Support the Monkey! Tell All your Friends and Teachers
Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version
No biographies of Shakespeare were written during his lifetime. But what we can't learn about him from public records in his hometown of Stratford-on-Avon, we can fill in by reading his plays and poems.
There are many reasons the story of Romeo and Juliet could have appealed to the 32-year-old Shakespeare. He was apparently familiar with feelings of passion and forbidden love. When he was only 19, he quickly married Anne Hathaway, who was three months pregnant. Anne was eight years older than he, uneducated, and the daughter of a poor farmer who lived outside Stratford. She was probably not the match that John Shakespeare would have chosen for William, who was his oldest son.
In Romeo and Juliet, Lord Capulet is quite a social climber, and so was Shakespeare's father. John Shakespeare was born to a family of tenant farmers, but he wanted to be rich. He married the daughter of his family's wealthy landlord, and moved into the small city of Stratford to start a business. In the play, Lord Capulet is determined that Juliet will marry Paris, a wealthy young man from a higher social class.
William went to school in Stratford, where he studied literature and learned Latin. But he probably learned how to speak like someone from the upper class from his mother, Mary. The main characters in Romeo and Juliet (and many of his other plays) have the proper speech of the gentry. Mary Shakespeare came from a Catholic family of landowners. Although it was illegal to be Catholic, it seems she taught William to respect her religion. Shakespeare was the only playwright of his day to treat Catholic characters, like Friar Lawrence, with respect.
After William and Anne's marriage, the young couple probably moved in with his parents and five younger brothers and sisters. Their daughter Susanna was born six months later, and two years later they had twins named Hamnet and Judith.
Soon after this, William left Stratford under mysterious circumstances. There is a legend that he was forced to flee Stratford (much as Romeo fled Verona) because he was caught poaching on a private estate.
Whatever the case, he left his family and went to live in London. He became a well-known actor and playwright. By the time he wrote Romeo and Juliet, he had already written six very successful plays-and he was only at the beginning of his career!
In those days, poets were more respected than playwrights, and so Shakespeare decided to take time out and make a name for himself as a poet. He was a success. His two long Romantic poems, The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis, became bestsellers. He then experimented with other popular poetic forms, such as sonnets. Soon after this, he wrote Romeo and Juliet. The storyline is similar to the stories of the Romantic poems he had just written. And he wrote sonnets and other kinds of poems right into the dialogue of the play!
We don't know if William and Anne had a happy marriage, but we do know that Shakespeare loved his children. It's interesting to note that he made Juliet 13 years old-the same age at the time as his daughter Susanna. Shakespeare could also understand the Capulets' and Montagues' grief over their childrens' deaths. Shakespeare's only son, Hamnet, died the year he wrote the play.
Romeo and Juliet was a hit from the beginning. That very year, Shakespeare was rich enough to buy his money-conscious father a family coat of arms. His father, who once thought William was a rebellious young man, now called him "the best of the family." Legend has it that he told his customers that William got from him the earthy humor that he put into Mercutio and the Nurse. Wherever Shakespeare's talent came from, it makes Romeo and Juliet moving and unforgettable.