The Genesis of Romeo and Juliet

Hello loyal subscribers and first-time readers!

If you’ve read any of my last four posts, hopefully I gave you some insight as to the literary sources of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and a little bit of what Shakespeare accomplished in writing the play, so now I’d like to focus on what was going on when Shakespeare wrote it; what was going on in his own life and his career. Unfortunately, nobody knows when Shakespeare’s company first performed Romeo and Juliet, but since it was published in 1597, it must have been written sometime between 1593, and 1596.

Above- Video Bio of Shakespeare by me!

  • In 1593, Shakespeare was in a bit of a creative slump; all the London theaters were closed down, thanks to an outbreak of Bubonic Plague Shakespeare knew intimately the pain, fear, and heartbreak that plague could bring- At age 7, he saw his sister Anne die in April 4, 1579. Anne Shakespeare was 8 years old.
  • In addition, Shakespeare had gained success from his four English history plays,, but great tragedy had never been his forte. In fact, although he was a commercial success, Shakespeare wasn’t respected much in his own artistic community. In 1592, Robert Greene, a well-known smarty-pants dramatist in 1593, saw that his plays were getting passed over by theatre goers in favor of Shakespeare, who was an uneducated ACTOR!!! This set Greene’s teeth on edge, and he published an insulting pamphlet which slyly satirizes Shakespeare as:
    • Greene's Essay An upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Iohannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey

    -Robert Greene, Greenes, Groats-worth of Witte, Bought With a Nillion Of Repentance (with original spelling) [1592].

More criticism ensued from Shakespeare’s distant relative, a poet and Jesuit missionary named Robert Southwell. Because of his Catholic beliefs, Southwell was an outlaw and a traitor to the Queen, yet he continued to try and convert England back to Catholicism with everything he did and wrote. Somewhere between his secret arrival in England in 1586, and his capture, torture, and execution in 1595, Southwell wrote a dedicatory essay addressed “To my poet cousin, Master W.S,”

the text of the title page is reprinted below:

Worthy Cousin, Poets by abusing their talents and making the follies and fainings of love the subject of their base endeavors, have so discredited this faculty (ability) that a poet, a lover, and a liar are but three words of one signification.

Southwell’s speech strongly echoes the speech Shakespeare gives to Theseus in his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, especially the comment where Theseus claims “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact.” We don’t know how much influence Southwell had on Shakespeare, but in any case, it’s clear that around 1593, Shakespeare was trying to establish himself as a true Renaissance writer, which meant writing great poetry and not just crowd-pleasing histories full of blood and gore.

So Shakespeare had to face two great challenges- to defend his art from his detractors, and to make a living without the theatre in a time of plague. To pay his rent, he took a job writing poetry for the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley (pronounced “Rizely,” left). By all accounts, the Earl was a spoiled, vain pretty- boy who loved patronizing poets. To please Wriothesley, Shakespeare composed two long epic poems, “Venus and Adonis,” and “The Rape Of Lucrece,” classical stories inspired by Shakespeare’s favorite Roman poet, Ovid.

According to The Poetry Foundation, a lot of the themes and language devices Shakespeare employed in these two poems contributed greatly to Romeo and Juliet. Most notably, Shakespeare’s use of the concept of forbidden love, his creation of strong, tragic heroines who conquer their predicaments in their deaths, Shakespeare’s use of paradox to describe impossible situations, and perhaps, in the case of Adonis, a model for the character of Romeo:

it features an innocent hero, Adonis, who encounters a world in which the precepts he has acquired from his education are tested in the surprising school of experience. His knowledge of love, inevitably, is not firsthand (“I have heard it is a life in death, / That laughs and weeps, and all but with a breath.”

(reprinted 8/30/12 from

In these two poems Shakespeare was refining his craft, and examining questions about the nature of love. In Venus and Adonis, the title characters explore love as a giddy romp through the forest, but their relationship ends with a tragic accident when a wild boar kills Adonis. In The Rape Of Lucreece, Shakespeare shows the destructive quality of male desire, and the nobility of self-possessed women. I think that Romeo and Juliet would not have existed without Shakespeare making a meditation on his craft, on the nature of love, and the fragility of human life.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

As you saw from my post last week, Romeo and Juliet wasn’t a new story- it had appeared as a poem in 1587 and in several versions before that. When Shakespeare adapted the story, he used his new-found powers of poetic language to make the story more alive, more beautiful, and to make the characters more complete.

What Did Shakespeare Do Differently With His Version Of the Story?

              • Plot- Generally, Shakespeare keeps the same plot as the poem version of the play, but compresses characters, times, and speeds the action along faster.
                • Shakespeare compresses the story to 5 days, making the love affair even more passionate and volatile.
                • He changes the Capulet’s feast from a Christmas celebration to a summer’s feast, making the time of year hot and dangerous.
                • He makes Juliet 13 instead of 16 as she was in the poem.
                • He makes Peter Capulet’s servant, instead of Romeo’s.
                        • Themes- Shakespeare, more than most poets who have interpreted this story, refuses to put the blame squarely on Romeo and Juliet, which is why he invents thematic devices to put the blame on chance, fate, or possibly an angry God.
                                    • Plague Themes– In the 16th century, plagues were viewed as a consequence of angering God. The fact that Mercutio curses the two warring families with “A plague on both your houses,” suggests that the lover’s deaths was a just punishment from God, or at least a horrible instance of random chance.

                                    Importance of Fate- Romeo and Juliet are first described as “Star-crossed lovers,” which means their destinies are intertwined, and determined by an unlucky star, (like being crossed by a black cat). In addition, Medieval and renaissance poets often invoked the goddess Fortuna, who guides people’s destinies and controls whether they have good fortune or bad fortune. Some said this destiny was written in the stars, as Romeo angrily denounces after he hears of Juliet’s death:

                                    “Is it even so? Then I DEFY you stars!”

                                    Shakespeare uses these thematic devices to make the fates of Romeo and Juliet less clear and more open to interpretation. Without a clear-cut moral, Shakespeare’s audiences could make up their own minds.

                                    The Language Of Romeo and Juliet

                                    • Steven Greenblatt, editor of the Norton Anthology of Shakespeare’s plays, points out the amazing variety of wordplay and language devices in Romeo and Juliet, which Shakespeare employs to allow characters to insult each other (like verbal artillery), to curse, to mock, to impress, and in the case of Romeo and Juliet themselves, “To create a new Heaven and a new Earth” (Norton, 889). Romeo and Juliet are unable to be together due to their feuding families, so through poetic imagery they turn their situation into paradise and turn each other into gods. Romeo turns Juliet into the Sun, the force that sustains all life on Earth, and Juliet asks God to:

                                    Take him and cut him out in little stars,

                                    And he will make the face of heaven so fine

                                    That all the world will be in love with night

                                    And pay no worship to the garish sun (R&J III.i).

                                    • Antithesis-To characterize the powerful and contradictory forces at work in the hearts of the characters, Shakespeare frequently has them speak using antithesis- putting two opposite terms next to each other, such as in the phrase,“Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate, O anything of nothing first create” (R&J, I. i).

                                                • One big way Shakespeare uses antithesis is the repeated imagery of night and day. Night stands for beauty, danger, love, and hidden love, as in the example from Act III above, and from the phrase: “I have night’s cloak to hide them from my eyes,” from the Balcony Scene. Day on the other hand, is associated with fighting, unpleasantness, and rudeness, like in the example above, where Juliet describes the Sun as “garish” or rude. In fact, the first time the word “day” is used in the play, Shakespeare follows it with the rhyme, “fray,” which immediately sets up how the day means hotblooded violence.
                                                  • One final example occurs in Act IV, Scene v, where Romeo has slipped into Juliet’s bedroom during the night, where Romeo laments how, as it comes closer to day time, the time for him to leave draws near:
                                                  • JULIET: O, now be gone; more light and light it grows.
                                                    ROMEO More light and light; more dark and dark our woes!
                                                  • I could go on talking about Shakespeare’s literary devices, but the important thing is that, to establish himself as a great Rennaisance poet, Shakespeare put his love of language in this play more than he had ever done before, and it shows in every line.

                                                What was the first performance like?

                                                • Above is the trailer for a production of Romeo and Juliet at the re-built Globe Theatre in 1999, which illustrates how this production relied thoroughly on the imagination of the audience.
                                                • Just like us at Open Air Shakespeare NRV, the first production of Romeo and Juliet was outdoors during the afternoon, (we know from the records of the time that plays took place about 2PM most of the time).
                                                • There were minimal props and scenery, no lighting and few sound effects, and the actors were able to talk directly to the audience.

                                                The Globe Theatre Panorama

                                                • Another important thing about Elizabethan performance is the multiple levels of the audience. As you can see, audience members can stand on a semi-circle around the stage. These audience members were called “groundlings,” and they paid a penny to stand through the show. For another penny, audience members sat on wooden planks like the people in the foregrounds. The upper galleries were a little less expensive, since they were further away from the stage, and the most expensive seats of all were The Lord’s Rooms (far right just below the roof of the stage). The Lord’s Rooms allowed wealthy patrons to be seen by everyone in the house, showing off their aristocratic status. The Lord’s Rooms also doubled as a musicians gallery, and also as Juliet’s balcony, as you can see in this video
                                                • The backstage facade area that the actors went through for costume changes was called the Tiring House, where at the end of the play, they would push out Juliet on a stone slab, to represent her tomb.
                                                • Since the Globe Theatre wasn’t built until 1599, Romeo and Juliet was not originally performed there. You can see a contemporary sketch of The Swan, Shakespeare’s first theatre, by clicking here:

                                                Success for Shakespeare

                                                • Without question, Romeo and Juliet was popular in Shakespeare’s lifetime;
                                                • It was printed in 1597, two more times during Shakespeare’s lifetime, then it was printed four more times between 1622, and 1637. It would probably have continued printing continuously till this day, if not for the Puritans abolishing theater in 1642.
                                                • The same year Shakespeare first performed the play, we know he became a shareholder in the Chamberlain’s Men, which meant he not only got a salary for writing and performing, he also got a share in the profits.
                                                • Critics praised Shakespeare’s poetry, calling him “The poet of the heart-robbing line.”

                                                So, to sum up, Shakespeare composed this masterpiece during a very turbulent time- he was unable to act, the theaters were closed. He was no doubt afraid of being killed by the plague, and all the while he was being plagued by critics. When he wrote the play, he expanded his art and craft to a new and unheard of degree, ensuring his place in history as the finest dramatist in the English-speaking world. It was truly a labor of love.
                                                – Shakespearean Student

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