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Free Study Guide-Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare-Free Summary
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LITERARY/HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

The Date and Source of the Play

Romeo and Juliet is one of the early plays of Shakespeare. It was probably written in 1594 or 1595, for it is similar in language to A Midsummer’s Night Dream and Richard II. Some scholars, however, date the drama to 1591, for there is a reference made by the nurse in the play to an earthquake that happened eleven years earlier. The actual earthquake in Italy occurred in 1580. The majority of scholars today place the play after 1594.

Shakespeare drew most of his plots from European stories that had been translated into English. Romeo and Juliet was probably based on an Italian romance.

Time Of Action

There is no clear indication within the play of the time setting, but it seems to be around 1200 or 1300. In history, rival noble houses existed within that time frame, and their actions disturbed the local peace. People were divided, and a lot of jealousy and tyranny existed. In the play wealth, culture, rivalry, and enmity are all displayed, reflecting this historical time frame.


The time that passes within the play is very clear. Only five days go by from the opening street fight to the death of Romeo and Juliet. On Sunday morning, the brawl in the town square occurs; that same night Romeo meets Juliet at the Capulet feast, and they declare their love for one another. On Monday afternoon, Friar Lawrence marries the couple; later in the day, Romeo kills Tybalt. On Tuesday, Romeo flees from Verona to Mantua, the Capulets announce Juliet’s engagement to Paris, and she drinks the magic potion that makes her appear to be dead. On Wednesday, Juliet’s body is discovered and taken to the Capulet tomb. On Thursday, Romeo hears of Juliet’s death, hastens back to Verona, and commits suicide in her tomb. When Juliet awakens later in the day and finds him dead, she stabs herself. The play ends on Friday morning.

The Elizabethan Stage

Drama was the prime means of public entertainment during Shakespeare’s time. Traveling actors went around the country and were hired by those who wanted their services. In larger cities, such as London, permanent acting groups were formed and attached to a single theater, such as the “Globe”, the “Curtain”, or the “Fortune”. Shakespeare’s company owned the “Globe”, which was an open-air theater. Since there were no artificial lights, plays were staged in the afternoon. The stage jutted out into the audience, and the “groundlings” stood nearby to watch the action. Other spectators paid higher prices to sit in the galleries and watch the play.

There were three openings at the back of the stage, one in the center and one on each side. A thick curtain hid the openings. The stage-floor also had one or more trap doors, useful for the speedy disappearance or re-appearance of characters, especially ghosts. Above the stage was a balcony, usually used for love scenes. There was no stage scenery although props were widely used. Black stage hangings were used to set the mood for tragic plays, and colorful curtains were used for comedies.

Actors on the Shakespearean stage were often youths. Boys with high-pitched voices were trained to play women’s parts, since females were not allowed on the stage.

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