Romeo and Juliet is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s famous plays that has influenced us for centuries. Williams Shakespeare’s talent for instilling passion in an audience via words and action is aided by the way in which he presented and developed his characters. Exterior influences shaped his work due to the societal attitudes and effects that events would have on the audience at the time. Italy, as we know it, was a major influence on the formation of this tragedy, as many of its communities were divided, with concordant views from that of the Catholic Church. Verona, in which the play is set, held this view in particular and, as such, it seems that Romeo and Juliet ‘attacks’ this religious sect, which is largely evident due to the interwoven theme of religion. Italian influences also include the source that Shakespeare is likely to have used: “Giulietta e Romeo”, which is a novel written by an Italian author, Matteo Bandello, in 1554.
Although Shakespeare’s portrayal of Verona is a patriarchal society, it is clear that the women have some state of control, even if it is not immediate obvious. For example, when Romeo is moping due to his unrequited love for Rosaline, at the beginning of the play, that gives her a certain strength in that she is controlling his emotions, all be it passively. This shows a slight dominance of the women over men, which is very much a subversive attitude towards the patriarchal society that has already been made obvious to the audience. However, it is this irony that makes Romeo and Juliet so effective. Shakespeare’s use of juxtaposition and cynicism accentuates the serious matters at hand. For example, the meeting of Romeo and Juliet is incongruous with Tybalt’s rage. However, this gives the effect that is pleasing to an audience.
Following the prologue, the opening of the play also depicts the feud between the two families, Capulet and Montague, which shows the intensity of the rivalry. It also demonstrates the loyalty of the servants to either the Montague or Capulet house. Samson, defending the Montagues, and Gregory, a servant of the Capulets meet, and Sampson first says, “Gregory, on my word, we’ll not carry coals” to which Gregory replies, “No, for then we would be colliers.” This is an example of Shakespeare’s utilisation of ambiguity and metaphor. It helps to introduce the audience to the feuding families while sustaining the vivacity of the younger generation.
Samson’s line would have been viewed as an insult in Shakespeare’s time, though it does not present the same effect in today’s society. To “carry coals” may mean “to tolerate insults” from the opposing family, though it is counteracted by Gregory in order to create atmosphere. Later in this scene, Gregory states, “The quarrel is between our masters, and us, their men,”. It seems that he has specified that they are men, as women are not involved in the active fighting between the families. This then presents the difference in gender roles. They then go on to make inappropriate sexual references that imply the women are inferior to the dominance and physical superiority of the male members of society. This would have been a lot more shocking during this time, due to the blunt suggestion of it, whereas today it may resonate less due to modern media and attitudes towards sex and virginity, stemming from religious beliefs.
Shakespeare’s views on women and how he portrayed them ay be due to the fact that he was brought up in a rural area and had a close relationship with his mother, who taught him, as she was sufficiently educated to do so. This may have influenced the women’s air of authority that he portrayed in Romeo and Juliet in a subtle way, as this is the way he saw his mother. This close relationship may also have allowed him to understand how women think and feel, which is of key importance in the way he described them in his plays as it is a hallmark of his writing.
Another trait of Shakespeare is his profuse use of themes (the main of which being light, love and destiny). Abstract references to the topics are interwoven into conversation and action, while being distributed throughout the scenes. Romeo and Juliet often compare each other to light, which gives it a positive definition. However, in one scene, it becomes the source of negativity for it means the parting of the two lovers at dawn, after Romeo spends the night at the Capulet mansion with Juliet:
“…the herald of the morn… Look, love, what envious streaks do lace the severing clouds in yonder east. Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands … I must be gone and live, or stay and die.”
This inconsistency, in the use of the theme, helps to make the reference more surprising and ironic in the plot, which would have been exciting for the Elizabethan crowd. Other social and historical issues would have affected the way in which the play would have been received. For example, during Shakespeare’s time, the Puritans closed the theatres, as they believed all forms of enjoyment to be sinful. Many people were religious at the time and sin was blamed for all problems at the time. Therefore, religion is also a major theme in the play, though the characters contradict this with their views of each other – they do not display agapeic attitudes at all times! The generational feud between the Capulets and the Montagues is perpetuated by the older family members, who are concerned about the reputation of their individual houses.
They begrudge one another, which is the main source of influence for the youths of Verona. Despite this, it is made clear by Romeo and Juliet that the younger generations do not necessarily want this vendetta to continue. However, the adults, males in particular, tend to like to be in control. For example, Lord Capulet. Nonetheless, he is outwitted by Juliet, who uses language to her own advantage. This fuels the anger that her father displays in Act 3 Scene 5, when he and Lady Capulet speak to Juliet about the marriage to Paris. Although the younger generation give the impression that they’re taking the advice of their elders, they’re the only ones in control of their own actions. Juliet fools her parents, though she speaks to them with respect, though perhaps she is being sarcastic.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of family life is very accurate to his day. The father is the dominant household member and, as such, he has dominion over his daughter and, most often, his wife. Lord Capulet is featured as being detached, tempestuous and almost regal. He seems to be in control during the scenes in which he is featured, however, on closer analysis it is clear that perhaps he is insecure about losing this power. He exerts himself as though he is being challenged when Tybalt spots Romeo at the Capulet party. Surely if he is in charge then he can deal with his nephew while remaining calm? He only has a daughter, so maybe it is possible that he is concerned about whom his successor (as head of the Capulet family) will be. If it most likely to be Tybalt then Lord Capulet is teaching him how to control his emotions in the party scene.
Depending on his mood, Lord Capulet adjusts his language accordingly. In Act 1 Scene 5, (the Capulet party scene) he appears to be friendly and well-spoken in front of his guests. Though conversely, in Act 3 Scene 5 (when the Lord and Lady propose that Juliet marries Paris) he reveals a callous attitude, especially towards his daughter, and refers to her as “baggage”. This emphasises the fact that he sees her as a burden and an inconvenience. He also, as he becomes tenser, uses the imperative voice as an order for her disobedience. He lists a staccato multitude of questions when Lady Capulet reports the news that Juliet is uninterested in the proposal, which is quite a contrast with the extended metaphor he expresses prior to this. This shows how, often, the older generations are represented as being in control of the younger, though Romeo and Juliet contradict this. They appear to be obeying their parents, but they are the only ones in control of their situation. This is parallel to the idea of women having a particular dominance in society, as it presents the irony of the manipulation of characters and situations, despite what may be initially apparent.
Lord Capulet’s attitude and behaviour encourages the gap between his own and the younger generation (e.g. his daughter, Juliet). However, Lord Capulet can empathise with his daughter for marrying young, as Lady Capulet was married to him at an early age. He says, “and too soon marred are those so early made”, which shows that he fears his daughter will suffer the same distance from her partner that he suffers from his. However, it is he that arranges the marriage to Paris, who requests Juliet’s hand.
Shakespeare’s personal life is reflected in areas of the play, for example, his marriage to Anne Hathaway. She was eight years his senior when they married, which may be paralleled by Romeo’s love for a Capulet, for it would have been unusual for a man of 18 to marry an older woman, much like it was for a Montague to marry the “opposing” family. The Shakespeare pair married before a three week engagement, which was common practice for the time, although it may have been due to the fact that Anne was pregnant. This may also be another factor included in Romeo and Juliet, for they experience a hasty marriage.
Despite the seemingly different attitudes of the older and younger generations, there are certain elements that imply willingness to empathise with the opposite age group. For example, Lady Capulet answers her husband when he questions her about Juliet’s reaction to their proposal with a comment, which may be an example of dramatic irony: “Ay, sir, but she will none, she gives you thanks. I would the fool were married to her grave”. She is trying to illustrate to her husband that if Juliet will not marry then she might as well be dead. It is ironic how this older generation keep the roles that they are meant to follow in society (i.e. the gender positions) and, although the younger do not, they have a happier marriage. Lord Capulet seems distant from his wife, who is much younger than him. Therefore, Lady Capulet might have to seem as though she supports his decision, even if she does not, which may be the case due to the fact that she married young and does not wish the same for Juliet.
Another factor that affected the way in which the play may have been received was the staging. In Shakespeare’s theatres it would have been according to the taste of the Elizabethan crowd. Obviously, this will have been quite diverse from today and the aims of the dialogue itself may have corresponded more to the lives of those in Shakespeare’s time. For example, the colour and style of costumes had a detailed sense of connection between this and human experience in that these factors connoted the general personality of the character. Also, Elizabethan audiences will have loved wit, puzzles and clever jokes, which are provided by Mercutio, due to his gregarious attitude and behaviour. Some of the jokes, however, are not as relevant today. This is why it may be argued that Shakespearean texts are not as applicable to today’s society – though this is debatable.
Throughout the scene in which Juliet and her parent are discussing her marriage, the staging issues would have had a huge impact on making it an effectual part. The scene is set in Juliet’s room, so by positioning her away from the bed and window it shows that she is away from safety and escape, due to the attitude that her parents are displaying, due to her refusal to marry Paris. In the scene, there are several separations due to age, gender and class (as the nurse is also present). These may be represented by the costumes, e.g. the women wear subdued clothing, while Lord Capulet sports a bolder colour to show the presence of his masculinity.
Despite this, Juliet may also be dressed with a hint of colour to show her rebellious nature. Conversely, her costume might feature two colours, with a clear separation to show the two sides to her personality that are often portrayed, particularly when she is alone. For example, she speaks of a personification of fortune in the prelude to the scene, which shows her “alter ego” that she also uses to “mock” her parents. She says, “Madam, I am not well”, in regard to Tybalt’s death and her separation from her husband, though this is not made immediately obvious to her mother as it is to the audience, who know the events preceding this dialogue.
Despite the generational gap between Juliet and her mother, it is made evident that they are on some par of understanding, though Lady Capulet is suppressed by her husband’s judgement. She seems anxious about her husband’s reaction to Juliet’s refusal and thus tries to persuade her daughter before she has even responded to the news, as Lady Capulet seems to know how Juliet will react anyway. Her description of Paris as a “gallant, young and noble gentleman” suggests this, as she may also be feeling empathetic towards Juliet due to her experience of young marriage.
Metaphoric props may be utilised onstage in order to represent ulterior factors in the text, such as the loss of hope for Juliet. This may be represented by a veil-like curtain shrouding her window, which would be used to signify the fact that the anticipated marriage to Paris (i.e. the veil) is ruining her happiness and desire (i.e. the clear window) The use of pathetic fallacy would also be appropriate for representing the mood inside the Capulet household especially after Lord Capulet’s “stormy” entrance. However, in comparison to his attitude at the party, it becomes obvious that he is very much concerned with the reputation of the Capulet house, more so, at least, than the younger generation e.g. Tybalt, who is intent on attacking Romeo when he becomes aware of his presence at the party. Ironically, due to his purpose of avoiding trouble, Lord Capulet is, in fact controlling his daughter’s fate, as she is meeting Romeo while the Lord bickers with Tybalt! Lighting could be used to represent the mood of the characters and help the audience visualise the contrast between these two events that are significant in the development of the play.
In conclusion, I feel that the use of contrast and irony aids the effect of the events that unravel in this Shakespearean piece. The generational separation shows a parallel to some of the issues in contemporary society, though in a differing senses, which helps it to appeal to a modern audience, despite some factors, which would endear it more to the audience Shakespeare designed it for.