Date of Composition
Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet early in his career, between 1594-1595, around the same time as the comedies Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Scholars often group these plays together because they explore the themes of love, courtship, and marriage. The plays also share a similar poetic quality in the language used, as they incorporate sonnets and the conventions associated with them such as falling in love at first sight.
The first performance of Romeo and Juliet took place in the autumn/winter of 1594, when the playhouses reopened for the first time after a sustained outbreak of the plague had forced the authorities to close all the playhouses in London in January 1593. During this period, over 10,000 people in London alone died from the disease, and Shakespeare emphasizes the relevance of the plague for his audience by using it in Romeo and Juliet to prevent Friar Laurence's message from reaching Romeo in Mantua.
The first performance of the play was at the playhouse called the Theatre where Shakespeare and his company the Lord Chamberlain's Men were based until 1597. The Theatre was the first purpose-built playhouse in London and could hold over 1,500 people. It was a large, octagonal-shaped building with a thatched roof just around the perimeter so that the yard below was open air. Most of the audience, referred to as groundlings, paid a penny to stand in the yard surrounding the stage. Wealthier playgoers preferred to pay an extra penny to sit in one of the galleries so that they could watch the play in comfort and more importantly, be seen by the rest of the audience.
In the first performance of Romeo and Juliet, Richard Burbage, the company's leading actor, who was in his mid-twenties, played Romeo. Juliet was played by Master Robert Goffe; young boy actors often played female roles because women did not legally appear on the stage until the late 17th century.
During the 16th century, many English dramatists and poets adapted a wide range of Italian stories and poetry to create their own material. The availability of these sources reflects the English interest in Italian culture during this period as the influence of the Italian Renaissance spread. The term Renaissance means "rebirth" and refers to the period after the Middle Ages when a revival of interest in classical Roman and Greek culture emerged. Beginning in the mid-14th century in Italy, the Renaissance was a period of rapid discovery and development, gradually moving northwards across the rest of Europe.
One Italian source that Shakespeare draws upon in Romeo and Juliet is Francesco Petrarch, 1304-1374, an Italian scholar and poet, who was responsible for developing the sonnet. The poems, which Petrarch wrote for the lady he admired, describe the process of falling in love and courtship, according to medieval ideas of courtly love and chivalry. Translated into English and published in 1557, the sonnets were extremely popular, so English sonnet writers imitated and developed Petrarch's conventions.
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