“Romeo and Juliet” has over 3,000 lines. But from line 6, we know how it will end. A pair of unlucky lovers will “take their life”. So the audience knows from the start of the play that whatever attempts are made to reach a happy ending – by parents, perhaps, or by priests – they will fail.
In short, dramatic irony underwrites everything that happens. It’s a technique that’s endemic to Shakespeare’s practice as a playwright. It engages the audience because it deepens and enriches our understanding of what is happening on the stage, and gives us a stake in it. Character A may not know that Character B has a knife concealed in his cloak – but we know, and we want him to find out before it’s too late.
Dramatic irony may also imply something about human nature that is not exactly flattering: human beings often operate on the basis of incomplete information. They think they know what they need to know – alas, the audience watches helplessly as the characters’ ignorance is exposed and exploited.
“Romeo and Juliet” is a good example of this. We watch Capulet tell Paris that his daughter is his last hope, knowing already that she is doomed; we watch him later persuade himself that all will be well when she marries Paris, though we know this will never happen because she’s already married to Romeo. We watch Paris in turn persuade himself that Juliet died of grief because of the death of her cousin Tybalt. Again, we know better.
There are many such instances in this play – where human ignorance, so far from being bliss, is the source of many troubles. The audience, however, informed from line 6 about what will happen, knows too much, and can only sit and suffer as the events of the play unfold.
Scene by Scene
A summary of the story: two young lovers are destroyed by a family feud not of their own making.
ACT ONE SCENE ONE
Two of Capulet’s servants are drawn into a street brawl with two employees of the Montagues.
Benvolio, a Montague, tries to restore the peace, but Tybalt, a Capulet, is determined to fight.
Capulet and Montague arrive and – despite their wives’ protests – are keen to make matters worse.
Escalus, governor of Verona, restores order and threatens all concerned with the death penalty.
A change of mood – as Lady Montague, alone with her husband and Benvolio, asks after Romeo.
Benvolio reports that Romeo avoided him earlier, and Montague says his son has been tearful lately.
Romeo arrives, and Benvolio finds out that his cousin is in love but that his feelings are not returned.
ACT ONE SCENE TWO
Capulet, reluctant to let Paris marry Juliet when she is not yet 14, suggests waiting for two years.
He calls her his last hope, and underlines to Paris the importance of her consent to any marriage.
But he invites Paris to his party later that night, and tells a servant to deliver further invitations.
Benvolio arrives, advising Romeo that if his love is not returned, he should look elsewhere.
They encounter Capulet’s servant and discover that he is throwing a party later that evening.
Among the guests will be Rosaline, Capulet’s “fair niece”, the woman breaking Romeo’s heart.
Benvolio predicts they will see many other beauties there; Romeo says she is beyond compare.
ACT ONE SCENE THREE
Juliet’s nurse is in a reflective mood, recalling Juliet’s childhood (and her own dead child Susan).
Lady Capulet wants Juliet to focus on Paris later tonight, with a view to marriage in due course.
ACT ONE SCENE FOUR
Mercutio light-heartedly berates Romeo for being down, and encourages him to enjoy being in love.
When Romeo mentions a dream he has had, Mercutio takes off on a flight of fancy on the subject.
Romeo senses that this evening will have ominous consequences, and even perhaps bring death.
ACT ONE SCENE FIVE
Capulet jovially welcomes his guests but the audience sense Romeo and Juliet fated to meet tonight.
Romeo catches sight of Juliet and, echoing Benvolio’s earlier prediction, forgets Rosaline completely.
Even wearing his party mask, Romeo is spotted for a Montague by the aggressive Tybalt.
But Capulet’s jovial mood prompts him to dismiss Tybalt and speak well of Romeo’s reputation.
Romeo meets Juliet for the first time, and in 18 lines they touch and kiss before Juliet is called away.
Romeo learns from Juliet’s nurse that his new love is a Capulet – “the more is my unrest”.
As Romeo leaves, Juliet asks her nurse for his name, to learn that she “must love a loathed enemy”.
Driven by love, Romeo and Juliet will overcome all obstacles to express their feelings for each other.
ACT TWO SCENE ONE
The party is over and Romeo escapes from Benvolio and Mercutio to leap into the Capulets’ orchard.
Mercutio calls after him in his high-spirited way, but Benvolio persuades him to come away home.
ACT TWO SCENE TWO
Romeo, hidden in the orchard, sees Juliet emerge onto her balcony to clear her confused feelings.
She laments falling in love with a Montague and proposes abandoning her identity as a Capulet.
When she calls on Romeo to renounce his name, he emerges from the darkness to greet her.
Juliet, embarrassed at what he has overheard, restates her love and begs Romeo to reciprocate.
He swears he loves her and after agreeing to meet on the next day, they part reluctantly.
ACT TWO SCENE THREE
Friar Laurence, up early to pick medicinal plants, compares them to people, capable of good and evil.
Meeting Romeo he asks after Rosaline, and is pleased to hear that name has now been forgotten.
But then Laurence is shocked to be asked to marry Romeo to Juliet, and calls Romeo a “waverer”.
Still, he senses that if this new alliance goes ahead, it may mend the feud between the two families.
ACT TWO SCENE FOUR
Romeo’s friends have noticed his absence overnight and reveal that Tybalt has challenged him.
Romeo arrives and Mercutio engages him in light-hearted and (at times) salacious conversation.
He wishes Romeo would abandon his romantic ways and return to his old cheerful and witty self.
The nurse arrives, and Romeo tells her that Juliet must meet with Friar Laurence that afternoon.
The nurse tells Romeo about Paris but adds that Juliet has no intention of marrying him.
ACT TWO SCENE FIVE
Juliet shows her impatience to hear from the nurse whether plans are in place for the marriage.
The nurse teases Juliet for her impatience by being deliberately evasive before giving her the news.
Juliet is to go to Friar Laurence to meet Romeo, while the nurse secures a ladder to her balcony.
ACT TWO SCENE SIX
Romeo asserts that even the thought of death cannot dilute the joy he feels in marrying Juliet.
Friar Laurence wisely reminds him that a successful love is one that proceeds cautiously.
Juliet arrives and declares that words cannot express how happy and “rich” she feels.
Friar Laurence closes the act by instructing Romeo and Juliet to join him at the marriage ceremony.
ACT THREE SCENE ONE
Benvolio and Mercutio quarrel light-heartedly over which of them is the more quarrelsome.
Tybalt arrives with his entourage and engages provocatively with Mercutio, clearly ready for a fight.
Romeo appears but Tybalt’s attempts to provoke him to fight contrast with Romeo’s friendly reply.
Mercutio seems shocked by Romeo’s response to Tybalt, and draws his sword.
Romeo comes between Tybalt and Mercutio but as he does so, Tybalt mortally wounds his friend.
Mercutio is carried away to die – enraging Romeo, who feels guilty for what has happened to him.
When Tybalt reappears, Romeo avenges Mercutio’s death by killing Tybalt, then fleeing the scene.
Escalus reappears for the first time since 1.1, and invites Benvolio to explain what has happened.
Escalus listens to the views of the parents before banishing Romeo from Verona on pain of death.
ACT THREE SCENE TWO
Juliet is impatient for night to come and bring Romeo climbing the ladder to her balcony and room.
The nurse, confused and panicking, reveals Romeo has killed Tybalt and is banished from Verona.
At first Juliet is angry with Romeo for seeming to be a “saint” but turning out to be a “villain”.
But when the nurse exclaims “Shame come to Romeo”, Juliet immediately leaps to his defence.
The nurse says she knows where Romeo is, and volunteers to bring him to Juliet that night.
ACT THREE SCENE THREE
Romeo, having fled the scene of Tybalt’s killing, is told by Friar Laurence the punishment he faces.
He is horrified: a fly may live in Verona, but not Romeo. He would prefer to die.
When the nurse arrives to report the distress he has caused Juliet, he is ready to end his own life.
Friar Laurence rebukes him: you are lucky to be alive, he tells him, for all kinds of reasons.
Take refuge in Mantua until things can be resolved here, he says. Meanwhile, go to Juliet tonight.
Romeo’s spirits revive. He will be with Juliet tonight and leave Verona before first light tomorrow.
ACT THREE SCENE FOUR
Juliet marks her marriage to Romeo with him in her room; Capulet and Paris discuss her wedding.
Lady Capulet reports that Juliet is alone in her bedroom, nursing her grief at her cousin’s death.
Capulet reassures Paris that his daughter will follow his guidance regarding her marriage to him.
He tells his wife to visit Juliet’s room that evening to tell her she is to be married in three days.
ACT THREE SCENE FIVE
Dawn is breaking and it is time for Romeo to leave for Mantua or he will be caught and killed.
Juliet’s mother is coming but Romeo’s escape leaves Juliet wondering when they will next meet.
As Romeo leaves, Juliet has a vision of him “in the bottom of a tomb”. They will not meet again.
Lady Capulet ascribes Juliet’s unhappy mood to the death the day before of her cousin Tybalt.
She reassures Juliet the Capulets will despatch a poisoner to Mantua to take care of Romeo.
Further good news: Juliet is to be married to Paris in two days’ time. Juliet point-blank refuses.
Capulet arrives to be informed that Juliet has refused to go along with the wedding to Paris.
He is enraged, and can’t understand how she can turn down a man of such wealth and status.
He concludes with a threat: either do as agreed or “hang, beg, starve [and] die in the streets”.
When the nurse advises her to go through with the wedding, Juliet realises that she is alone.
ACT FOUR SCENE ONE
Juliet arrives at Friar Laurence’s cell only to meet Paris – who evidently misunderstands her grief.
She has an evasive conversation with him, before the Friar asks Paris to leave them.
Juliet asks him to provide a solution to her predicament or she will end her own life.
She tells him she would prefer to die any number of grotesque deaths than marry Paris.
The Friar produces a vial or small bottle of liquid which when consumed will make her seem dead.
Meanwhile he will write to Romeo to let him know the plan so that he can bring her to Mantua.
ACT FOUR SCENE TWO
Juliet returns to her family to inform her father that she is ready to marry Paris as he instructs.
Capulet reassures his wife that he feels “wondrous light” that his daughter has agreed to his wishes.
ACT FOUR SCENE THREE
Juliet is left alone by her mother and nurse, who she says must have plenty to do before tomorrow.
Juliet is beset with doubts about the liquid – it may be too weak to work – or it may be poison.
Next she fears Romeo may not come to “redeem” her, and she may be left “stifled in the vault”.
Or surrounded by her ancestors’ bones in the vault, she may go mad and dash out her own brains.
Finally, with a vision of Tybalt hunting after Romeo, she drinks the potion and collapses on her bed.
ACT FOUR SCENE FOUR
Vigorous preparations are in train in the Capulets’ household as the nurse is sent to wake the bride.
ACT FOUR SCENE FIVE
The nurse is surprised at how deeply Juliet is sleeping – before she realises what has happened.
Finding his daughter dead, Capulet’s first thought – she has died “to make me wail” – is for himself.
Capulet, his wife, the nurse and Paris each in turn express their heartfelt pain at Juliet’s death.
Friar Laurence, who knows the truth, consoles them with the thought that Juliet is now in heaven.
Capulet concludes that the preparations made for the wedding must now serve for the funeral.
Impervious to the tragedy, the house musicians exchange jokes and puns about music and money.
ACT FIVE SCENE ONE
Exiled in Mantua, Romeo cheerfully recalls a dream in which his body is revived by a kiss from Juliet.
But now Balthasar arrives from Verona to tell Romeo that Juliet is dead and now “with angels lives”.
Desperate with grief, Romeo resolves to return to Verona with poison to “lie” next to Juliet tonight.
The apothecary agrees to sell him the poison despite the fact that selling it carries the death penalty.
ACT FIVE SCENE TWO
Friar Laurence learns that, because of the plague, a kind of lockdown is operating in Mantua.
So his vital letter explaining to Romeo that Juliet will soon revive has not been delivered to him.
Laurence decides to race to the vault to rescue Juliet and conceal her in his cell until Romeo arrives.
ACT FIVE SCENE THREE
In his grief Paris is delivering flowers to Juliet’s tomb when Romeo arrives from Mantua.
Romeo gives his servant a letter for his father, then instructs him to keep his distance.
As Romeo is breaking into the vault, Paris recognises him, and identifies him as Tybalt’s murderer.
At first Romeo is friendly but when Paris tries to arrest him, they fight, and Paris is killed.
Coming face to face with Juliet at last, Romeo reflects that, though dead, she is as beautiful as ever.
Longing to be with her, he drinks the poison he has brought from Mantua, kisses Juliet, and dies.
Moments too late Friar Laurence arrives at the vault, to discover the bodies of Paris and Romeo.
Juliet awakes to be told by Laurence that Romeo is dead, and that they must make their escape.
Laurence goes but Juliet remains to kiss the poison on Romeo’s lips and stab herself with his dagger.
The alarm is raised, and the Capulets and Montagues are joined by Friar Laurence and Escalus.
Friar Laurence takes responsibility for the carnage they see about them, and relates the whole story.
As penance Laurence offers his “old life” to be subject to “the rigour of severest law”.
Escalus rounds on Montague and Capulet, and blames their feud for the blood that has been shed.
The parents resolve to bury the hatchet, with Montague praising Juliet and Capulet Romeo.
The Prologue is a brave gesture from the writer’s perspective, because it tells the whole story before the play begins. Now the audience’s focus is not so much on what will happen as on how the outcome described here (where “star-cross’d lovers take their life”) will be reached.
A contrast is drawn in the opening scene between Benvolio and Tybalt. The former, a Montague, immediately tries to restore order; the latter, a Capulet, makes matters worse with his provocative and aggressive behaviour.
In 1.1, both Montague and Capulet senior are ready to fight as soon as they arrive. But in the scenes that follow, both are presented as sensitive and responsible parents: Montague emerges as well-informed about his son, informing his wife that he has recently been tearful, while Capulet, in conversation with Paris, underlines the importance of his daughter’s consent to any marriage.
Romeo’s conversations with Benvolio are highly informative: in 1.1, Romeo reveals that the woman he loves is determined to “live chaste”. In 1.2, Benvolio advises Romeo to let his eye wander at the feast tonight, and he will “think thy swan a crow”. So it proves.
Questions routinely arise about Juliet’s age. In 1.2, her father is quite clear about this: “She hath not seen the change of fourteen years”. In other words, she is nearly 14. This is confirmed in 1.3, when the Nurse announces “On Lammas-eve (i.e., July 31st) at night shall she be fourteen”. The age of consent in Shakespeare’s England was 12 for girls and 14 for boys. Romeo’s age is not specified.
During the street fight in 1.1, Capulet is presented as an aggressor. But in the scene that follows, he is rather different: it’s important to him, he says, that Juliet should consent to any marriage with Paris: “An [if] she agree, within her scope of choice / Lies my consent,” he tells Paris. In other words, within reason she may choose her own husband.
Capulet’s sensitive love for his daughter is expressed in a speech heavy with dramatic irony. It is certainly touching to read Capulet concede that “The earth hath swallow’d all my hopes but she”. But we know that – partly through his own mistakes and failings – she will go on to marry Romeo and lose her life to suicide.
By the end of 1.3, both Romeo and Juliet have relationships pending that preclude one another: Romeo to Rosaline and Juliet to Paris.
At the end of 1.4 Romeo is invested by the playwright with powers of prescience, anticipating “Some consequence yet hanging in the stars” to arise from the forthcoming party. The same sense of fate hangs over the scene that follows, as the audience has been primed to follow the fortunes of the young pair, about to be turned upside down against the wishes of family and friends.
When Capulet dismisses Tybalt’s demand that Romeo be expelled from his feast in 1.5 he unwittingly sets in train the sequence of events that ends with the star-crossed lovers taking their lives. It’s ironic that if he had done as Tybalt demanded and shown Romeo the door, his plans for his daughter’s marriage to Paris might have been saved.
The prologue at the start of act two seems surplus to requirements in a way the earlier prologue is pretty central. However, it’s worth noting that this second prologue suggests that Romeo’s interest in Juliet is superficial, describing him as “betwitched [sic] by the charm of looks”.
When Juliet, standing (as she thinks) alone on her bedroom balcony, asks “wherefore art thou Romeo?” she is not wondering where he is. “Wherefore?” means “why?” and Juliet is berating fate for inducing her to fall in love with Romeo – of all people, a Capulet.
When Romeo calls on Friar Laurence to marry him to Juliet, the friar shows not just wisdom (“they stumble that run fast” etc) but also idealism (hoping to end the feud) and honesty, addressing Romeo as “young waverer”. It’s clear that Romeo has confided in him before as he knows something of the history of Rosaline. Later, any impression of wisdom on Friar Laurence’s part will be undermined by events.
Both Romeo and Juliet have an adult supporter or adviser, neither of whom is a family member. In the event, neither is wholly reliable. Friar Laurence, it seems, has his own agenda, and he makes mistakes that cost lives at the end of the play; the nurse meanwhile is in out of her depth in operating as a kind of midwife to the romance.
Act two in general reveals how two adults, Friar Laurence and the Nurse, freelance without the consent of anyone except Romeo and Juliet themselves to bring about the marriage. Any sense of a duty of care to the parents is abandoned, as they pursue their own agendas on behalf of a boy and girl who are little more than children.
Dramatic irony is an effective tool when the characters don’t know all the facts. It’s also powerful when one or more of the characters is keeping secrets – as Romeo and Juliet are in Act Three. 3.4 is a good example. Here, everything Capulet discusses with his wife and with Count Paris is based on false premises. Juliet is alone tonight, grieving for Tybalt? Wrong – she’s far from alone and she’s far from grieving. Juliet will be guided by Capulet in the matter of marriage? Wrong again – she’s already married. Wednesday is “too soon” for this marriage? Wrong – Wednesday is too late. The scene is excruciating for the audience because of the contrast between what the characters think they know and the real situation: dramatic irony driven by the secret liaison of the two main characters.
Soliloquies are an important Shakespearean convention which tell us what the character really thinks. Some of Shakespeare’s later tragedies (“Othello” for example, “Macbeth” and “Hamlet”) have numerous soliloquies which help the audience keep abreast of events and feelings. “Romeo and Juliet” has very few, and these are brief. But Juliet’s eight-line soliloquy at the end of Act Three is worth pausing over. Not only does she here break with the nurse, who has been her staunchest ally to this point, but also she articulates for the first time the outcome mentioned in line 6 of the play: “myself have power to die”.
The Friar’s plan in 4.1 is for Juliet to fake her own death in order to outflank her family. They will lay her body in the family vault, and from there she will be able to escape their clutches unpursued. Curiously this same narrative device underwrites a modern novel, “The Third Man” by Graham Greene – though there it is seen from a different perspective. In “Romeo and Juliet” the audience is privy to the plot whereas in Greene’s novel, the fact that Harry Lime is still alive comes as a surprise to the reader. Once again, Shakespeare has kept his audience in the loop in this play, and the only party that is short on knowledge is the other characters – Juliet’s parents in particular.
When Friar John travels to Mantua (about 30 miles away), he’s taking a letter from Laurence to Romeo with the real story about Juliet’s “death”. But Mantua’s under lockdown with the plague, so John can’t deliver the letter, and he returns it to Laurence (5.2). References to lockdown and plague resonated with Elizabethan audiences, who knew about both. For example in 1593 and 1594, much of London was locked down – including the theatres – because of a plague which killed as many as one in ten of London’s population – a huge cull. “Romeo and Juliet” was written in 1594.
Friar Laurence’s long summary of the whole story, which he gives at the end of the play to Escalus, the Montagues and the Capulets, is a reminder how little the parents know of what their children have been doing. There is nothing new here for the audience, but a great deal for the parents to learn. It’s a reminder of the extent to which dramatic irony has dominated the unfolding of the tale.
Nonetheless Friar Laurence has a great deal to apologise for and it is surprising that the parents (and Escalus) do not immediately vent their anger on him for devising a plot behind their backs that undermines their authority and then failing to follow it through – with the result that Romeo and Juliet are both now dead. They seem to forgive him – and he may perhaps be well-intentioned – but the events of the play show him to be inept, untrustworthy, and in the end a coward. Perhaps Shakespeare is suggesting that the priesthood are not to be trusted, even respected. The disappearance of the friar from the scene of the crime in 5.3 is really an act of extraordinary cowardice.
The inspiration for this plot is presumably Piramus and Thisbe from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. As it happens, Thisbe is mentioned among a string of lovers in 2.4 of this play. The vial of sleeping drugs Friar Laurence gives Juliet in 4.1 is similar to the love-in-idleness of Midsummer Night’s Dream – effectively a magic potion, unknown to the world beyond the theatre, to develop and advance the plot.
He wants nothing to do with the family feud. While Capulets and Montagues are fighting on the streets, he is elsewhere, pining after his love Rosaline, Capulet’s niece. Once he falls in love with Juliet, he is focused and driven, even impetuous, arranging to be married to her without delay. He has no malice in him – witness his interactions with Tybalt in 3.1 and Paris in 5.3 – but when provoked he is willing to fight and he prevails against both. Respected at the beginning of the play, even by Capulet who praises him in 1.5, and brave to the end when he takes his own life against Christian teaching.
Many of Shakespeare’s fathers are blessed, like Capulet, with daughters who insist on making their own plans, independent of their parents. Few of these daughters, however, resort to suicide with the single-minded courage for which the 13 year-old Juliet is notable. She is willing to put her faith in adults – her parents, the nurse, Friar Laurence – but when they let her down, she falls back on herself and her devotion to Romeo. Her death underlines both the tendency of adults to abandon her and her own physical courage in coping with this.
Driven by the best of motives, hoping to end the rivalry between the two families, Laurence’s efforts are undermined by his personal flaws: his failure to acquaint Romeo with the details of the potion he has given Juliet costs one life, and his weak decision to abandon Juliet in the graveyard in 5.3 costs another. His apology to the parents at the play’s end is accepted with equanimity, but less generous souls would respond more enthusiastically to his own suggestion that his life should be sacrificed as punishment for his failings.
She works for the Capulet family as a servant, not an advisor, and one can see why. When her instructions are straightforward – deliver messages, give information – she can cope. When her advice is asked for (in 3.5, for example, “Romeo’s a dishclout to him [Paris]”), she is more fragile.
He seems to know Juliet only superficially – witness his encounter with her at Friar Laurence’s cell in 4.1 – and indeed almost all his discussions on the subject of his marriage are with her father rather than with her – from 1.2 on. He has little idea of what has really been happening behind the scenes – witness his surprise at finding Romeo at her grave in 5.3 (“This is that banish’d haughty Montague …” etc).
He appears three times in the play. In the first scene he provokes a street brawl (“I hate … all Montagues”). In the second, he aims to start a fight at a party (“Fetch me my rapier …”). In the third, he takes advantage of Romeo’s peace-making to launch a sly attack on the light-hearted Mercutio (“thou consort’st with Romeo”). Clearly an experienced brawler though not an effective one, he is put away by the peace-loving Romeo soon after.
The more prominent of the two feuding patriarchs, and the more deceived. Much of the heart of the play is spent watching Capulet arrange a wedding which is not going to take place, a marriage for a daughter who is already married. But the first act shows him worthy of respect: it should be straightforward, he believes, “For men so old as we to keep the peace”; he rejects Tybalt’s belligerent provocations at his party, describing Romeo as “a virtuous and well-govern’d youth”; he inspires sympathy when he says of Juliet that she is his last hope in life – “the earth hath swallow’d all my hopes but she”; and in the play’s penultimate speech he effectively renounces his own shortcomings in describing Juliet as Romeo’s lady.
- Give the name of the young woman with whom Romeo is in love at the start of the play.
- How many times does Escalus say the families have caused riots in the streets of Verona?
- Give the name of the mythical figure Mercutio says is responsible for sending our dreams.
- What does Friar Laurence have in his basket when we first meet him in 2.3?
- What is Mercutio’s curse when he is stabbed to death by Tybalt in 3.1?
- Which are the two birds whose song Romeo and Juliet dispute in 3.5?
- On which day of the week is Juliet’s wedding scheduled to take place?
- In 5.1, from whom does Romeo buy the poison with which he will kill himself?
- What does Paris bring with him to the graveyard in the final scene of the play?
- Give the name of Romeo’s personal servant, glimpsed in the first and last acts of the play.
- Three times
- Queen Mab
- Herbs and medicinal plants
- A plague on both your houses
- Nightingale and lark
“Romeo and Juliet” was written in around 1594. In the spring of this year, Shakespeare was thirty. Remarkably little is known about his life up to this point. In particular the previous seven years are obscure. These are known as his lost years. Some critics think he may have spent part of this time in Italy. But there is no way of knowing now.
It is striking, however, how many of his plays have Italian settings, as “Romeo and Juliet” has. A full list would include: “The Taming of the Shrew” (Padua), “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” (Verona and Milan), “Titus Andronicus” (Rome), “The Comedy of Errors” (the characters are from Syracuse though the play is set in Ephesus), “The Merchant of Venice” (Venice and Belmont), “Much Ado About Nothing” (Mesina), “Othello” (Venice), “All’s Well That Ends Well” (Florence), “Antony and Cleopatra” (Rome), “Coriolanus” (Rome), “The Winter’s Tale” (Sicily) and “The Tempest” (the characters are from Milan and Naples).
Nowadays a novelist or film-maker might set his / her fiction in New York, perhaps, or Los Angeles. In Shakespeare’s day, Italy was the home of the Renaissance, the centre of what had once been the Roman Empire, the place that gave Latin to the world, the home of the Roman Catholic church. So it had huge prestige.
But setting his plays abroad also gave Shakespeare a kind of creative freedom. He could tackle domestic themes and issues without giving offence or inviting censorship. It’s also striking that many Shakespeare plays are set abroad but seem basically English. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, for example, is set in Athens, but it might as well be one of the woods and forests around Stratford, where Shakespeare grew up.