During the Tudor period when Shakespeare wrote and audiences first watched Romeo and Juliet, long-held traditions and social values were in a state of flux. For centuries, the marriage contract was exactly that: a financial agreement by two parties (the parents or guardians of the bride and groom) that constituted a "merger," not unlike corporate mergers of today. Such a contract was based upon movement of property and the resulting power that accompanied the new combined wealth of two families.
The Marriage by Nicolo da Bologna
Modern audiences might be disturbed by Lord Capulet's decree that Juliet marry the man of his choice, but his methods were customary, and were meant to assure the political and financial future of his daughter—and his own heirs. After all, Count Paris was a very eligible bachelor—and a relative of the Prince of Verona.
With the Renaissance and its more exalted view of the individual, "property" marriage was challenged by "companionate" marriage—a bond of marriage based upon the free choice of two individuals. The unfixing of any long-held belief comes slowly, and with much public debate and social anxiety. Elizabethan society—and its literature—reflected this unsettling of tradition and the contradictions that existed side by side in a culture in flux.
The conflict expressed in Romeo and Juliet between Capulet's "right" to choose his daughter's husband, and Juliet's "right" to choose her own love reflects a time of social transition in Early Modern England with its contrasting images of marriage: its nostalgia for the old order on the one hand, versus a growing awareness of—and respect for—the individual, and human passions and emotions, on the other. It is possible to imagine a William Shakespeare who set out to endorse neither a centuries-old tradition nor free choice, but instead, one who understood the anxieties of his Elizabethan audience, as diverse ideologically as it was socially.
– Contributed by the CST Education Department