Verona is a city in northeastern Italy. In Shakespeare’s lifetime, it was part of the Venetian Republic, but until 1405 it had been an independent city-state. The Verona of Romeo and Juliet seems to be independent and with its own prince, who authorizes and enforces local laws. It seems likely, then, that the play takes place sometime in the fourteenth century. Curiously, audiences in Shakespeare’s own time would have already associated the city of Verona with a pair of ill-fated young lovers named Romeo Montecchi and Giulietta Cappelletti. These are the protagonists of a 1530 story by the Italian writer Luigi da Porto concerning two Veronese lovers caught on either side of a family feud. In the 1560s, Arthur Brooke penned a popular poem that translated da Porto’s story into English, and the translation quickly went through several editions. Thus, by the time Shakespeare adapted the popular story for the stage, Verona would already have been well-known in England as a site of tragedy. (On the other hand, Shakespeare often set his comedies in Italy, and the play at first seems like it might go in the direction of a comedy.)
Even if Shakespeare’s audience hadn’t been familiar with da Porto’s story of Veronese lovers, Romeo and Juliet’s Italian setting would still have signaled that the play is about extreme passions. In Shakespeare’s day, many people shared the popular belief that hot climates induced passionate behaviors. Benvolio, for instance, worries about encountering the Capulets because “[F]or now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring” (III.i.4). But Italy was particularly associated with romantic passion, a fact Shakespeare alludes to when Mercutio teases Romeo for imitating the language of an Italian poet famous for his love sonnets: “Now is he for the numbers Petrarch flowed in” (II.iv.14). Shakespeare also reflects the popular belief that Italian women are more sexually passionate than English women when he gives Juliet explicitly erotic language. It’s therefore likely that English Renaissance audiences would have believed that Romeo and Juliet’s intense passion for one another resulted in part from the Italian climate and culture, and not solely from their individual choices. In this sense, the Italian setting reinforces the play’s overarching theme that the lovers cannot escape their fate.
In addition to reflecting popular beliefs about Italy, Romeo and Juliet also emphasizes the division between two symbolic worlds that Romeo and Juliet inhabit within Verona. The first of these worlds is the dangerous, masculine world of the streets, where Romeo roves about with other rash and reckless youths. The second of these worlds is the secluded, feminine world of the Capulet house, where Juliet remains confined. The symbolic division between these two worlds reinforces the difficulty the two lovers face in their attempts to be together. In fact, the division remains so strict that the only reason the lovers even meet is that Romeo forces entry into the Capulet house on two occasions—first, to crash the ball, and later, to have a private meeting with Juliet. Aside from the strictly divided worlds of the street and the Capulet house, there also exists a third, neutral space—that is, the church where Friar Laurence presides over Romeo and Juliet’s secret wedding. Although the neutrality of the church officially enables their union, it ultimately cannot protect the lovers from the powers that otherwise seek to confine them to their own symbolic worlds.