Shakespeare was clearly influenced by the events of his time, and this is apparent especially in Romeo and Juliet. To dismiss this play as a mere fable is to overlook some very important religious and political changes of the time which are evidently woven into the storyline of the play. Shakespeare’s religious beliefs are uncertain, but it is known that his father was Catholic and that he lived in a time of religious stratification across both community and family ties. As a result of the queen’s toleration for vagueness in this area, people became accustomed to “religious tension and confusion at a very personal level”. Many of Shakespeare’s works reflect that tension. It is known that these issues had affect on everyone living in England.
Romeo and Juliet is a play based around conflict; the conflict of two families in discord with one another. The youth of the play cause violence and death due to their extreme beliefs and actions. If the family relationships are considered as a miniature representation of the greater social structure then the possibility of specific themes that are integrated into Shakespeare’s play arises. Firstly, consider Religious Extremism versus the Elizabethan Settlement. Shakespeare is attacking neither the Catholics nor the Protestants. What he does condemn is the senseless and radical actions of the youth in the play.
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In Romeo and Juliet, the older generation has evidently made peace and learned to live together, which resembles the principles of the Settlement. The families are still separate entities, but they have learned to live together, almost in peace, just as Catholics and Protestants still existed as separate faiths but were brought together in compromise through the Church of England and the Elizabethan Settlement. The youth of England however, was not content with the Settlement. This applies especially to the Protestant youth who wanted “the Reformation to be completed on a model provided by Jean Calvin’s Geneva”. Otherwise known as Puritans, they viewed the Settlement as a kind of intermediate state. This extreme version of Protestantism, as well as the remaining Catholics whose loyalty still belonged only to the Pope, continued to prevent the nation from reaching religious stability.
Shakespeare, who was a loyal subject and supporter of the queen, offers a commentary on this situation in Romeo and Juliet. The Queen’s church reflected her own “likings for the externals of Catholic worship” and she hated the “religious enthusiasm” of the Puritan movement. The Settlement also allowed her to stay in control over the state religion, whereas the Puritan belief in an independent church government undermined her power and the national unity she tried to reach. Although it would seem that Romeo and Juliet is a criticism of the well-known social rules that regarded marriage as being contradictory to actual romantic love, a closer reading of the text shows that the youth in the play are the ones whose actions result in violence and death.
Shakespeare seems to dispute the individual’s right to disrupt the community because of individual beliefs. This leads to another influence on Shakespeare’s works. The Reformation resulted in the developing idea of individualism. When Protestantism imposed on the Catholic order, the role of the individual in religion and society was greatly increased. The reign of Elizabeth began an age of amendment in which formal Protestantism dominated many who were personally “crypto-Catholics.” Protestantism stressed the role of the individual in the community. ‘Normal people’ became able to read and understand the Bible without the guidance of the Church.
There was also the newfound notion of religious choice, which was absurd, mainly because the Universal Church was the only option. Now the responsibility of which movement to align with was placed upon the individual, according to their own personal beliefs. The Church of England did not promote the same kind of individualism as the Puritan movement did. However, just the reality of the religious events created a new role and emphasis upon the individual. This emphasis was just as threatening to the political establishment as it was to the established Church, and it raised new questions about the creation of a new order. These questions are evident in Romeo and Juliet. The question of marriage was a primary concern in Elizabethan society as well as in the play.
Romeo and Juliet use religious language to describe their love for one another. For example, In Act2 Scene2, Romeo says to Juliet: “for thou art As glorious to this night, being o’er my head as is a winged messenger of heaven”. This depicts the new sense of religious choice. The discretion in which they act about their individual desires is an indication that Elizabethan society saw individual happiness very differently from how our modern society does. Instead, most of the population still valued the good of the community over that of the individual and would have understood that Romeo and Juliet’s decision, based on individualism, is their one major flaw and that when acting as an individual, the consequences of one’s actions affect not only oneself but the whole society.
Modern culture, now that we have grown so far from the age of Individualism, can idolize Romeo and Juliet and villainize social order, but it is uncertain whether an Elizabethan audience would have had the same views. ‘I suggest that Romeo and Juliet is not so much a play about romantic love as it is a religious and political commentary. To reduce Shakespeare’s work to allegory would be an oversimplification of his work; however, to divorce it from the literary and socio-political trends of his time is to overlook an important element of theatre during the Elizabethan period’.