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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
There have always been lovers, and we've always loved hearing stories about them. Although it's about 400 years old, Romeo and Juliet is one of the most popular stories ever told. It's got all the right ingredients: teenagers sharing forbidden love, their witty friends and troublesome parents, fights, parties, murders, and nights of love.
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet tells us a lot about human nature. It also tells us about the society and times in which it was written; and about the passionate, spirited, witty young man who wrote it.
The story was popular in England before Shakespeare made it into a play in 1596. The central problem in Romeo and Juliet is a deadly feud between two powerful families. The English had been involved in a deadly feud for years. This one wasn't between powerful families, but within England's royal family.
Elizabeth I was Queen when Shakespeare wrote this play. Her father, Henry VIII, had left the Roman Catholic Church to found the Church of England, usually considered to be a Protestant denomination. When he died, his oldest daughter Mary, who was a Catholic, eventually became Queen. She persecuted and killed members of the Church of England with the same zeal that Henry had used against Catholics. When Mary died, her Protestant sister Elizabeth became Queen. This violent tug of war left its mark on the country. The English had seen how feuding in one family had divided a country and caused thousands of deaths. Even though Elizabeth tried to be nonviolent and tolerant of Catholics, her Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, tried to start a civil war and take the throne. Elizabeth had Mary beheaded only nine years before Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet. Even today in Ireland, Juliet and Romeo could be Catholic and Protestant rather than Capulet and Montague. For the English of Shakespeare's day, the play was that immediate.
Both the Protestants and Catholics of that time had a very strong feeling that God ordered the universe in a specific way. When something evil, like the feud among the Capulets and Montagues, broke the laws of this order, that evil had to be checked. In Romeo and Juliet, two innocent lives must be sacrificed to restore order.
London, like Verona in the story, was a thriving, busy city. Because it was crowded and walled in, violence could spread quickly. Public fights were considered a serious offense. Londoners would have judged the Capulets' and Montagues' street fights very harshly.
Politics aside, London was a good place to live in the 1590s. Europe was in the middle of the Renaissance, which refers to the "rebirth" of learning. Some of this exciting spirit had reached London, England's capital and cultural center. Here, Elizabeth had her royal court; here, musicians, actors, poets, and painters came to learn and work. Many young artists left their small towns for the cultural Mecca of London, and William Shakespeare was one of them.
Who was this country boy who turned the moral fable of Romeo and Juliet into a hotblooded story of passion, love, hate, comedy, revenge, and murder?