Romeo and Juliet (c.1595) is one of my favourite plays to teach but one of my least favourites to read and research. I’m not sure why but that’s just how it works, I guess!
Set in Verona, Italy, which Shakespeare never visited, the play begins as all good plays should begin: with a street brawl. Montague and Capulet servants, who are also sworn enemies like the people they work for, are fighting in the streets and they’re stopped by Prince Escalus of Verona who threatens them with death. I mean, that’s one way to stop a fight.
Later, the Capulets hold a ball which Romeo, a Montague, sneaks into in hopes of meeting Rosaline. If I were to put this in nice terms I’d say that Romeo is infatuated with Rosaline but his feelings are unrequited but, honestly, he’s just upset that she won’t have sex with him. At the ball, Romeo meets (and falls in love with) Juliet. Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin and the ‘Prince of Cats’ (which is both an insult and a pun), discovers Romeo and wants to kill him. I think I’d feel the same if I met Romeo too. Anyways, Romeo is spared because Capulet, Juliet’s father, doesn’t want blood shed in his house. I can’t blame him. That just sounds like a nightmare. Blood everywhere? No thanks.
After the ball, we get the ‘balcony scene’ (which doesn’t explicitly take place on a balcony since the word didn’t exist in English at this time – it’s probably just a window into Juliet’s bedroom which is kinda creepy) and the famous line that people quote but sometimes don’t understand. ‘Wherefore’ means ‘why’ not ‘where’ as I’m sure most people know. (I’m saying ‘most’ because my students did not.) She’s asking why he has to be a Montague. Y’know, since he’s her sworn enemy and whatnot.
They get married in secret. Lots of people die, including both Romeo and Juliet. The Montagues and Capulets make up. The end.
We don’t know when the play was first performed but the first quarto, printed in 1597, states that ‘it hath been often (and with great applause) plaid publiquely’ so it happened before then. Romeo and Juliet was also one of the first Shakespearean plays to have been performed outside England as a shortened and simplified version was performed in Nördlingen in 1604.
Like many Shakespeare plays, Romeo and Juliet was adapted in the Restoration era. Very few plays escaped the pens of adapters and editors. Thomas Otway’s The History and Fall of Caius Marius (1680) is probably one of the strangest as he kept a lot of the dialogue – even if he did simplify it – but changed the setting and the character names. People loved this version and it was frequently performed in the eighteenth century. In 1750, the ‘battle of the Romeos’ began! Spranger Barry and Susannah Maria Arne performed the roles at Covent Garden versus David Garrick (Shakespeare fanboy #1) and George Anne Bellamy who performed at Drury Lane. I feel sorry for the audiences of 1750.
There’s also a well-known ballet, which I love, by Prokofiev which was first performed in 1938. It’s one of the most beautiful interpretations of Romeo and Juliet that has ever existed but it does make the story much more romantic than it actually was.
Shakespeare probably used a couple of different sources for Romeo and Juliet. The plot is based on an Italian tale which has a really complex publication history. It was translated and adapted multiple times but, eventually, it was translated into English by Arthur Brooke in 1562 as The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet. It was adapted into prose in Palace of Pleasure by William Painter in 1567. Shakespeare probably read the story in these English editions but he may have also encountered some of the Italian and French versions too.
Another possible source is the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. We also see this tale referenced in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which was also written around 1595) so Shakespeare was possibly referencing Romeo and Juliet in MND. Maybe.
Romeo and Juliet explores so many themes! It isn’t just a love story or whatever, even if it does examine ideas of ‘fate’ and ‘true love’, and some of my favourite themes include:
Shakespeare’s representation of religion in Romeo and Juliet, which is intensely Catholic, is a something that I’ve worked on often as early modern religion is one of my research areas. Shakespeare presents us with a paradox in the final scene as, in early modern Catholicism, people who committed suicide were condemned to hell but people who die to be with their loves under the ‘Religion of Love – a Medieval belief that co-existed alongside Catholicism in Medieval England and Medieval Europe – are joined with their loves in Paradise. Even though Romeo and Juliet is a ‘Catholic’ play, Shakespeare seems to present his (mostly) Protestant audience with a very different version of religion.
Academics have also applied various theories to Romeo and Juliet including:
- Feminist criticism
- Queer theory
- Psychoanalytic criticism
This post is already too long so I won’t get into these theories.
- Shakespeare changed Juliet’s age. In the Italian tale she was almost 16 but in Shakespeare’s play she’s almost 14. Why did he do this? I have no idea.
- The play begins with a Shakespearean sonnet and Shakespeare matches his verse style to each character. Friar Lawrence speaks in sermons, Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech is a rhapsody, and Romeo and Juliet speak to each other in Shakespearean sonnets.
- Molly Mahood identifies at least 175 puns in the play, most of which are sex jokes. For example: O happy dagger! / This is thy sheath… That line is part of Juliet’s dying speech but it’s also a sex joke. Classy.
I think you can tell that I enjoy teaching this play from the length of this post! There are several versions of Romeo and Juliet available in print but it’s also available for free via MIT.
1. Title page of the first edition of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (1597)
2. The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke (1562) via the British Library
3. Romeo at Juliet’s Deathbed by Henry Fuseli (1809)
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