Fighting in the City: The Setting of “Romeo and Juliet”

Setting of a story. It’s soooo important. Think of your favorite novel or movie…is there something in the location that adds to the story, or perhaps makes it impossible to happen anywhere else? (I bet there is.) What makes the setting of Romeo and Juliet so brilliant? The history of course! Let’s explore.

By the way this is the last post on historical fiction in William Shakespeare’s plays. My apologies that it didn’t post on schedule. The beginning of the holiday season kept me a “little” busy. It’s my goal to remain on the Friday schedule for the whole month of December and the month’s topic is going to fun! (Right now, we’re going to see if I can get this blog post launched before the space capsule Orion is launched on its historic flight…)

Scene 1 - The Feuding Capulets and Montagues (Public Domain)

Scene 1 – The Feuding Capulets and Montagues (Public Domain)

The Play *Warning: SPOILERS* Once upon a time in an Italian city (presumably during the Renaissance era) there were two families: the Capulets and the Montagues…and they hated each other. And I mean HATED – if they met on the streets there was sure to be a fight. Juliet is a young lady of the Capulet family who isn’t too excited about the possibility of an arranged marriage. Romeo is a young man of the Montague family; he sneaks into the Capulet house during a party, sees Juliet, and falls in love. In the famous “balcony scene” the young people discover they’re in love. They marry secretly with the help of Friar Lawrence.  Then disaster: Romeo’s friend is killed and in an angry sword duel he kills a Capulet, Juliet’s cousin. Romeo is exiled from the city; Juliet is told by her parents that she will proceed with the arranged marriage. She takes a mysterious medicine which puts her in a deep sleep and makes her appear dead. Long story short, Romeo returns, kills another Capulet, finds his bride dead, and drinks real poison. Juliet awakes, finds Romeo dead, and stabs herself with his dagger. In the end, the Capulet and Montague families agree to reconcile their quarrel and there is peace in the city.

The History At least two authors before Shakespeare wrote a version of this romantic tragedy, but Shakespeare made the characters more realistic and the plot stronger. However, our historical focus on this play isn’t the characters or plot, but the setting. Italian cities of the Renaissance (1300ish to 1500ish) often had multiple noble families living within a walled city. Theses nobles’ “palaces” were more like castles, designed to keep others out. For various reasons each family wanted to control the city, usually for economic reasons: thus conflict! In Florence the Medici family feuded with other noble families, but eventually won the lengthy fight, exiling opponents from the city and gaining social, economic, and political control of the city.

The Fiction It is probably that most of the play’s plot is fictional, but it is interwoven nicely with the historical setting. The fictional characters must over-come family prejudices to find love, but then those same family prejudices lead to more fighting and conflict.

The Reconciliation of the Capulets and Montagues; painting by Frederick Leighton (Public Domain)

The Reconciliation of the Capulets and Montagues; painting by Frederick Leighton (Public Domain)

Analysis I’m going to be completely honest: Romeo and Juliet is not one of my favorite Shakespearean plays. However, I did find the historical setting fascinating. The quarrels between noble families of Italian Renaissance cities was real and makes a dramatic backdrop for the love story. There are multiple tragedies within the tragic play, but I think one of the best underlying conflicts is that hatred of the families which motivates the lovers and also tears them apart. In conclusion, the setting of Romeo and Juliet is a fairly accurate portrayal of the conflict-filled lives of noble Italian families during the Renaissance and adds tension to the foreground conflict of the young couple.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Here’s a link to the full text of the play. Any thoughts on the setting or plot of Romeo and Juliet?

P.S. 2. I’ve got my blog post done and, as of 0900 eastern time, Orion still hasn’t launched. 😉 See you tomorrow for the start of our Christmas holiday posts!



MacBeth: Fact or Fiction?

Ancient Scotland. A murdered king. A guilt crazed nobleman and lady. Guess which Shakespearean we’re discussing today… If you said “MacBeth”, you are correct. Let’s explore one of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies and uncover the historical threads in the playwright’s fiction.

The Play *Warning: Spoilers* MacBeth, a trusted nobleman of King Duncan, has just won a splendid victory against enemies of the realm. As he and his friend, Banquo, travel across a lonely heath, they come across three witches who prophecy that MacBeth will receive a new noble title and become king and Banquo will be the father of kings. King Duncan gives MacBeth a new title (thus supposedly fulfilling the witches’ words) and announces that he will stay the night at the MacBeth castle. MacBeth arrives home and tells his wife about the prophecy; they eventually agree to murder King Duncan, though they welcome him warmly into the castle. With much fear and searing of conscience they prepare their daggers and in the night, MacBeth murders the king. The princes of Scotland flee, fearing foul deeds, and MacBeth is crowned the new king. MacBeth and his lady are tormented by their guilt and begin killing noblemen around them who suspect their deeds; Banquo is brutally murdered and MacBeth sees his ghost. Lady MacBeth descends to madness. Meanwhile, a Scottish nobleman enlists the help of an English army and marches to overthrow MacBeth. The wretched king finds the witches who assure him his kingdom is safe unless the forest marches against the castle and he cannot be killed by a man of woman born. Still MacBeth mused on the futility of life and on his guilty conscience. In the end the English use the branches of forest trees to cover their advance on MacBeth’s castle and in the final battle he is killed by Macduff. King Duncan’s son is crowned the new king of Scotland.

1577 Illustration of MacBeth, Banquo, and the Three Witches

1577 Illustration of MacBeth, Banquo, and the Three Witches

The History Once upon a time Holinshed’s Chronicles was considered the definitive text on English history. In the text a man named Donwald discovers that several of his family have been killed by the king for consorting with witches; in revenge Donwald kills the king. Also in Chronicles, Macbeth and Banquo meet the three witches and then the noblemen plot the murder, at Lady Macbeth’s urging. Macbeth has a long, ten-year reign before eventually being overthrown by Macduff. Now, it is important to note that some modern scholars feel the story of MacBeth in the Chronicles is fictional; however, it is interesting that Shakespeare took an accepted historical event of his time and built a story around it. In the play the first battle MacBeth wins is against the Danes who were raiding along the Scottish coast. Also, remember the prophecy of the witches that Banquo’s children would be kings? That doesn’t happen in the play, but it was common belief in Shakespeare’s time that James IV of Scotland (James I of England) was a descendant of Banquo!

The Fiction Shakespeare took a story of witches, a murdered king, and characters named MacBeth and Banquo and invented a plot with great drama. He used what were accepted “historical facts” (in his era) and built his play around them. Unlike Henry V where almost everything is historically based, MacBeth takes the skeleton of a historical event (no puns intended) and transforms into a deep study of man’s ambition, turning from righteousness, and the torment of a guilty conscience.

Analysis MacBeth has a historically setting and borrows some basic historical facts from a history book of Shakespeare’s time, but it must be acknowledged that much of the drama of the work is fiction. Shakespeare’s understanding of human nature produces a dramatic fictional work, underscored with historical themes. Thus, while coming from a history/legend book, it is best to appreciate the author’s skill of portraying human nature and drama rather than take our Ancient Scottish history from this play.

On the whole the play is very, very dark (of course, it’s a tragedy), but I see value in the study of this classic work. It is a powerful literary example of Biblical truth. James 1:14-15 reminds us: “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.” MacBeth was tempted by the witches’ prophecies, desired to be king, committed murder, and, in the end, was haunted by his deeds until his death.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Have you read MacBeth? What did you think of it?

You can find the full text here.

I have seen a film version, but I cannot recommend it. I watched what is called the least gruesome MacBeth film, and while not gory, it was really creepy and frightful (in a bad way). I’d highly recommend reading the play if you’re 16 or older, but would suggest skipping all film versions.

Henry V: The Fictionalized King

Henry V. What do you think of when that name is mentioned? My first thought is a young, handsome, English king making a dynamic speech to his loyal followers. (Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare).

Who was this king? Was he really the character that Shakespeare imagined? How did the play-writer fictionalize this historic figure?

A painting of King Henry V at Agincourt

A painting of King Henry V at Agincourt

The Play (Warning: SPOILERS) The play opens with a narrator asking if a theater stage can effectively show the battlefields of France and asks the audience to use imagination. Preparations for a campaign in France are detailed and three of the king’s “friends” plot to assassinate him, but are discovered. Sir John Falstaff, an old friend, of Prince Henry, dies and other rowdy friends embark as soldiers in the campaign. Various scenes show the French court debating what to do and King Henry besieging a town. Princess Katherine of France is “taught” English to make her a more desirable queen for King Henry should he agree to accept her in exchange for peace. On the eve of battle, the French Prince expresses overconfidence while across the field King Henry wanders quietly among his soldiers, concluding his reflective evening by acknowledging he is a king, yet still only a man praying for victory. The next morning King Henry makes the famous St. Crispin Day speech and rallies his troops. The fighting is intense, the Duke of York is brutally killed, but the English win the battle. The French are forced to make peace and King Henry attempts to win Princess Katherine’s heart, though her limited knowledge of the English languages makes a humorous scene. The play concludes with the betrothal of King Henry and Princess Katherine, but the narrator reminds us the English king died and the throne went to his son.

The History The play is actually part of a series Shakespeare wrote (Richard II, Henry IV part 1 & 2, Henry V) detailing historical events of the British monarchy and the Hundred Years War. Henry V depicts that king’s campaign in France and the Battle of Agincourt (1415). The English were highly successfully at Agincourt; French casualties were between 7,000-10,000 while English casualties were less than 150. The long bows used by the skilled English archers were very effectively and when the French knights rode into a muddy field they were literally sitting targets. After the battle, King Henry had the French prisoner killed, rather than holding them for ransom. King Henry did marry Prince Katherine.

The Fiction

1. Carousing In this drama the main character has suddenly left his “Prince Hal” character of the previous two plays and is now a noble king. There is some historical question regarding the authenticity of Henry’s carousing years, especially considering the leadership positions in the government and military he held while still a prince. This view of Prince/King Henry appeared in an earlier drama and Shakespeare seems to have expanded it. Why? It’s dramatic to see a careless boy suddenly take responsibility and win a great national victory…still it may be unfair to the real Prince Henry.

2. Young, Handsome King Henry V was about 29 years old in 1415, not quite as young as he sometimes appears in art of the Battle of Agincourt. Every hero is supposed to be handsome, right? Um, not in this history. When I first saw a production of the play, I was confused by one of the King’s statements when he is trying to talk with Princess Katherine; he refers to his face being scarred and perhaps frightening. A little research revealed that the real King Henry had suffered a severe arrow wound in the face during a military expedition when he was younger. (We won’t go into the graphic details here, but it was a very bad wound and would have left an ugly scar). Hmm…also interesting to note that in this portrait of the king (see below) we only see the unscarred side of his face.

Medieval portrait of King Henry V

Medieval portrait of King Henry V

3. English Nationalism This is a more challenging topic to add to the fictional list. There is no question that the French lost the battle and were likely awake all the previous night “preparing” those heavy armor suits while the English were resting. But it is very evident Shakespeare was an Englishman and he certainly portrays the English in the best light. Certainly there’s prudence in what the English did – I’m not debating that. I’d just like to consider the French side of the story…sure, they were proud, but were ALL of them really as overconfident as Shakespeare imagines? It is also interesting to note that he does not acknowledge King Henry’s killing of the French prisoners…again portraying the English as good as possible.

4. The Speeches Okay, okay, I know Henry V is drama – I expect the great, dramatic addresses, but let’s remember these are the product of Shakespeare’s imagination. I greatly dislike opening a history book for young readers and having Shakespeare’s words presented as the authentic speeches of the real King Henry.


Shakespeare wrote this play to emphasis the history of England and to glorify it. He accomplished his goal. Overall, the drama is based on historical fact, but it certainly has the fictional gloss.

Unfortunately, the King Henry of the play is the only King Henry most people know about. He may have been a more responsible and trustworthy prince than Shakespeare portrays. He won a great victory at Agincourt, but the history is tarnished by the slaughter of the prisoners – an action not acceptable in medieval chivalry. Thus Henry V is a fictionalized king best known for the Speech of St. Crispin’s Day which was written by William Shakespeare.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. I don’t meant to be harsh; I really enjoy the drama Henry V. Just remember the power and influence of historical fiction! What are your thoughts?

In case you’re interested here’s a link to the full text of Henry V.

And I’ve seen the 1989 adaption of Henry V with Kenneth Branagh. I enjoyed it, but be forewarned the olde English may be challenging to interpret. *There are some intense battle scenes, death scenes, and a hanging which may not be suitable to all audiences.*

Shakespeare’s Historical Fiction

Can you think of a story written about 400 years ago that has remained popular throughout the centuries? How about the works of William Shakespeare? (Check my postscript for a quotation about reading Shakespeare during the Civil War Era!) Did you know many of his plays are actually historical fiction?

1623 William Shakespear Plays

“So what is Historical Fiction?” Good question – and many people are going to give you many different answers. (Ah, human nature…) Well, here on Gazette665, I like to define historical fiction as a story in a historical setting with characters behaving in accordance with their cultural norms in order to give readers a glimpse of life in the past through an interesting tale. (Note: characters could be entirely fictional, or they could be real historical figures).

“Okay – so why Shakespeare?” I think Shakespeare was one of – if not the first – historical fiction writers. He wrote masterpieces which are still read and performed about 400 years later. This month we’re going to take a closer look at the history behind William Shakespeare’s plays. I hope the topic will be fun and enlightening for the writers and history buffs alike! But let’s start with a lighter introduction this week:

5 Things To Notice In William Shakespeare’s Historical Fiction

1. Highly Motivated Characters Shakespeare’s character are dynamic. They fight battles, plot traps, determine never to fall in love, try to escape guilty consciences, and mock the frailty of human nature (just to name a few). The plots of the stories vary, but the main characters have a great obstacle to overcome.

2. Dramatized Historical Events  Historically, King Henry V made a speech before the Battle of Agincourt, but it probably wasn’t the stylized “we few, we happy few” address that Shakespeare wrote. This is one of the keys to Shakespeare’s historical fiction. He studied past events, gleaned enough history to keep it real and somewhat factual, then masterfully added the gloss of fiction to add glory (or tragedy) to a historical event.

3. Intensified Emotions (And Speeches) Think of any Shakespearean play and you’ll recall deep thoughts and feelings expressed in flowing words. Yes, it’s un-realistic. People simply don’t wander through their house saying long soliloquys. Soldiers don’t have time to make glorious speeches as they charge into battle. But that’s not the point. The important thing is the deep emotion Shakespeare wrote into his plots. As readers we can feel the pain, the joy, the triumph, the hope.

4. Understood Human Nature Shakespeare understood human nature. He used it as he wrote (and fictionalized) historic events. A Scottish king really was murdered (more about this history in an upcoming post). Shakespeare takes the few known facts about the incident, crafts a story of rebellious desire and a hideous action, and then shows us the outcome of the character’s descent to madness because of the torment of his conscience. Suddenly, historical facts become understandably real – there is human motivation and reaction in these plays…pride, rebellion, love, hope, escape, justice.

5. Writing With A Message As the master playwright constructed his plays, he added “effects” that would prompt thought in his audience. One story might dramatize a national victory, another highlight the tragic chaos in Italian cities, while another shows the importance of friendship. There’s a purpose to the story…an inspiration…something the audience (or reader) can learn. Best of all, the messages Shakespeare worked into his plays are timeless – we can appreciate them today.

What is your favorite Shakespearean play? Why? Please share your thoughts in a comment. Next week we’ll start looking as the history behind the dramatic masterpieces!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. I’m off to a Civil War Re-enactment today, so that historical era is forefront in my mind, and I couldn’t help adding this connection. The works of William Shakespeare were popular reading material for young people during the Civil War era.

Twenty-two year old Sandie Pendleton (Confederate officer) wrote to his mother from a military camp, detailing some his friends activities: “We have been reading Shakespeare at nights, McGuire reading excellently & Crutchfield being more conversant with it than anyone I ever saw and reciting by heart every passage that can be called for, while I, at first a mere listener, now put in comments upon ancient tragedy and can…make apt quotations and cite parallelisms in quite a learned way…” (November 15, 1862) [Stonewall’s Man: Sandie Pendleton, by W.G. Bean, page 84]

There’s your Civil War era cultural history for the day! See you next week with photos from the re-enactment.