Shakespeare in focus: Shakespeare's 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
  • two activities

Created in partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company

Learn

Watch this short clip of actor John Boyega discussing what life was like in Shakespeare's day.

John Boyega explores social attitudes in the time of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s writing reflected the everyday concerns of his audience. Whether it was religious differences, journeys 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.

In Shakespeare’s time society was strictly structured and divided by class. The very richest people were the lords and ladies – the nobility. The nobles were the ruling class, influencing what the king or queen did, as well as owning large areas of land themselves. Just below them were the gentry, who were rich enough to live off their own land, but did not have titles. Most of Shakespeare’s plays deal with kings or the nobility, although what affects them affects the lower classes too, like the fighting servants at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet.

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.

Practise

Activity 1

Romeo and Juliet is a play about families, and the representation of Juliet’s family would have been recognisable to Shakespeare’s audience.

Take a look at the short clip below explaining the plot of Romeo and Juliet:

Watch a fun plot summary of Romeo and Juliet.

Click through the slideshow to read short descriptions of some of the characters, many of whom are part of Juliet’s family, the Capulets.

Illustration of Lord and Lady Capulet, Juliet's parents

Lord and Lady Capulet

Lord Capulet is the head of the Capulet family, he hates the Montagues and wants his daughter to marry into the most powerful family in the city, the Prince’s family. Lady Capulet is the wealthy Lord Capulet's wife. She supports his decisions and tends to speak less than her husband when they are in company.

1 of 6
  • Try creating a diagram on a piece of paper which shows the different social status of each of the characters from the slideshow, placing those with a higher social status at the top of the page. See if you can include Prince Escalus and Paris.
  • Add labels to explain your choices.
  • Write two sentences underneath your diagram explaining why you chose to place some people above or below others.

Useful context

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.

Activity 2

Read this edited version of a scene from the play.

Lady Capulet:

How stands your disposition to be married?

Juliet:

It is an honour I dream not of.

Lady Capulet:

The valiant Paris seeks you for his love.

Nurse:

A man, young lady! Lady, such a man as all the world – why, he’s a man of wax.

Lady Capulet:

Verona’s summer hath not such a flower.

Nurse:

Nay, he’s a flower, in faith, a very flower.

Lady Capulet:

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.

Nurse:

No less? Nay, bigger: women grow by men.

Lady Capulet:

Speak briefly, can you like of Paris’ love?

Juliet:

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.

Romeo and Juliet embracing. Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC.

See if you can answer the following questions.

  • How does each character feel about the idea of Juliet getting married?
  • Can you find evidence of this in the text?

After doing this, you may want to watch the following scene on the Royal Shakespeare company website. This scene takes place later in the play, after Juliet has secretly married Romeo.

Where next?

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.

There's more to learn

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