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Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

4. Rhetoric and Stagecraft

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In this module, we think about Romeo and Juliet as a play to be acted and seen, focusing in particular on: (i) the play’s prologue, which provides a summary of plot, reminds the audience that they are watching a play (“where we lay our scene”) and even tells them how long it’s going to last (“the two-hour traffic of our stage”); (ii) the ways in which acting worked in early modern England (e.g. learning only their own parts, not the whole play) and how this might have impacted how the play was performed; (iii) the early modern practice of using boy actors to play female roles, the extent to which the early modern audience were able to separate (male) actor from (female) roles, and the potential for homoerotic tensions in the play – even between male and female characters; (iv) the play’s (and its characters’) interest in the way people act, what they are doing, their posture and gestures, etc.; (v) the different ways of acting out the thumb-biting scene (“Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?”, 1.1.42); and (vi) Mercutio’s use of meiosis (i.e. understatement) in Act 3, Scene 1 and the ways in which visual effects might have been used to contribute to (or undermine) his rhetoric.


In this course, Professor Helen Smith (University of York) explores Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In the first module, we imagine a trip to the theatre in the late 16th century, thinking about the literary, historical and theatrical context of the play. After that, we think about the presentation of love in the play, before turning in the third module to the themes of books and bookishness, reading and being read, and the extent to which Romeo and Juliet’s unique publication history might impact our interpretation of the play. In the fourth module, we think about Romeo and Juliet as a play to be acted and seen – the physicality of the actors, the importance of posture and gesture, etc. in interpreting the play – before turning in the fifth module to the critical history of the play from its earliest viewers such as Francis Meres and Samuel Pepys (“the worst [play] I have ever seen in my life”) to the direction of scholarship in the twenty-first century.

Note: We used the Arden edition of the play (Third Series, ed. René Weis). Students using a different version of the play may encounter slight differences in both the text and line numbers.


A graduate of Glasgow and York, Helen taught at St Andrews and Hertfordshire before returning to York in 2004. Her wide-ranging interests embrace Renaissance poetry, drama, and prose; history of the book; feminist literary history and theory; religion and conversion; the history of reading; and materiality.

Helen has published more than thirty articles and chapters on topics ranging from the printing of Shakespeare’s early plays to the links between reading and digestion, the cultural and domestic presence of animals, the imaginative connections between physical illness and spiritual trial, and the many uses of early modern paper.

Her first monograph, Grossly Material Things: Women and Book Production in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 2012) was awarded the Roland H. Bainton Literature Prize and the DeLong Book History Prize. Helen is co-editor of Renaissance Paratexts (Cambridge University Press, 2011; paperback 2014), The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in Early Modern England, c. 1530-1700 (Oxford University Press, 2015; awarded the Roland H. Bainton Reference Prize), and Conversions: Gender and Religious Change in Early Modern Europe (Manchester University Press, 2017).

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Smith, H. (2020, January 21). Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet - Rhetoric and Stagecraft [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Smith, H. "Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet – Rhetoric and Stagecraft." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 21 Jan 2020,

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