a lamp to guide Leander as he swims across the water so that they can make love every night. One night a terrible storm blows out Hero's light, Leander loses his way and drowns. Hero then throws herself from the tower to join her lover in the afterlife.
"Helen..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world and the wife of Sparta's King Menelaus. Paris, the Prince of Troy, finds Helen so beautiful that he kidnaps her to take her as his own. This kidnapping caused the Trojan War.
"Cleopatra..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Cleopatra was the queen of the ancient Egyptians. Mark Anthony, an important administrator of Rome's government during this time, fell in love with Cleopatra and neglected his duties to his state. Anthony and Cleopatra wage war against Octavius, the Roman ruler, to claim Egypt as their own. Anthony is tricked into killing himself when told Cleopatra is dead and Cleopatra commits suicide after being captured by the Romans and told her lover is dead.
"Dido ..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
In Vrigil's Aeneid, Dido is the queen of Carthage. Aeneas, the Trojan hero and protagonist of Virgil's story, gets derailed from his quest to found Rome when he falls in love with Dido. When he resumes his mission and desserts his lover, Dido kills herself.
"Laura,..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Laura was the woman about whom Petrarch wrote. Petrarch was the inventor of the sonnet, a fourteen line love poem with a strict rhyme scheme. Laura represents the quintessential love object and the beginning of the unrequited love poetry tradition.
Act II - Scene VI 1
" thank thee,..." See in text (Act II - Scene VI)
By this, the Friar means "greet you." In Elizabethan England, it was customary for two people to kiss each other upon greeting. Here the Friar allows Romeo to kiss Juliet hello on his behalf.
Act III - Scene I 1
"O, I am fortune's fool!..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Fortune was a medieval and Early Modern concept that explained sudden reversals in luck on all levels of society, such as loss of money or fatal sickness. Here, Romeo invokes this common image in order to show that he is a victim of the indifferent Lady Fortune and that his bright future has suddenly disappeared. However, "fool" also suggests that Romeo recognizes that his future was taken from him because he allowed himself to be tricked by Fortune.
Act III - Scene II 2
"cockatrice..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
This is another name for the mythological creature the basilisk. Anyone who looks a basilisk directly in the eyes turns into stone. In this metaphor, Juliet claims that the Nurse's confirmation of Romeo's death would be able to kill faster than the basilisk's stare.
"Phaeton..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Phaeton was Phoebus's son who was allowed to drive the chariot carrying the sun when he requested proof of his father's power. However, Phaeton cannot control the horses, and Zeus strikes him down in order to protect the Earth from the sun.
Act IV - Scene I 1
"humour..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
The theory of the four humors was a medieval and Early Modern medical understanding of the human body. It proposed that one's emotions, ailments, and personality were controlled by four "humors" - blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm - and an excess or lack of any one would cause extreme moods or disease. The Priest references this theory in order to offer an explanation how this potion will make Juliet appear to be dead.
Act IV - Scene III 1
"stifled in the vault..." See in text (Act IV - Scene III)
In Shakespeare's time, rich families like the Capulets would be buried in a crypt or mausoleum. A crypt is a cavernous vault or chamber below a church while a mausoleum is a large room build above ground in a grave yard. Bodies would be placed in a crypt or mausoleum instead of burying them in a coffin. This is why Juliet can fake her death without the fear of being buried alive. Instead, her fear is waking up surrounded by the copses of her dead ancestors before Romeo can reach her.
Act V - Scene I 2
"show..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Notice how Shakespeare creates a setting using Romeo's dialogue. In Shakespeare's theater, there were few to no set decorations or props used in plays so playwrights had to work the setting into the lines and stage direction.
"stars..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
In astrology, stars were thought to control someone's fate. Here, Romeo curses the stars in order to curse his own destiny and recalls the label "star-crossed lovers" that the Prologue assigned to Romeo and Juliet.
Act V - Scene II 2
"pestilence ..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
The pestilence, also known as the Black Plague, was an extremely deadly pandemic that spread throughout Europe and Asia between 1346 and 1353. It is estimated that the disease killed about 60% of Europe's population. Due to a lack of medical knowledge at the time, quarantines, such as the one Friar John is talking about, were considered the most effective method of prevention.
"barefoot brother..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
A "barefoot brother" refers to a member of the Franciscan Friars, Friar John's religious order. Franciscan Friars were known for their extreme religious fervor and commitment to poverty. The "barefoot" that characterizes the friar is a reference to his poverty.