The cultural and societal norms of the Elizabethan era had a significant effect on Romeo and Juliet. Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne and it was a period of religious conflict.
In the play, the bitter feud between the Capulets and Montagues could be seen as a reflection of the violent conflict between Catholics and Protestants during this time.
Shakespeare sets his play in Verona, Italy. This creates a sense of ambiguity and distances the story from the religious conflicts unfolding in England.
During the Elizabethan era, love was often expressed through the practice of courtly love. This was a passionate yet non-physical form of romantic expression, where men worshipped women from afar.
This form of love is often intense, dramatic and usually brief, and it’s shown in Romeo’s initial infatuation with Rosaline. He isolates himself in his room, deeply immersed in the heartache of his unanswered love. This is shown in the lines:
“And private in his chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks fair daylight out,”
Marriages were often arranged by wealthy fathers when their daughters were of childbearing age (typically around 13). However, these marriages were not based on love. They were strategic alliances to improve the family’s standing and continue the family name.
This sentiment is echoed by Lord Capulet’s reference to Juliet as the “hopeful lady of my earth,” emphasising the important role her marriage holds for the family’s future prosperity.
Elizabethan society was patriarchal. A woman’s status and security were heavily dependent on their fathers or husbands. Women were expected to be obedient and submissive, and their opinions were often seen as unimportant.
However, in this repressive environment, Juliet’s character defies these norms. She showcases a strong will, rationality and defiance against the expected norms. This defiance is highlighted when she refuses the arranged marriage with Paris, leading to Capulet’s furious remarks, where he refers to her as a “young baggage, disobedient wretch”. He implies that she is a burden and an obstacle to his plans.
Meanwhile, men were expected to be strong, aggressive and loyal to their families. Shakespeare challenges these stereotypes through Romeo’s character. He is presented as more peaceful and sensitive compared to his peers.
These traits attract criticism from characters like Mercutio and even Friar Lawrence, who regards Romeo’s emotional nature as a feminine trait, remarking, “thy tears are womanish”
The Elizabethan era was marked by a deep-rooted belief in astrology and fate. This overshadowed the reliance on scientific understanding.
A large portion of society believed that human destinies were mapped out by celestial entities, such as the gods, stars and planets. This is a belief echoed in the play’s prologue, referring to the protagonists as “star-cross’d lovers,” suggesting their fates are sealed from the start.
Simultaneously, society believed in the concept of the Great Chain of Being. It is a hierarchical system that organises society into a fixed order of worth and power. It started with God at the top, followed by angels, noblemen, men, women and then animals and plants.
This system is challenged in the play. Romeo and Juliet break the Great Chain of Being when they fall in love and marry, choosing love over duty. Juliet, having been instructed by her father to marry Paris, contradicts her obligation as a daughter to obey her father’s wishes when she refuses.