The Fashion Is the Fashion 4: The Journey of Romeo and Juliet

I’ve seen four live productions of Romeo and Juliet, (5 if you include West Side Story). I’ve also watched four films (6 if you include West Side Story and Gnomio and Juliet) and one thing that I’ve noticed again and again, and again is that you can tell the whole story of the play with clothing. This is a story about families who are part of opposite factions whose children secretly meet, marry, die, and fuse the families into one, and their clothes can show each step of that journey.

The feud
Nearly every story about a conflict or war uses contrasting colors to show the different factions. Sometimes even real wars become famous for the clothes of the opposing armies. The Revolutionary War between the redcoats and the blue and gold Continentals, the American Civil War between the Rebel Grays and the Yankee Bluebellies. In almost every production I’ve ever seen, the feud in Romeo and Juliet is also demonstrated by the opposing factions wearing distinctive clothing.

Guelphs and Ghibellines - Wikipedia


Historically, warring factions in Itally during the period the original Romeo and Juliet is set, wore distinctive clothes and banners as well. . In this medieval drawing, you can see Italians in the Ghibelline faction, who were loyal to the Holy Roman Empire, fighting the Guelph faction (red cross), who supported the Pope. Powerful families were constantly fighting and taking sides in the Guelf vs. ghibelines conflict in Verona, which might have inspired the Capulet Montegue feud in Romeo and Juliet.


Even the servants of the nobles got roped into these conflicts, and they literally wore their loyalties on their sleeves. The servants wore a kind of uniform or livery to show what household they belonged to. The servants Gregory and Sampson owe their jobs to Lord Capulet, and are willing to fight to protect his honor. Perhaps Shakespeare started the play with these servants to make this distinction very obvious. Here’s a short overview on Italian Liveries from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/86582


In 1966, director Franco Zepherelli set a trend with his iconic use of color in his movie. He chose to make the Capulets wear warm tones while the Montegues wore blue and silver. Juliet (Olivia Hussey) wore a gorgeous red dress that made her look youthful, passionate, and lovely, while Tybalt (Michael York), wore red, orange, and black to emphasize his anger, and jealousy (which has been associated for centuries with the color orange). By contrast, the Montagues like Romeo (Leonard Whiting) wore blue, making him look peaceful and cool. These color choices not only clearly indicate who belongs to which contrasting factions, but also help telegraph the character’s personalities. Look at the way these costumes make the two lovers stand out even when they’re surrounded by people at the Capulet ball:

Dance scene from the iconic 1968 film of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Franco Zeffirelli.
Gnomeo & Juliet - Wikipedia


Zepherilli’s color choices were most blatantly exploited in the kids film Gnomio and Juliet, where they did away with the names Capulet and Montegue altogether, and just called the two groups of gnomes the Reds and the Blues.

The Dance


To get Romeo and Juliet to meet and fall in love, Shakespeare gives them a dance scene for them to meet and fall in love. He further makes it clear that when they first meet, Romeo is in disguise. The original source Shakespeare used made the dance a carnival ball, (which even today is celebrated in Italy with masks). Most productions today have Romeo wearing a mask or some other costume so that he is not easily recognizable as a Montague. Masks are a big part of Italian culture, especially in Venice during Carnival:


In the 1996 movie, Baz Luhrman creates a bacchanal costume party, where nobody wears masks but the costumes help telegraph important character points. Mercutio is dressed in drag, which not only displays his vibrant personality but also conveniently distracts everyone from the fact that Romeo is at the Capulet party with no mask on.


Capulet is dressed like a Roman emperor, which emphasizes his role as the patriarch of the Capulet family. Juliet (Claire Danes) is dressed as an angel, to emphasize the celestial imagery Shakespeare uses to describe her. Finally, Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) is dressed as a crusader knight because of the dialogue in the play when he first meets Juliet:

Romeo. [To JULIET] If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:720
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Juliet. Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,725
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
Romeo. Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet. Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
Romeo. O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.730
Juliet. Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
Romeo. Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.
Juliet. Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Romeo. Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!735
Give me my sin again.
Juliet. You kiss by the book. Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene V, Lines 719-737.

Notice that Romeo calls Juliet a saint, and later an angel in the famous balcony scene, which explains her costume at the ball. Juliet refers to Romoe as a Pilgrim, which is a cheeky comment on his crusader knight costume. In the Crusades, crusader knights made pilgrimages to the holy land, with the hope that God (and presumably, his angels) would forgive their sins. Romeo’s name even means “Pilgrim.” Luhrman makes clever nods to Shakespeare’s text by dressing Romeo and Juliet in this way, and gives the dialogue a bit of a playful roleplay as the characters make jokes about each other’s costumes- Romeo hopes that he will go on a pilgrimage and that this angel will take his sin with a kiss.


In Gnomio and Juliet, the titular characters meet in a different kind of disguise. Rather than going to a dance with their family, they are both simultaneously trying to sneak into a garden and steal a flower, so they are both wearing black, ninja-inspired outfits. Their black clothing helps them meet and interact without fear of retribution from their parents (since they do not yet know that they are supposed to be enemies. The ninja clothes also establishes that for these two gnomes, love of adventure unites them. Alas though, it doesn’t last; Juliet finds out that Gnomio is a Blue, when they both accidentally fall in a pool, stripping their warpaint off and revealing who they are.

Trailer for “West Side Story,” (2021) directed by Steven Spielberg.


Sometimes the dance shows a fundamental difference between the lovers and the feuding factions. West Side Story is a 20th-century musical that re-imagines the feuding families as juvenile street gangs, who like their Veronese counterparts, wear contrasting colors. The Jets (who represent the Montagues) wear Blue and yellow, while the Sharks (Capulets), wear red and black. The gang members continue wearing these colors on the night of the high school dance, except for Tony and Maria (the Romeo and Juliet analogs). In most productions I’ve seen, (including the 2021 movie), these young lovers wear white throughout the majority of the play, to emphasize the purity of their feelings, and their rejection of violence. Thus, unlike Shakespeare’s version of the story, West Side Story makes the lovers unquestionably purer are more peaceful than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and their clothing makes this clear.

Romeo (John Warren), meets Juliet (Alesia Lawson) in the 2010 Ashland University production of “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Ric Goodwin.

The Merging of the family
(8:30-11:00)


Costume Designer Charlene in the 2006 AU production deliberately had the characters change clothes when they get married. Juliet was wearing the same iconic red dress as Olivia Hussey for the first two acts of the play but then changed into a pale blue gown that matches Romeo. The clothes re-enforce the idea that the marriage represents Romeo and Juliet abandoning their family’s conflicts, and simply showing their true colors.

Two sets of costumes for Juliet in the 2006 Ashland University Production. Pull the slider bar left to see how Juliet’s costume changes from the start of the show to the end.


Another way of getting everyone in the family to subconsciously unite in grief would be to costume everyone wearing black except Romeo and Juliet. At the end of the play, The Capulets are already mourning Juliet, (because she faked her death in Act IV), and the Montegues are already mourning Lady Montegue (who died offstage). Just by these circumstances, everyone could come onstage wearing black, uniting in their grief, which is further solidified when they see their children dead onstage.

Not all productions choose to costume the characters like warring factions, but nevertheless, any theatrical production’s costumes must telegraph something about the characters. In these production slides for a production I worked on in 2012, the costumes reflect the distinct personality of each character and show a class difference between the Montagues and the Capulets.


The 2013 Film: Costumes Done Badly


The 2013 movie is more concerned with showing off the beauty of the actor’s faces, and the literal jewels than the clothes:

Most of the actors and costumes are literally in the dark for most of the film, probably because the film was financed by the Swarofski Crystal company, who literally wanted the film to sparkle. Ultimately, like most jewelry, I thought the film was pretty to look at, but the costumes and cinematography had little utilitarian value. The costumes and visual didn’t tell the story efficiently, but mainly was designed to distract the audience with the beauty of the sets, costumes and the attractive young actors. The only thing I liked was a subtle choice to make Juliet’s mask reminiscent of Medusa, the monster in Greek Myth, who could turn people to stone with a look. I liked that the film was subtly implying that love, at first sight, can be lethal.

New Outschool Course: Christmas For William Shakespeare

Title card for my new online course, What Was Christmas Like For William Shakespeare?
The goal of this class is to learn about both Shakespeare and the Elizabethan period through the lens of Christmas. I will begin by asking the class "What traditions do you think of when you think of Christmas?  We will then contrast the traditions of Christmas from the 17th century and now, including a brief period when Christmas itself was illegal.

 Once I have contextualized this period, we will then go through the plot, characters, and themes of Shakespeare’s most famous Christmas play- “Twelfth Night.”


Slideshare presentation I made about the play Twelfth Night
The class will include videos, multimedia presentations, virtual tours, interactive quizzes, and online activities. The students will play games inspired by real Elizabethan Christmas traditions, get some festive recipes, and learn what it was like to be an actor in Shakespeare's company, when they performed "Twelfth Night" and other plays before Queen Elizabeth and King James.

How Accurate Is Hamnet?

“She’s got…it, hasn’t she? The pestilence?” (O’Farrell, 105).
As this quote, (and the subtitle) suggests, Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet: A Novel About the Plague, focuses on the terror surrounding the plague and its devastating consequences on families. I really respect this book for its historical authenticity, it’s clever prose, and O’Farrell’s command of style, but I should warn you that this novel is definitely not for breezy summer reading.

If you are looking for a novel about William Shakespeare, this isn’t it; the Bard only appears in flashbacks. The action mainly concerns his wife and children. While Will was living and working in London for most of the year, his family lived in Stratford Upon Avon, along with the playwright’s mother and father. The novel has follows the characters across two times: 1582, when Shakespeare and his wife first met, courted and married, and around 1595, during an outbreak of plague that would (Spoiler Alert) eventually claim the life of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet.

Drawing of Shakespeare and his family. Hamlet and Judith are on his right, his other daughter Susanna and his wife Anne are on his left.

The novel has a very dour tone, but that is by design. The author herself writes that the premise of the book was to create a realistic (albeit fictional) account of the Shakespeare family as their only son fell sick and died.

Burial records for the town of Stratford Upon Avon for 1596. On August 11, it records the death of Hamnet Shakespeare, William’s only son

The premise is intriguing from a historical point of view. We have no diaries or correspondence that express how the Shakespeares dealt with this catastrophic loss, but many scholars believe that Shakespeare’s play Hamlet was a direct homage to his son, since in Elizabethan England the names Hamlet and Hamnet were used interchangeably. Still, it must have effected Will in other ways, and it had to have had an effect on Hamnet’s mother and sisters, and that was O’Farrell’s focus when adapting this story as a novel.

I would describe the novel’s tone as ‘haunting,’ which is appropriate since it’s based around how a child’s death effected his family. It reminds me of a passage Shakespeare himself wrote about the death of a young boy in his play King John:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head,
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows' cure! King John Act III, Scene iv.



Like Constance in the quote above,, All the characters in Hamnet are haunted.
[Hamnet is pursued by plague. Will Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway are haunted by their abusive parents. Will’s father John by the loss of his business and social standing, and of course, everyone is haunted by Hamnet’s death.

https://youtu.be/kj240pJPpB8

Artist’s restored version of a Elizabethan woman, believed to be Anne Hathaway.
Lucentio and Bianca (The Taming of the Shrew, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2007)

Although the novel is mainly about Hamnet’s decline and death, my favorite parts of the book are flashbacks to the courtship and marriage of Will Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway. We know nothing about their real courtship, so O’Farrell borrows the plot from Shakespeare’s Taming Of the Shrew. Like Lucentio in Shrew,
The 18 year old William Shakespeare is a Latin tutor, (having not yet become a writer), who woos a misunderstood woman whom the town calls a shrew. In the book, Anne Hathaway is known as Agnes and (like many unmarried women of the period), is looked on as odd and somewhat wild. Many single women of this period would likely face discrimination, and sometimes. In this video, you can see how cunning women like Anne had an uneasy relationship with the local community; some saw them as an asset to the community, but others believed their abilities came from The Devil. For more information on Anne’s life, click here.

The History Guy- Witch Trials in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Anne is further isolated because of her strange abilities- in the book she owns a falcon, not a ladylike hobby for 1580s England. She is also skilled with medicinal plants and knows how to read palms. In essence, though the town ostracizes Anne, Shakespeare admires her cleverness, and the book implies that Shakespeare would later use her skills in characters like Kate from Shrew, Friar Lawrence (the skilled potion master), and maybe even the witches from Macbeth.

The reusing of Shakespeare’s plots doesn’t stop there- Before Anne and Will get married they are handfasted- that is they make a mutual promise to get married in front of witnesses. Anne knows that her family will not consent to their marriage given Shakespeare’s low economic prospects, so she convinces Will to get her pregnant. This mirrors Claudio and Juliet in Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure, who are publicly shamed and arrested for fornication, even though their only crime was not waiting until they had given a dowry to the groom’s parents before consumating the marriage.


One final master stroke of O’Farrel’s historical fictive tapestry is how she engineers the father son conflict between Will Shakespeare and his father John. Shakespeare loves to explore the power dynamic between boys on the cusp of manhood, and their already powerful fathers. In the case of John Shakespeare, O’ Farrell depicts him as a man who has worked, schemed, scammed, and clawed his way to the highest wealth his birth can allow him, but is now falling from grace, who has nothing but contempt for his son who seems like a worthless dreamer, incapable of hard work. This most closely echoes Shakespeare’s Prince Hal and King Henry, a son who must prove his fitness to be king to his father and to his nation. Watch this exchange from “The Hollow Crown” where the sick and aging John of Gaunt (Patrick Stuart), chastises his weak, effeminate nephew, King Richard II:

Historical Notes:

Infant mortality in Elizabethan England:

Even before Hamnet is born, his mother and mother in law are painfully aware that he might die young. Sadly this is very historically accurate. Infant mortality rates were high in Elizabethan England. According to Ian Mortimer in his book The Time Traveler’s Guide To Elizabethan England, mothers had to keep their children at arms length and not get too attached. Being a mother in this time meant dealing with the constant knowledge that your child might not survive:

In Stratford in the 1560s, there are on average, sixty-three children baptized every year- and forty-three children buried.

Mortimer, 27.

John Shakespeare’s fall John Shakespeare was more than a glover- he held a position in the Stratford Guild Hall- basically a city council position. He was in charge of hiring constables, keeping the peace, overseeing the brewing of ale, and approving theatrical entertainments for civic events. Probably John got his son interested in theater by letting him tag along to the sort of private performances he would have watched to determine whether a play or troupe was good enough for, for instance, the visit of a peer. However, by the 1580s, John was losing his business and selling off his land assets. Scholars suspect that either John was a closet Catholic, forced to pay fines every time he failed to attend protestant church, or he was avoiding church and his alderman council meetings because he knew his creditors would be there. In any case, O Farell takes this historical tidbit and turns John Shakespeare into a bitter, broken, abusive man whom Shakespeare can’t wait to get away from. Shakespeare and his wife bond over their abusive parents and dream of succeeding financially so they can get away from their parent’s influence.
Malt and wool The novel hints at John Shakespeare’s secret side business selling wool and malt, but never explicitly states that this practice was illegal. All wool was controlled by the Elizabethan government so it was illegal to sell it without special permission, and in 1570, John Shakespeare was caught selling wool illegally. He was also found guilty of money-lending, hoarding grain, and selling malt. This is why he tells his son to forget the wool he saw in the attic.

An Alderman in his official robe, the same kind John Shakespeare would have worn.

Historical Events Mentioned in Hamnet

  1. 1556 Anne Hathaway born. She’s referred to as Agnes in other court documents. Her father Richard owned a sheep farm in Hewland. At some point, her mother died and her father Richard married a woman named Joan, whom the novel portays as a bitter, controlling witch.

1564– Will Shakespeare born, third of 8 children. His father started out as a local glover, who quickly rose through the ranks of local government to become the mayor of the town. They owned a house in Henley street, which also doubled as the glove workshop. For more informaition on this fascinating building, visit the Shakespeare Birthplace trust: https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/visit/shakespeares-birthplace/

The Shakespeare’s house on Henley Street in Stratford Upon Avon, where Will, his wife, children, and parents lived until 1597.
Recreation of the Shakespeare’s dinner table.


1581– Anne’s father Richard dies,  bequeathing her “£6 13s 4d ‘atte the day of her maryage’.” Richard Hathaway owned a farmhouse in Shottery that still stands today! For more info, please visit the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/visit/shakespeares-birthplace/

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and Gardens, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK. June 2014.
Interior and exterior images of Ann Hathaways cottage, Shottery, Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire.


1582– On November 27th, 1582, William married Anne Hathaway. He was 18, she was 26. It must have been a hasty and stressful situation. Shakespeare had no job, and based on the timeline, Anne was already pregnant with their daughter Susanna. For more information on marriage in the period, please visit my website on Elizabethan society:

The Shakespeares were granted a marriage licence by the Bishop of Worcester. They were married at Temple Grafton, a village approximately five miles (8 km) from Stratford.

Notes On Shakespeare’s Wedding Day:

  • We know that Anne’s family paid a dowry to Shakespeare’s family, which annoys Shakespeare in the book. He feels furious that his father uses the marriage to help his business interests.
  • According to Michael Wood, the priest left out the reading of the banns, and suspected the marriage was intentionally catholic. The book also makes it clear that this was a catholic ceremony, deep into the reign of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I.
Robert Bearman, “The Shakespeare marriage bond,” Shakespeare Documented, https://shakespearedocumented.folger.edu/resource/document/shakespeare-marriage-bond

May 26, 1583– Susanna Shakespeare is baptized, which means she was probably born three days earlier.

February 2nd, 1585– Hamnet and Judith are baptized.The twins were named after two very close friends of William and Anne, the baker Hamnet Sadler and his wife, Judith. The Sadlers became the godparents of the twins and, in 1589, they in turn named their own son William.

1586– John Shakespeare is booted off the Stratford board of Aldermen for not attending meetings. Michael Wood suggests that John might have been avoiding the meetings because he was in debt, and the creditors knew where to find him. The novel seems to agree with this theory- the first time that we meet John Shakespeare, he is on the verge of beating his own grandson for sneaking up on him. If he was hiding from his creditors, he’d have a reason to be jumpy.
1592 – Shakespeare makes it in London?
1593 Outbreak of Bubonic Plague- 15,000 people died in London alone. O Farrell does a great job of portraying the visceral terror people must have felt during an outbreak, the same terrified panic that gripped our world in 2020. As I’ve written before, not only did the disease itself instill fear, but also the Draconian measures of quarantines, and the grotesque and ineffective methods for treating the plague. To see how you might be treated for plague in the 1590s, take my quiz: https://sites.google.com/d/1iLSGjbllxU-ZwyrUya_xHtjojSCg9pd6/p/1xzNm37sGbHsQJgsnx4irZHJVp9YscVVJ/edit?authuser=2

Because of the contagious nature of the disease, the theatres were closed, which forced Shakespeare to write poems instead of plays. Around this time he also probably wrote Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Shakespeare published Venus and Adonis

1596 Hamnet dies

C. 1599– William Shakespeare writes Hamlet, his longest play, widely regarded as the greatest play ever written in the English language.

I hope this post helped increase your understanding and enjoyment of the book, and Elizabethan History in general.

For a fascinating look at the life of an Elizabethan woman, check out this documentary about Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden, created by scholar Michael Wood:

Summer Shakespeare Academy!

I’m working this summer with the good people at Outschool, an online learning platform for kids ages 3-18. I’m designing a series of Shakespeare classes that you can sign up for. We’ll be doing acting exercises, reading Shakespeare’s text, and making Shakespeare props Cost is $3 per child.

The course is ala carte, that is, you can sign up for as many courses as you like. Each course builds on the last one, but you don’t have to have taken the previous ones to enjoy any one particular course Let me know in the comments which class(es) you are interested in, and/or what suggestions you might have. I can’t wait to hear what you think about these summer Shakespeare courses, and I hope to see you online soon!

1. Introduction to Shakespeare- (enrollment here: https://outschool.com/classes/introduction-to-shakespeare-or-how-i-learned-to-love-the-bard-UoHH5fes?sectionUid=973060db-f857-461a-a23a-f1476203a544&showDetails=true) We’ll talk about why Shakespeare is so famous and learn about his life and career. Then we’ll do some fun quizzes that you can earn prizes based on how well you pay attention!
2. How to write ✍ like Shakespeare (Enrollment here: https://outschool.com/classes/how-to-write-like-shakespeare-0HuPq1Cg?sectionUid=4243af25-ba41-4724-82a2-61bd7c7d862e&showDetails=true) Have you ever wanted to woo your sweetheart or write the next bestselling play? Well, this course will cover the secrets of Shakespeare’s writing. We’ll cover how to write romantic poems, the structure of Shakespeare’s plays, and you’ll get to write your own Shakespearean speeches!
3. Intro to Shakespearean acting Practical tips and tricks for your next Shakespeare audition.
4. Shakespeare’s villains
We’ll look at the darkest and creepiest Shakespearean characters and see why they still fascinate us today!
5. The Violent Rhetoric Of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Registration Here: https://outschool.com/classes/the-violent-rhetoric-of-julius-caesar-fkMLbAtA?sectionUid=1f9220cd-8c28-438d-9799-8479494353a4&showDetails=true#usMaRDyJ13) In this one-time course, students will analyze the rhetoric and persuasive power in two speeches from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”
6. Intro to Romeo and Juliet – Get a leg up on your next English class with this fun, frenetic look through the characters, themes, and story of Shakespeare’s most popular, and most-taught play.
7. Basics Of Stage Combat (Registration here: https://outschool.com/classes/1120ada2-047d-4b0f-84f6-5eb4b0f7dc66/schedule#usMaRDyJ13 I’ll teach the kids about Elizabethan street fighting, and the basics of stage combat.
8. The Balcony Scene of Romeo and Juliet– It’s been called the greatest love scene of all time, but why? I’ll explain the imagery, the poetic language, and give you a chance to make your own love poetry!
9. Insults and Shakespeare You’ll craft your own Shakespeare insults and engage in a (respectful), beat down with your classmates! Along the way, we’ll talk about how insults escalate to violence in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
10. The Iconic imagery of Romeo and Juliet We’ll look at some beautiful paintings, songs, and other works of art that build on Shakespeare’s poetic imagery.
11. Romeo and Juliet and pedagogy Shakespeare is uniquely challenging to get kids to engage with. I’ll give you some of my resources, games, and activities to help you delve into the play in your next class.

If you like these courses, let me know by leaving a comment below. If you’re interested in signing up, visit my teacher profile page: https://outschool.com/teachers/The-Shakespearean-Student. New classes will be added every week, and I’ll work around your schedule when planning the dates and times. Hopefully this will be a great chance for me to share my expertise with a young group of future Shakespearean students!

Resources for Teachers and Students: A Visit To Elizabethan London

I’m working on several educational projects at the moment and I’m proud to share this one with you. It’s what I call a virtual tour of Shakespeare’s London. The teacher I’m working with said she wanted to teach the kids about the culture of Elizabethan London as he was writing Romeo and Juliet. Naturally with the pandemic a field trip was out of the question, (for multiple reasons), but I wanted to create a visually interesting tour of the places Shakespeare knew and worked and try to imagine his perspective and how that might have informed the characters and themes of Romeo and Juliet.

So I created this: a website written as if Shakespeare himself is taking you on a tour of his London in the year 1593, the year where, as far as we know, he had just completed writing Romeo and Juliet. 1593 was also the middle of another outbreak of Bubonic Plague. It has virtual tours of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Hampton Court Palace, Shakespeare’s Grammar School, and a quiz where you can pretend you’re in the Elizabethan doctor’s office.

For the class I’m helping, the students will fill out a worksheet as they navigate the website so they learn from the material at their own pace. If you’re interested, leave a comment and I’ll post the worksheet so you can use it in your classroom.

My hope is that this website can be a resource for anyone trying to connect with Romeo and Juliet and trying to learn from the culture of Elizabethan London. Shakespeare was a product of his time and his experiences must have had an influence on what he wrote. Even if they didn’t, they certainly influenced the people who saw the play and he knew that it would. So I hope it can help you understand a little bit more about the world of this famous play, and the context of the world that created it.

Shakespeare’s Roman Women

Since it’s Women’s History Month, and we just had the Ides of March last week, I thought it might be a good idea to analyze some of Shakespeare’s  female characters in his Roman plays. I’ve talked a lot about the men in Julius Caesar, Titus, Andronicus, and Coriolanus, but haven’t examined the female characters much, so that’s what I’m going do discuss today.

Examining these characters is important because many are based on real Roman women, and Shakespeare’s sources reveal what Roman culture thought about women’s roles. This is particularly relevant to those of you reading this in the west because Roman culture influenced the Elizabethans and they set the foundation for our culture today. Feminist criticism has been much maligned, (and I’m certainly not an expert on feminism), but I do know this: it exists to question the values and conventions of our culture, so we can identify what works and what needs to change to build a more egalitarian society.

When it comes to Shakespeare female characters in general, he challenges the status quo, but also reinforces it: There’s always a character who challenges traditional gender roles like Katherine and Beatrice, but, (with the exception of Twelfth Night), for every one of these there’s also a Bianca or a Hero; characters who embody traditional famine roles and virtues of chastity, meekness, and yes, marriage and childbirth.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Shakespeare’s Roman plays where there are always two female characters and they usually embody opposite views of women’s roles and a woman’s duty to her country and the men in their lives

1. Tamara from Titus Andronicus

Titus was Shakespeare’s first tragedy and his first Roman play. As we shall see, as Shakespeare went through his career we see a more nuanced view of women’s roles and a greater appreciation for women who disdain or challenge patriarchal society. The characters Lavinia and Tamara are perfect examples and counterexamples respectively of traditional feminine roles.

When we first meet her, Tamara is the queen of the Goths- an enemy tribe that Rome has just conquered. Everything about Tamara from her foreign upbringing, to her personality, is a counter-example of what Romans prize in women. She is portrayed as savage and bloodthirsty, motivated by revenge against Titus, (who in the first scene of the play, kills her eldest son. Tamara responds by masterminding the murder of all of Titus’ children. She is also sexually liberated and uses her sexuality to further her revenge. Tamara seduces the Emperor to get him on her side, and gets the Emperor to condemn Titus’ sons to death. Her adultery with Aaron is another way she uses her sexuality to get revenge; she brings ruin the monarchy by cuckolding the Emperor. Thus Tamara’s sexuality and bold personality is framed in the play as an existential threat to Rome itself.

Tamara’s chief and only virtue is her love for her children, as you can plainly see in this scene from the play. Her love for her son Alarbus is why she begs Titus for his life, and afterwards, when he sacrifices Alarbus, Tamara’s love for her son turns into deadly hate to Titus. It is her motherly devotion that makes Tamara simultaneously human, and inhuman. As the play progresses however, Tamara is referred to in increasingly inhuman and savage terms. She dresses up as the goddess Revenge to torment Titus, and after she dies, Lucius, the new Emperor (and Titus’ only surviving son), calls her a “ravenous tiger,” and calls for her body to be thrown to beasts, since “Her life was beast-like.” Tamara is unquestionably the villain- a femme-fatale and a threat to all the Roman characters, but especially Titus’ daughter Lavinia.

2. Lavinia from Titus Andronicus

For the entire play, Lavinia embodies  traditional Roman female virtues, in that she is defined by the men in her life, and her chastity. The Romans actually invented the term castitas to refer to the female virtues of modesty and chastity, that is, only having sex with the man you are married to. Lavinia fits this mold perfectly. She’s a devoted daughter, wife, and sister. When we first meet her, she is a model of duty- greeting her father and asking for his blessing when he returns to Rome, and shedding tears for her brothers that were slain in the war:

In the cruelest and most barbaric scene in all of Shakespeare, Lavinia is raped by Tamara’s sons. Then, to keep her from identifying her attackers, they cut out her tongue and cut off her hands. The mutilation is grotesque, but for Titus, the Romans, and for the Elizabethans Shakespeare was writing for, the cruelest loss for Lavinia was the loss of her chastity. Now that she isn’t a virgin, Lavinia is marked with the opposite of chastity, incestum, or infamy. Even though the rape was not her fault, Lavinia is marked with shame. The Romans took unchastity extremely seriously; they used to punish it by throwing the adulteress to her death off the Tarpeian Rock. As you can see in this video, when a woman who was supposed to live chaste is even suspected of adultery, her very life is now in jeopardy:


When she loses her virginity, Lavinia becomes a silent creature of sadness. She is no longer a person, but a motivation for Titus’ revenge. Even if she hadn’t lost her tongue, she would still have little agency in the plot. This is why Titus kills her; to remove her incestum, and end her suffering.  Lavinia embodies the the cruel truth that women had to face in ancient Rome- once they lose their virginity, they are already dead in the eyes of most of Roman society.

Lavinia’s death scene from Titus, 1999, directed by Julie Taymor.

3. Portia (Julius Caesar)
If Shakespeare only wrote these two  female characters, you might rightly assume that he was a vile sexist, who defines a women’s usefulness simply by her chastity or lack thereof, and who thinks the proper function of a woman is to be quiet, demure, chaste, and obedient. Thankfully Shakespeare created Portia in Julius Caesar, and she defies many of the stereotypes associated with women in Ancient Rome.

Portia marks a turning point in Shakespeare’s Roman female characters as we we go from more ‘traditional’ female characters, to ones who exemplify masculine virtues. Instead of women being subordinates to men’s affairs and keeping out of religion, politics, and the affairs of Roman society, Portia is a character who demands respect, and to share her husband’s dangers. Some ancient sources suggested possibly Portia might have been the one who inspired Brutus to kill Caesar, (more on that later), but in any case Portia is not a character who is subordinate to men, but who demands to be treated as a Roman citizen.

In one of the strangest passages of the play, Portia reveals that she has willingly injured herself by stabbing herself in the thigh. She does this as a way of establishing her tolerance for pain and her desire to be taken seriously by her husband:

Brutus. You are my true and honourable wife,
As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart
Portia. If this were true, then should I know this secret.
I grant I am a woman; but withal920
A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife:
I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman well-reputed, Cato's daughter.
Think you I am no stronger than my sex,
Being so father'd and so husbanded?925
Tell me your counsels, I will not disclose 'em:
I have made strong proof of my constancy,
Giving myself a voluntary wound
Here, in the thigh: can I bear that with patience.
And not my husband's secrets?930
Brutus. O ye gods,
Render me worthy of this noble wife!

Romans have always had a connection with blood. Blood is a connection to duty; we owe our lives and our blood to Rome; the Gladiator whose blood honours the dead, the sacrifice of the enemy soldiers in Titus Andronicus, and the blood of the Roman soldier shed in service of the country. Rome is almost a culture that is built on blood. Portia in this gesture makes it clear that she is willing to shed blood just as much as her husband, who of course, will shed blood, (just not his own). In a way, Portia’s wound makes her more heroic than Brutus, because she is willing to suffer for the good of Rome, while Brutus kills for the good of Rome.

Shakespeare’s Roman characters, (male and female), extol the questionable virtue of the noble death. Historically when a Roman conspiracy failed, the conspirators had a choice; they could be paraded back to Rome humiliated and disgraced, or they could kill themselves and show defiance in the face of their conquerors. In some cases suicide was actually encouraged by the conquerors, as it meant that the threat was neutralized. In response, the conquerors would go easy on the wife and children.

Portia kills herself after Brutus is on the run. There could be two equally important reasons why she does this. First, she might be attempting to gain favor with the triumvirate by killing herself, (since she is complicit in the assassination), in the hopes that Anthony and a and Octavian will take pity on a Brutus’ children. It’s also possible that Portia kills herself because with the tide of battle turning, she might be next. Portia might be showing the same sort of resolve their husband later shows when he commits suicide to appease Caesar’s ghost and to defy his enemies the honor of capturing him.

Since Portia has a lot of her husband’s same virtues, the inevitable question I come to is to wonder what if; what if  Shakespeare’s Brutus had a listened to Portia more,what might he have done?

The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, Jacques Louis David, 1789.

This painting by Jacques Louis David depicts Brutus’ ancestor Junius Brutus. We see that he is utterly removed and stoic him in the face of death. He has ordered the execution of his own sons for trying to bring back the monarchy. In the background, Brutus’s wife and daughters are mourning the death of their son and brothers. Men like Brutus, with their Republican ideals, take little stock in the consequence of their actions.

One can only wonder if Brutus had had confided in Portia, would she have condemned his actions, or could she have led him to a more constructive path, that might have a prevented Brutus’ death, and maybe even stopped the coming days of the Empire?

Valumnia (Coriolanus)
In Shakespeare’s later Roman tragedy Coriolanus, we again see a young, chaste woman and an older mother figure, but unlike in Titus, the older Volumnia is much more heroic than the young maid Virgilia. Both show loyalty to Rome and devotion to Coriolanus, but Volumnia is not only a hero, she is in many ways a complete inversion of the Roman mother trope.


Volumnia is fanatically devoted to Rome and its army and like her son. She finds war more beautiful than symbols of peace, especially those associated with motherhood. In Act I, Scene iii, she says that the breasts of the Trojan Queen Hecuba were not as lovely as her son’s forehead when it spit blood in battle. She is an inversion of the traditional motherly character; because of her devotion to Rome and  her son,
she is more outspoken than other women and not afraid to talk back to anyone who questions Rome. In a way she is more of Coriolanus’ general or his father than a traditional mother. Her love of Rome is inextricably tied to her love of her son. She raises her son to be a warrior for the Senate and the people of Rome, exhorting him to either return in glory, or die. Observe this passage where she tells Coriolanus’ wife that she was never proudest than when she sent her son off to war:

Volumnia: I pray you, daughter, sing; or express yourself in a
more comfortable sort: if my son were my husband, I
should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he
won honour than in the embracements of his bed where
he would show most love. When yet he was but
tender-bodied and the only son of my womb, when
youth with comeliness plucked all gaze his way, when
for a day of kings' entreaties a mother should not
sell him an hour from her beholding, I, considering
how honour would become such a person. that it was
no better than picture-like to hang by the wall, if
renown made it not stir, was pleased to let him seek
danger where he was like to find fame. To a cruel
war I sent him; from whence he returned, his brows
bound with oak. I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not
more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child
than now in first seeing he had proved himself a
man.

Although Virgilia fits the bill of the modest, chaste, and loyal Roman housewife, Volumnia is framed as much more heroic. She even uses her mighty stoicism to save Rome! After Coriolanus rebels against Rome and joins the Volscis, Volumnia gets him to agree to make peace with Rome. She does this by kneeling before her own son; humiliating herself for the good of Rome. This act of self-humiliation changes Coriolanus’ mind. Observe how shocked Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) is when his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) kneels in this scene from the movie Coriolanus (directed by Ralph Fiennes in 2011).

4. Julia (Antony and Cleopatra) and with Cleopatra

With these final two examples, I’ve chosen two character who, (at face value), resemble Lavinia and Tamara. One is a dutiful, chaste Roman wife, related by blood to the Imperial family. Octavia was beloved throughout Rome for her chastity and kindness, and the citizens were outraged when her husband Marc Antony, abandoned her for Cleopatra, who was seen by many as a murderous, barbarous, lustful and an evil sorceress. However, Shakespeare paints a much more complex picture of Cleopatra, and though Octavia retains her chastity and is praised for her virtue, Cleopatra is unquestionably the star of the show, and ultimately commands more respect, awe, and even sympathy from the audience.

In Shakespeare’s play (and in real life), Cleopatra used her beauty as a propaganda tool. As I mentioned the Game of Thrones post, she deified herself in order to be taken seriously. In the 1st century AD, the system was very much rigged against female authority and so women had to resort to terrible measures in order to secure power for themselves.

If you look at the play again especially near the end, Cleopatra doesn’t come across as a femme fatale, she comes across as a woman who is trying to keep her Kingdom and her son Cesarian safe, and she will do anything to protect him. As the name suggests, Cesarean was Cleopatra’s love child of Julius Caesar, so the entire Roman world wanted him dead, because he was a threat to Octavian’s claim to the throne. To keep her son safe, Cleopatra seduces Marc Antony, hoping a powerful Roman alliance will keep her crown safe, and her son alive. Sadly for her, Octavian would stop at nothing to bring down all threats to his power, including Cesarian and Marc Antony. Arguably, the only reason he married Marc Antony to Octavia in the first place, was that he knew if Antony committed adultery, it would give Octavian the perfect excuse to raise an army and destroy Antony. Cleopatra got caught up in the political machinations of the most powerful and cunning man in the ancient world, and held him off as best she could.

Cleopatra struggles through the whole play to keep Antony, her people, and the situation in Rome under control. Antony never respects her as a queen and treats her like a jealous boyfriend, which is why they frequently get into fights.

However, after Antony’s suicide, the audience sees that Cleopatra also genuinely loved him back, and weeps for him as a wife, not an ally. Yet, quickly she regains her royal composure once Octavian threatens to take her back to Rome in chains. She decides to simultaneously deny Octavian the satisfaction, protect her son, and join her husband in the afterlife with her regal suicide:

Cleopatra: Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me: now no more
The juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip:
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call; I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act; I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath: husband, I come:
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life. So; have you done?
Come then, and take the last warmth of my lips.
Farewell, kind Charmian; Iras, long farewell.
[Kisses them. IRAS falls and dies]
Have I the aspic in my lips? Dost fall?
If thou and nature can so gently part,
The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch,
Which hurts, and is desired. Dost thou lie still?
If thus thou vanishest, thou tell'st the world
It is not worth leave-taking.

In conclusion, Shakespeare couldn’t go too far against the grain with challenging traditional patriarchal views of women, but in his Roman plays, we see characters who are simultaneously mothers and murderers, chaste and intelligent, citizens and devoted wives. I’m not trying to say that Shakespeare invented feminism, but I do believe his characters remind us that it is folly to try to box either gender into such stale old Roman categories as masculine or feminine. Perhaps we should all aspire to be like Cleopatra, whose infinite variety allowed her to succeed in a man’s world, while still being a wife, a mother, a lover, and a queen.

The mystery of Shakespeare’s Sonnets 

We’ve discussed a little bit about how to create sonnets, now let’s talk about the creator of 154 of the greatest sonnets the world has ever known.

The sonnets are some of the most mysterious pieces of writing Shakespeare ever created. We don’t know when he wrote them, we don’t really know in what order he wrote them, we don’t know for whom he wrote them, and we certainly don’t know whom they are about. That hasn’t stopped many conspiracy theorists and many, many, many, writers from coming up with imaginative stories about these often tantalizing and mysterious pieces of writing.

Genesis:
the only thing we know for sure about Shakespeare sonnets is that they were first published in 1609, as “Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Never Before Imprinted.” A lot of scholars believe that the sonnets were actually published without Shakespeare’s permission. The main evidence for this comes from Shakespeare’s contemporary Francis Meres who referred to them as Shakespeare sonnets “distributed by his among his friends.” Scholars theorize that someone got a hold of these poems that Shakespeare meant to keep private, and published them without his consent or even his knowledge. All we know for a fact is that some of them already existed before 1609.

The Mysterious Young Man.

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton

Scholar Steven Greenblatt in his wonderful book Will In the World, presents a more straightforward theory about where the sonnets came from: Shakespeare wrote them for some quick cash. As a writer, Shakespeare couldn’t always rely on the theater to make a living, especially since the theaters were often closed during times of plague, and religious holidays.

Greenblatt believes that in order to pay his bills in the mid-1590s, Shakespeare wrote poetry for Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. We know that The Bard dedicated two long poems to Southampton, Venus and Adonis, and TheRape Of Lucreece and the language Shakespeare uses on the dedication is very personal, even slightly flirty. Greenblatt believes that most if not all of the early sonnets were also written for Southampton. Greenblatt points out that Wriothesley was expected to get married and produce an heir, but he was in his late 20s and had not yet chosen a wife.

Greenblatt believes that Shakespeare was hired by someone in the Southampton family to write a series of love poems that would encourage the Earl to hurry up and get hitched. Indeed, the first 126 sonnets refer to a young, good looking blonde- haired man who has tragically remained single.

This theory works for most, but not all of the early sonnets Sonnet 33 seems to refer to a dead child. Many scholars believe that this sonnet was composed specifically for the death of Shakespeare’s own son Hamnet, who died in 1596 at the age of just eight years old. Obviously since Hamnet is so similar to Hamlet, Shakespeare might have given him a much more fitting tribute a few years later.

My favorite interpretation of the young man of the sonnets comes from the movie Shakespeare In Love. Since the love expressed in the sonnets between the speaker and the Fair Young Man seems to be somewhat sexual in nature, it kind of lends itself to the notion that Shakespeare might’ve been homosexual. What I find amusing is that in the film, since his lady love is his disguised as a boy, ( like so many of Shakespeare’s heroines ), the film answers the question of whether Shakespeare was gay or straight by having the young Shakespeare fall in love with a blonde woman disguised as a male actor, In the scene below, Shakespeare watches his mistress perform in disguise as Romeo, then dedicates a sonnet to her, while still referring to her as male in the sonnet! https://youtu.be/xpyTl3OMWrU

The DarkLady

In the next group of sonnets, the speaker refers to a woman that the speaker calls his mistress. We have no clues from the sonnets as to who she might be, except that her skin is dark. Many many people have wondered who this young woman might be. My favorite theory comes from scholar Michael Wood in his documentary In Search Of Shakespeare. Wood theorizes that it might’ve been in Emilia Lanier, who was the wife of Shakespeare’s patron. One of her descendants, Peter Bassano, has put forth the notion that Shakespeare could have been involved with Mrs. Lanier.

Of course, it also seems likely that The Dark Lady just could’ve been a literary exercise for Shakespeare, who was also writing Anthony and Cleopatra at the time. https://youtu.be/u0W9v9jVp04

Other candidates for The Dark Lady have included the mother of celebrated 18th century playwright and actor, William Davenant.

Sir William himself claimed to be Shakespeare’s illegitimate son, and his parent’s tavern is midway between Stratford and London, so it’s not entirely impossible that Shakespeare at least knew the boy’s mother. The apocryphal story comes from John Audley’s biography of Shakespeare from 1693. Here is what he says about Shakespeare and Davenant:

Mr. William Shakespeare was wont to go into Warwickshire once a year, and did commonly in his journey lie at this house [the Crown] in Oxon, where he was exceedingly respected… Now Sir William [Davenant] would sometimes, when he was pleasant over a glass of wine with his most intimate friends–e.g. Sam Butler, author of Hudibras, etc., say, that it seemed to him that he writ with the very spirit that did Shakespeare, and seemed contented enough to be thought his Son. He would tell them the story as above, in which way his mother had a very light report, whereby she was called a Whore.[2]

My favorite interpretation of the Dark Lady Myth comes from Doctor Who, in an episode called The Shakespeare Code where The Doctor s companion Martha Jones, (who is black), meet Shakespeare and he immediately is smitten with her.

It is supremely naïve to assume that anybody can pin down a definitive Dark Lady. Adultery was just a serious back then as it is now, and admitting to it, even in a play or poem would have been suicide for Shakespeare, which is why the sonnets are vague enough so that they never conclusively point to any specific party, which helps keep this tantalizing mystery alive to this day.

References:

Books:

Web:

http://www.peterbassano.com/shakespeare

If you enjoyed this post, you might want to sign up for my Outschool class on Shakespeare’s love poems. We’ll discuss the mystery of the Dark Lady, and you’ll learn to create your own sonnets, just in time for Valentines Day!