Free Study Guide: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare - Free BookNotes

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Major Theme

True love can conquer all, as shown through Romeo and Juliet who defy unbelievable problems to be married, to consummate their marriage, and to live united for eternity.

Minor Theme

Foolish quarrels should be ended, for they are never productive and often lead to tragedy, as in the deaths of Romeo and Juliet.

The course of young love never runs smoothly, as evidenced by Romeo and Juliet.


There is a contrast of moods throughout the play. The mood created by the love between Romeo and Juliet is bright, happy, and romantic. The prevailing mood of Verona is ugly, harsh, and cruel, as evidenced in the needless conflict between the Capulets and Montagues and the action of those touched by the conflict. The death of Romeo and Juliet creates a mood of tragedy and despair.

William Shakespeare - BIOGRAPHY

William Shakespeare is usually considered the greatest dramatist and finest poet the world has ever known. No other writer’s plays and poetry have been produced so many times or in so many countries or translated into so many languages. One of the major reasons for Shakespeare’s popularity is the variety of rich characters that he successfully creates, from drunkards and paid murderers to princes and kings; and from inane fools and court jesters to wise and noble generals. Each character springs vividly to life upon the stage, and as they speak their beautiful verse or prose, the characters remind the viewers of their own personalities, traits, and flaws. Shakespeare also made his characters very realistic. The dramatist had an amazing knowledge of a wide variety of subjects, and his well-developed characters reflect this knowledge, whether it be about military science, the graces of royalty, seamanship, history, the Bible, music, or sports.

In Shakespeare’s time, few biographies were written, and none of the literary men of the Elizabethan Age was considered important enough to merit a book about his life. The first portfolio of his works, collected as a memorial to Shakespeare by members of his own acting company, was not published until 1623, seven years after his death. His first biography was written one hundred years later. As a result, many of the facts of Shakespeare’s life are unknown. It is known that he was born in Stratford-on-Avon in England, sometime in early 1564, for his Baptism is recorded on April 26 of that year. His mother Mary had eight children, with William being the third. His father, John Shakespeare, was a fairly prosperous glovemaker and trader who owned several houses in Stratford and became the town’s mayor when Shakespeare was a boy. The young Shakespeare probably studied Latin, logic, and rhetoric in the local grammar school and hunted and played sports in the open fields behind his home.

The next definite information about William Shakespeare is that the young man, at age 18, married Anne Hathaway, who was 26, on November 28, 1582. In 1583, it is recorded that Anne gave birth to their oldest child, Susanna, and that twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born to the couple in 1585. By 1592, the family was living in London, where Shakespeare was busy acting in plays and writing his own dramas. From 1592 to 1594, the plague kept most London theaters closed, so the dramatist turned to writing poetry during this period, and his poems, which were actually published unlike his plays, became popular with the masses and contributed to his good reputation as a writer. From 1594 to the end of his career, Shakespeare belonged to the same theatrical company, known first as Lord Chamberlain’s Men and then as the King’s Company. It is also known that he was both a leader and stockholder in this organization, which became the most prosperous group in London, and that he was meeting with both financial success and critical acclaim.

In 1594, Shakespeare was popular enough as an actor to perform before Queen Elizabeth. By 1596, he owned considerable property in London and bought one of the finest houses in Stratford, known as New Place, in 1597. A year later, in 1598, he bought ten percent of the stock in the Blackfriar’s Theater, where they began to hold productions during the winter, returning to the Globe during the summer months. Throughout the rest of his life, Shakespeare continued to purchase land, homes, and businesses. He obviously was a busy man between handling his business ventures, performing on the stage, and writing or collaborating on the thirty-seven plays that are credited to him.

Shakespeare’s most productive years were from 1594 to 1608, the period in which he wrote all of his great tragedies, such as Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet. During these fourteen years, he furnished his acting company with approximately two plays annually. After 1608, it appears he went into semi-retirement, spending more time in Stratford and creating only five plays before his death on April 23, 1616. He was buried before the altar in Stratford Church, where his body still lies today. Many literary students and visitors make pilgrimage to this shrine each year in order to honor William Shakespeare, still recognized after 400 years as the world’s greatest poet and dramatist.


The Date and Source of the Play
Romeo and Juliet is one of the early plays of Shakespeare. It was probably written in 1594 or 1595, for it is similar in language to A Midsummer’s Night Dream and Richard II. Some scholars, however, date the drama to 1591, for there is a reference made by the nurse in the play to an earthquake that happened eleven years earlier. The actual earthquake in Italy occurred in 1580. The majority of scholars today place the play after 1594.

Shakespeare drew most of his plots from European stories that had been translated into English. Romeo and Juliet was probably based on an Italian romance.

Time Of Action
There is no clear indication within the play of the time setting, but it seems to be around 1200 or 1300. In history, rival noble houses existed within that time frame, and their actions disturbed the local peace. People were divided, and a lot of jealousy and tyranny existed. In the play wealth, culture, rivalry, and enmity are all displayed, reflecting this historical time frame.

The time that passes within the play is very clear. Only five days go by from the opening street fight to the death of Romeo and Juliet. On Sunday morning, the brawl in the town square occurs; that same night Romeo meets Juliet at the Capulet feast, and they declare their love for one another. On Monday afternoon, Friar Lawrence marries the couple; later in the day, Romeo kills Tybalt. On Tuesday, Romeo flees from Verona to Mantua, the Capulets announce Juliet’s engagement to Paris, and she drinks the magic potion that makes her appear to be dead. On Wednesday, Juliet’s body is discovered and taken to the Capulet tomb. On Thursday, Romeo hears of Juliet’s death, hastens back to Verona, and commits suicide in her tomb. When Juliet awakens later in the day and finds him dead, she stabs herself. The play ends on Friday morning.

The Elizabethan Stage
Drama was the prime means of public entertainment during Shakespeare’s time. Traveling actors went around the country and were hired by those who wanted their services. In larger cities, such as London, permanent acting groups were formed and attached to a single theater, such as the “Globe”, the “Curtain”, or the “Fortune”. Shakespeare’s company owned the “Globe”, which was an open-air theater. Since there were no artificial lights, plays were staged in the afternoon. The stage jutted out into the audience, and the “groundlings” stood nearby to watch the action. Other spectators paid higher prices to sit in the galleries and watch the play.

There were three openings at the back of the stage, one in the center and one on each side. A thick curtain hid the openings. The stage-floor also had one or more trap doors, useful for the speedy disappearance or re-appearance of characters, especially ghosts. Above the stage was a balcony, usually used for love scenes. There was no stage scenery although props were widely used. Black stage hangings were used to set the mood for tragic plays, and colorful curtains were used for comedies.

Actors on the Shakespearean stage were often youths. Boys with high-pitched voices were trained to play women’s parts, since females were not allowed on the stage.

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