Setting:  Romeo and Juliet 

Erin E. Murphy

    In order to explore how a play creates an experience for the audience, one of the elements of the play that should be studied is setting.  Considering where and when the action occurs is necessary to better understand the play.  The play Romeo and Juliet takes place, most generally, in the cities of Verona and Mantua, Italy, over the course of four short days.   The setting is a representative place, meaning that the stage represents an actual place.  All of the scenes occur in Verona, except Act V, scene 1, which takes place in the city of Mantua.  Verona is the home of the Capulet and Montague families.  Mantua is where Romeo is banished after he kills Tybalt.  A majority of the action in the play takes place out-of-doors in Verona, from the fruitful Capulet orchard where Romeo and Juliet profess their love, to the bleak Capulet tomb where the lovers take their lives.  The vision of the world that is suggested by the setting is social, in spite of the political connotations that arise when the lovers are told that they are to hate each other because of their names.  The action neither befell a war between states, nor is it an abstraction.  Much of the action of the play is centered on the civil disorder that occurs between the Capulet and Montague families.

    There are three scenes that occur in public locations that distinctly have to do with the consequence of violence among the families in the play.(1)  The violence between the feuding families that erupts during these scenes helps to drive the action forward.  The first scene of the play takes place in a public place in Verona.  This scene depicts an argument between the household servants, of both the Capulet and the Montague families, concerning which servants serve the better man.  Samson, a servant to the Capulets, attacks Abraham, a servant to the Montagues.  Benvolio, Montague's nephew, and Tybalt, Capulet's nephew, enter the scene.  Benvolio tries to break up the fighting, but Tybalt engages him in combat.  As they fight, Capulet and Montague enter the scene and speak of drawing swords as their wives protest.  Finally, through Escalus, Prince of Verona, the audience learns that there have been other public brawls recently between the families.

    In Act III, scene 1, Tybalt accosts Romeo's friend Mercutio, and Benvolio in a public square while they were searching for Romeo.  Romeo enters the scene as they fight.  Tybalt tries to provoke Romeo into fighting, but he is now married to Juliet, Tybalt's cousin, so Romeo does not return his insults.  Mercutio takes it upon himself to defend Romeo and attacks Tybalt.  Romeo steps between them, but Mercutio is mortally wounded by Tybalt under the arm of Romeo.  Seeking revenge, Romeo attacks and kills Tybalt.  The citizens are up in arms over the fighting and Escalus enters and banishes Romeo to Mantua under penalty of death.  Finally, Act V, scene 3 takes place in Verona at the Capulet's tomb.  Paris is first seen at the tomb putting flowers on Juliet's grave.  Romeo arrives and Paris, thinking that he is going to take revenge on the Capulets by desecrating the bodies, threatens to kill Romeo.  Romeo gives Paris the chance to flee and when he does not, Romeo kills him.
    Since much of the play takes place outside, another aspect of setting that is important to discuss is the weather.  The play takes place in the month of July.  July is a month that is characteristically hot.  Tempers are more likely to flare and patience is more easily lost in the heat.  Consideration of the heat may help to explain the amount of violence between the families.  Heat may also be used in reference to sexual desire. The heat further ignites the passion between Romeo and Juliet.  It is more than just the lovers that are affected by the heat.  Sexual innuendoes are prevalent throughout the play.  For example, the Nurse  tells Juliet in Act I, scene 3,  that someday she will enjoy tumbling under a man.
    Finally, the contrast in setting between Act II, scene 2 and Act V, scene 3 is symbolic of the events that take place in them.  Act II, scene 2, is set in the Capulet's orchard.  It is here where Romeo and Juliet profess their love for one another.  The orchard blossoms, as does their love.  During this scene, although it is night, the lovers speak to one another in terms of "light".  Juliet compares their love to lightning while Romeo compares Juliet to the sun.  In contrast, the final scene of the play (Act V, scene 3) is set in the churchyard at the site of the Capulet's tomb.  The churchyard is full of gravestones that mark the dreary landscape.  It is fitting that the lovers should take their lives in the churchyard, among the dead.

    From Act I, scene 4 to Act I, scene 5, the action is continuous.  The setting moves from a street near the Capult's house to a hall inside the house.  The actors do not exit the scene.  Instead, they march to one side of the stage to give the appearance of traveling to the house.  This is testimony to the swift moving action of the play.  The play occurs swiftly over the course of four days. The length of the play consists of five acts containing twenty-four scenes.  The correlation between the span of days that the play encompasses and the number of scenes in the play is negatively related.  The play Romeo and Juliet is full of action.  The play has to cover four days, which make the twenty-four scenes necessary, but the actual time of the performance moves quickly because the action moves quickly.
    The first day of the play, Sunday, consists of the fight between the servants, Romeo and Juliet's meeting at the Capulet's feast, and Romeo and Juliet's declaration of their love for one another.  On Monday, the lovers are married at Friar Laurence's cell.  Romeo then kills Tybalt and is banished, but he risks his life by spending his honeymoon night with Juliet.  Also, during this evening, Capulet arranges for Juliet's marriage to Paris on Thursday.  At dawn on Tuesday, Romeo leaves Juliet to go to Mantua.  Capulet and his wife then tell Juliet of her coming marriage to Paris.  At once, Juliet seeks the help of Friar Laurence and they devise the plan for the lovers to be together.  Meanwhile, Capulet changes the wedding day from Thursday to Wednesday.  This forces Juliet to drink her potion and fake her death that night.  Finally, on Wednesday, Balthasar goes to Mantua to tell Romeo the news of Juliet's death.  Not having received word of Juliet's plan from Friar Laurence, Romeo believes that she is dead.  He buys poison and rides to the Capulet's tomb.  While there, he kills Paris and drinks the poison.  Juliet then rises to find that Romeo is dead and she stabs herself with his dagger.  The play ends, late at night, with the discovery of the bodies by Escalus, the Capulets, and the Montagues.
    Night and darkness have an important part in the setting of the play.  Several of the scenes involving the lovers occur at night.  This is symbolic of the secrecy of their relationship.  Romeo and Juliet first meet at night at the Capulet's feast.  The balcony scene, where they confessed their love for one another, transpired at night.  The lovers also consummated their marriage at night.  Lastly, they both took their own lives at the tomb at night.

    If the action of the play had not moved so quickly, the course of events in the play would likely be different.  What if Romeo had not killed Tybalt?  The lovers could have then made their marriage public and possibly ended the feud without any more bloodshed.  If the Friar Laurence's note had gotten to Romeo, he would have known of Juliet's plan to fake her own death.  Also, if Romeo had waited to confirm Juliet's death instead of galloping off to the tomb, their lives would have been saved.  Unfortunately, none of these events takes place.  Verona bares witness to the family feud, between the Capulet and Montague families, which has been in existence for generations.  In a matter of days, however, the feud finally ends.  However, it takes the deaths of five of the family members for Capulet and Montague to make their peace.

1.  From the introduction (xxiv) of :
Shakespeare,William.  Romeo and Juliet.  Ed. David Bevington.  New York:  Bantam
    Books, 1980.

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