Context of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet

Context of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet

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Context of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet

Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and
certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance,
William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of
Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful
middle-class glove-maker, Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his
formal education proceeded no further. In 1582, he married an older
woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590, he
left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and
playwright. Public and critical acclaim quickly followed, and
Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England
and part owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of
Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled 1603-1625); he was a
favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, King James paid Shakespeare's
theater company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them with
the status of king's players. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare
retired to Stratford, and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the
time of Shakespeare's death, such luminaries as Ben Jonson hailed him
as the apogee of Renaissance theater.


Shakespeare's works were collected and printed in various editions in
the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century
his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well
established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to
a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare's life, but the dearth of
biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare's
personal history shrouded in mystery. Some scholars have concluded
from this lack and from Shakespeare's modest education that his plays
were actually written by someone else-Francis Bacon and the Earl of
Oxford are the two most popular candidates. The evidence for this
claim, however, is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and few take the
theory very seriously.

In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must

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be viewed as the author of the thirty-seven plays and 154 sonnets that
bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of
Shakespeare's plays seem to have transcended even the category of
brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course
of Western literature and culture ever after.

Written in the mid-1590s and first published in 1597, Romeo and Juliet
is Shakespeare's first nonhistorical tragedy, and it is in many ways
the richest and most mature of his early works. The writing bears many
of the characteristics of Shakespeare's early work, with frequent use
of end-rhymes and an abundance of descriptive, metaphoric imagery.

Shakespeare did not invent the story of Romeo and Juliet. He did not,
in fact, even introduce the story into the English language. The
generally, and understandably, forgotten Arthur Brooks first brought
the story of Romeus and Juliet to an English-speaking audience in a
long and plodding poem that was itself not original, but rather an
adaptation of adaptations that stretched across nearly a hundred years
and two languages. Many of the details of Shakespeare's plot are
lifted directly from Brooks's poem, including the meeting of Romeo and
Juliet at the ball, their secret marriage, Romeo's fight with Tybalt,
the sleeping potion, and the timing of the lover's eventual suicides.
Such appropriation of other stories is characteristic of Shakespeare,
who often wrote plays based on earlier works. Two examples are Richard
III, which Shakespeare based in large part on Thomas More's excellent
history of that English king, and Hamlet, which is based on two known
sources: one from France, another from medieval Denmark. Shakespeare's
use of existing material as fodder for his plays should not be taken
as a lack of originality. Instead, readers should note how Shakespeare
crafts his sources in new ways while displaying a remarkable
understanding of the literary tradition in which he is working.
Shakespeare's version of Romeo and Juliet is no exception. The play
distinguishes itself from its predecessors in several important
aspects: the subtlety and originality of its characterization
(Shakespeare almost wholly created Mercutio); the intense pace of its
action, which is compressed from nine months into four frenetic days;
a powerful enrichment of the story's thematic aspects; and, above all,
an extraordinary use of language.

Contemporary readers often view Shakespeare as having invented
literature, and thus see Shakespeare as having occupied an enviable
position in which he could create his masterpieces upon a blank and
impressionable slate. This is not true. By the time Shakespeare wrote,
a rich and ancient tradition of literature already existed. Romeo and
Juliet, in fact, bears a resemblance not only to the works on which it
is based; it is also quite similar in plot, theme, and dramatic ending
to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, told by the great Roman poet Ovid
in his Metamorphoses. Shakespeare was quite aware of this; he includes
a reference to Thisbe in Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare also includes
scenes from the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in the comically awful
play-within-a-play put on by Bottom and his friends in A Midsummer
Night's Dream-a play Shakespeare wrote around the same time he was
composing Romeo and Juliet. Indeed, one can look at the
play-within-a-play in A Midsummer Night's Dream as parodying the very
story that Shakespeare seeks to tell in Romeo and Juliet. If A
Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet are looked at as a pair,
as the simultaneity of their writing implies they could be, it appears
likely that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet in full knowledge that
the story he was telling was old, clichéd, and an easy target for
parody. In writing Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare, then, implicitly set
himself the task of telling a love story despite the considerable
forces he knew were stacked against its success. Through the
incomparable intensity of his language Shakespeare succeeded in this
effort, writing a play that is universally accepted in Western culture
as the preeminent, archetypal love story.
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