Shakespeare in focus: The audience
Home learning focus
To learn about the social contexts of Shakespeare’s plays and understand how they affect meaning.
This lesson will feature examples from Romeo and Juliet.
This lesson includes:
- two videos
- three activities
Created in partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company
Watch this short clip of actor John Boyega discussing what life was like in Shakespeare's day.
Shakespeare’s writing reflected the everyday concerns of his audience. Whether it was religious hostilities between Catholics and Protestants, voyages of discovery, questions of politics and leadership, or famous historical figures, he wrote about what people were interested in.
The fact that his plays are still being performed now, 400 years later, tells us that many themes and issues that were important then are still important now.
Elizabethan society, at the time Shakespeare's plays were first performed, was strictly structured. Public theatres were unusual at the time, because they were places where you could find people from all different social backgrounds. The rich and the poor were kept separate in the theatre, but everyone was able to see the same play. This is reflected in Shakespeare’s texts. He often wrote about kings, lords and ladies, but his plays also included messengers, servants and maids. The audience would have seen themselves reflected in the characters onstage.
Romeo and Juliet is a play about families, and the representation of Juliet’s family would have been recognisable to Shakespeare’s audience.
Read the following short descriptions of characters, many of whom are part of Juliet’s family, the Capulets.
|Lord Capulet||Head of the Capulet family. Hates the Montagues. Wants his daughter to marry into the most powerful family in the city, the Prince’s family.|
|Lady Capulet||Wife to the wealthy Lord Capulet. Supports his decisions. Speaks less than her husband when they are in company.|
|Juliet||Nearly 14 years old. Only child of the Capulets. Brought up by her nurse. Close to her older cousin Tybalt.|
|Nurse||Has looked after Juliet since she was a baby. Loves Juliet like a daughter and talks openly with her. Employed by the Capulets.|
|Tybalt||Hot-headed nephew of Lady Capulet. Lord Capulet’s right-hand man. Hates the Montagues.|
|Prince Escalus||Ruler of Verona. Keeps peace by breaking up a fight between the Montagues and Capulets at the beginning of the play. Has the power to issue new laws.|
|Paris||Prince Escalus' cousin. Rich and influential. Wants to marry Juliet.|
- Try making a diagram to show the hierarchy of the characters in order of their social status. Use labels to explain your choices.
- Write two sentences underneath your diagram reflecting on the decisions you have made and what they might reveal.
According to the social code of the time, it was the duty of young people to obey their parents. Women could not own property and children were seen to be almost like property themselves. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s father does seem to listen to what she wants but then arranges her marriage to Paris.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which also explores young love, the Duke explains the attitude of the time when he speaks to Hermia:
'…Be advised, fair maid To you your father should be as a god'
Read this edited version of a scene from the play.
How stands your disposition to be married?
It is an honour I dream not of.
The valiant Paris seeks you for his love.
A man, young lady! Lady, such a man as all the world – why, he’s a man of wax.
Verona’s summer hath not such a flower.
Nay, he’s a flower, in faith, a very flower.
What say you? Can you love the gentleman?
This night you shall behold him at our feast:
Read o’er the volume of young Paris face.
That book in many’s eyes doth share the glory,
That in gold clasps locks in the golden story:
So you shall share all that he doth possess,
By having him, making yourself no less.
No less? Nay, bigger: women grow by men.
Speak briefly, can you like of Paris’ love?
I’ll look to like, if looking liking move:
But no more deep will I endart mine eye
Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.
Try answering the following questions.
- How does each character feel about the prospect of marriage? Find the evidence of this in the text.
- How does the Nurse use words differently to the other two characters and what might this suggest?
- Juliet uses the word ‘consent’ in the final line. Is she happy to marry Paris?
Look out for how Shakespeare makes choices in his storytelling that not only reflect the existing social order, but perhaps challenge it.
Read the extract from Act 5 Scene 2 below.
Friar Laurence has sent a letter to Romeo who is exiled from Verona after killing Tybalt. Laurence informs him that, even though Juliet’s body is in a tomb, she is merely sleeping and not dead.
…the searchers of the town
Suspecting that we both were in a house
Where the infectious pestilence did reign,
Sealed up the doors, and would not let us forth.
So that my speed to Mantua was stayed.
Who bare my letter then to Romeo?
I could not send it – here it is again –
Nor get a messenger to bring it thee,
So fearful were they of infection.
Try answering the following questions.
- What do you think will be the impact of Romeo not receiving the intended letter from his lover Juliet?
- What is the reason the letter does not reach him?
- How is Shakespeare reflecting the social reality of his audience in this scene? What do you think the impact would have been on them?
The plague wreaked havoc at various times throughout Shakespeare's lifetime. In 1592, not long before he wrote Romeo and Juliet, an outbreak of the disease led to the closure of London's theatres.
In this lesson you have explored the importance of social context in influencing Shakespeare’s text and themes.
There are other useful pages that will help you to explore the context of Shakespeare's work.
- Audience and social attitudes
- Radio 4: Shakespeare's Restless World - Snacking through Shakespeare
- Romeo and Juliet: Dramatisation
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