William Shakespeare's Works/Tragedies/Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet is an early tragedy by William Shakespeare about two teenage star-crossed lovers. It ends with their suicides, uniting rival households of a long-running family feud. The play has been highly praised by literary critics for its language and dramatic effect. Along with Hamlet, it is one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed plays and is considered by many to be the world's most iconic love story. It was among Shakespeare's most popular plays during his lifetime.
Romeo and Juliet belongs to a tradition of tragic romances stretching back to Ancient Greece. Its plot is based on an Italian tale, translated into verse as Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke in 1562, and retold in prose in Palace of Pleasure by William Painter in 1582. Brooke and Painter are Shakespeare's chief sources for Romeo and Juliet. He borrowed heavily from both, but developed minor characters, particularly Mercutio and Count Paris, in order to expand the plot. The play was probably written around 1595-6, and first published as a first quarto in 1597. The text was of poor quality, and later editions corrected it, bringing it more in line with Shakespeare's original text.
Shakespeare's use of dramatic structure, especially his expansion of minor characters, and the use of subplots to embellish the story, has been praised as an early sign of his dramatic skill. The play ascribes different poetic forms to different characters, sometimes changing the form as the character develops. Romeo, for example, grows more adept at the sonnet form as the play progresses. Characters frequently compare love and death and allude to the role of fate.
Since its publication, Romeo and Juliet has been adapted numerous times in stage, film, musical and operatic forms. During the English restoration, it was revived and heavily revised by William Davenant. David Garrick's 18th century version, which continued to be performed into the Victorian period, also changed several scenes, removing material then considered indecent. Nineteenth century performers, including Charlotte Cushman, restored the original text, and focused on performing the story with greater realism. John Gielgud's 1935 version kept very close to Shakespeare's text, and used Elizabethan costumes and staging to enhance the drama. More recent versions, including those on film, have adapted the play for a modern audience, often placing the action in a familiar context.
Ruling house of Verona:
- Prince Escalus: Prince of Verona
- Count Paris: Kinsman of Prince Escalus; desires to marry Juliet.
- Mercutio: Another kinsman of Prince Escalus; a friend of Romeo.
- Lord Capulet: Patriarch of the house of Capulet.
- Lady Capulet: Matriarch of the house of Capulet; wishes Juliet to marry Paris.
- Juliet Capulet: Daughter of the Capulets; the female protagonist.
- Tybalt: Cousin of Juliet, nephew of Lady Capulet.
- Nurse: Juliet's personal attendant and confidante.
- Peter: Capulet servant, assistant to the nurse.
- Sampson: Capulet servant.
- Gregory: Capulet servant.
- Lord Montague: Patriach of the house of Montague.
- Lady Montague: Matriarch of the house of Montague
- Romeo Montague: Son of the Montagues; the male protagonist.
- Benvolio: Cousin and friend of Romeo.
- Abram: Montague servant.
- Balthasar: Romeo's personal servant.
- Friar Lawrence: a Franciscan friar and Romeo's confidant.
- Chorus, who gives the opening prologue and one other speech, both in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet.
- Rosaline, an unseen character with whom Romeo briefly falls in love with before meeting Juliet.
- Friar John: Another friar who is sent to deliver Friar Lawrence's letter to Romeo.
- Apothecary: Druggist who reluctantly sells Romeo poison.
"Two Households, both alike in dignity ..."—Chorus
The play begins with a street-battle between two families, the Montagues and the Capulets. The Prince of Verona, Escalus, intervenes with his men and declares that the heads of the two families will be held personally accountable for any further breach of the peace.
Later, Count Paris, a young nobleman, talks to Lord Capulet about marrying his thirteen-year-old daughter, Juliet Capulet. Capulet demurs, citing the girl's tender age, and invites him to attract the attention of Juliet during a masquerade ball that the family is to hold that night. Juliet's mother tries to persuade her daughter to accept Paris' courtship during this ball; and Juliet says that although she will make an effort to love him, she will not express love that is not there. In this scene Juliet's nurse is introduced as a talkative and humorous character who has raised Juliet from infancy.
Meantime, Benvolio queries his cousin Romeo Montague, Lord Montague's son, to find out the source of his melancholy. He discovers that it stems from an unrequited love for a girl named Rosaline, Capulet's niece. Upon the insistence of Benvolio and another friend, Mercutio, Romeo decides to attend the masquerade ball at the Capulet house, in hope of meeting Rosaline. Alongside his masked friends, Romeo attends the ball as planned, but falls in love with Juliet, and she with him. Despite the danger brought on by their feuding families, Romeo sneaks into the Capulet courtyard and overhears Juliet on her balcony vowing her love to him. He makes himself known to her, and the two declare their love for each other and agree to be married. With the help of the Franciscan Friar Lawrence, who hopes to reconcile the two families through their children's union, the two are married secretly the next day.
All seems well until Tybalt, Juliet's hot-blooded cousin, challenges Romeo to a duel for appearing at the Capulets' ball in disguise. Though no one is aware of the marriage yet, Romeo refuses to fight Tybalt since they are now kinsmen. Mercutio is incensed by Tybalt's insolence, and accepts the duel on Romeo's behalf. In the ensuing scuffle, Mercutio is fatally wounded when Romeo tries to separate them. Romeo, angered by his friend's death, pursues and slays Tybalt, then flees.
Despite his promise to call for the head of the wrong-doers, the Prince merely exiles Romeo from Verona, reasoning that Tybalt first killed Mercutio, and that Romeo merely carried out a just punishment of death to Tybalt, although without legal authority. Juliet grieves at the news, and Lord Capulet, misinterpreting her grief, agrees to engage her to marry Paris in three days' time, threatening to disown her if she does not. The Nurse, once Juliet's confidante, now tells her she should discard the exiled Romeo and comply. Juliet desperately visits Friar Lawrence for help. He offers her a drug which will put her into a deathlike coma for forty-two hours. She is to take it, and, when discovered apparently dead, she will be laid in the family crypt. While in her sleep, the Friar will send a messenger to inform Romeo, so that she can rejoin him when she awakes.
The messenger, however, does not reach Romeo. Romeo instead learns of Juliet's "death" from his servant Balthasar. Grief-stricken, he buys poison from an apothecary, returns to Verona in secret, and visits the Capulet crypt. He encounters Paris, who has come to mourn Juliet privately. Paris confronts Romeo, believing him to be a vandal, and in the ensuing battle Romeo kills Paris. He then says his final words to the comatose Juliet and drinks the poison to commit suicide. Juliet then awakes. Friar Lawrence arrives and, aware of the cause of the tragedy, begs Juliet to leave, but she refuses. At the side of Romeo's dead body, she stabs herself with her lover's dagger.
The feuding families and the Prince meet at the tomb to find the three dead. In explanation, Friar Lawrence recounts the story of the two lovers. Montague reveals that his wife has died of grief after hearing of her son's exile. The families are reconciled by their children's deaths and agree to end their violent feud. The play ends with the Prince's brief elegy for the lovers: "For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo."
Romeo and Juliet is a dramatisation of Arthur Brooke's narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562). Shakespeare follows the poem closely but adds extra detail to both major and minor characters, in particular the Nurse and Mercutio. "The goodly History of the true and constant love of Rhomeo and Julietta" retells in prose a story by William Painter, with which Shakespeare may have been familiar. It was published in a collection of Italian tales entitled Palace of Pleasure in 1582. Painter's version was part of a trend among writers and playwrights of the time to publish works based on Italian novelles. At the time of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Italian tales were very popular among theater patrons. Critics of the day even complained of how often Italian tales were borrowed to please crowds. Shakespeare took advantage of their popularity, as seen in his writing of both All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure (from Italian tales) and Romeo and Juliet. Arthur Brooke's poem belonged to this trend, being a translation and adaptation of the Italian Giuletta e Romeo, by Matteo Bandello, included in his Novelle of 1554. Bandello's story was translated into French and was adapted by Italian theatrical troupes, some of whom performed in London at the time Shakespeare was writing his plays. Although nothing is known of the repertory of these troupes, it is possible that they performed some version of the story.
Bandello's version was an adaptation of Luigi da Porto's Giulietta e Romeo, included in his Istoria novellamente ritrovata di due Nobili Amanti (c. 1530). The latter gave the story much of its modern form, including the names of the lovers, the rival families of Montecchi and Capuleti, and the location in Verona, in the Veneto. Da Porto is probably also the source of the tradition that Romeo and Juliet is based on a true story. The names of the families (in Italian, the Montecchi and Capelletti) were actual political factions of the thirteenth century. The tomb and balcony of Guilietta are still popular tourist spots in Verona, although scholars have disputed that the story actually took place. Before Da Porto, the earliest known version of the tale is the 1476 story of Mariotto and Gianozza of Siena by Masuccio Salernitano, in Il Novellino (Novella XXXIII).
Romeo and Juliet borrows from a tradition of tragic love stories dating back to antiquity. One of these, Pyramus and Thisbe, is thought by many scholars to have influenced da Porto's version. The former contains parallels to Shakespeare's story: the lovers' parents despise each other, and Pyramus' falsely believes his lover Thisbe is dead. Brooke adjusted the Italian translation to reflect parts of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. The Ephesian Tale|Ephisiaca of Xenophon of Ephesus, written in the third century, also contains several similarities to the play, including the separation of the lovers, and a potion which induces a deathlike sleep. Christopher Marlowe's Hero and Leander and Dido, Queen of Carthage, both similar stories written in Shakespeare's day, are thought to be less of a direct influence, although they may have created an atmosphere in which tragic love stories could thrive.
Date and text
It is unknown when exactly Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet. Juliet's nurse refers to an earthquake which she says occurred eleven years ago. An earthquake did occur in England in 1580, possibly dating that particular line to 1591. But the play's stylistic similarities with A Midsummer Night's Dream, as well as evidence of performances at the time (the play was becoming popular at around 1595), place the writing between 1595 and 1596. One widely-accepted conjecture has that Shakespeare may have begun a draft in 1591, which he completed in 1595-6.
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was published in two distinct quarto editions prior to the publication of the First Folio of 1623. These are referred to as Q1 and Q2. Q1, the first printed edition, appeared in 1597, printed by John Danter. Because its text contains numerous differences from the later editions, it is labeled a 'bad quarto'; the twentieth century editor T. J .B. Spencer described it as "a detestable text, probably a reconstruction of the play from the imperfect memories of one or two of the actors.", suggesting that it had been pirated for publication. An alternative explanation for Q1's shortcomings is that the play (like many others of the time) may have been heavily edited before performance by the playing company.
The superior Q2 called the play The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet. It was printed in 1599 by Thomas Creede and published by Cuthbert Burby. Q2 is about 800 lines longer than Q1. Its title page describes it as "Newly corrected, augmented and amended". Scholars believe that Q2 was based on Shakespeare's pre-performance draft, (called his foul papers), since there are textual oddities such as variable tags for characters and "false starts" for speeches that were presumably struck through by the author but erroneously preserved by the typesetter. It is a much more complete and reliable text, and was reprinted in 1609 (Q3), 1622 (Q4) and 1637 (Q5). In effect, all later Quartos and Folios of Romeo and Juliet are based on Q2, as are all modern editions since editors believe that any deviations from Q2 in the later editions (whether good or bad) are likely to arise from editors or compositors, not from Shakespeare.
The First Folio text of 1623 was based primarily on Q3, with clarifications and corrections possibly coming from a theatrical promptbook or Q1. Other Folio editions of the play were printed in 1632 (F2), 1664 (F3), and 1685 (F4). Modern versions considering several of the Folios and Quartos began printing with Nicholas Rowe's 1709 edition, followed by Alexander Pope's 1723 version. Pope began a tradition of editing the play to add information such as stage directions missing in Q2 by locating them in Q1. This tradition continued late into the Romantic period. Fully annotated editions first appeared in the Victorian period and continue to be produced today, printing the text of the play with footnotes describing the sources and culture behind the play.
Shakespeare shows his dramatic skill freely in Romeo and Juliet, providing intense moments of shift between comedy and tragedy. Before Mercutio's death in Act three, the play is largely a comedy. After his accidental demise, the play suddenly becomes very serious and takes on more of a tragic tone. Still, the fact that Romeo is banished, rather than executed, offers a hope that things will work out. When Friar Lawrence offers Juliet a plan to reunite her with Romeo the audience still has a reason to believe that all will end well. They are in a "breathless state of suspense" by the opening of the last scene in the tomb: If Romeo is delayed long enough for the Friar to arrive, he and Juliet may yet be saved. This only makes it all the more tragic when everything falls apart in the end.
Shakespeare also uses subplots to offer a clearer view of the actions of the main characters, and provide an axis around which the main plot turns. For example, when the play begins, Romeo is in love with Rosaline, who has refused all of his advances. Romeo's infatuation with her stands in obvious contrast to his later love for Juliet. This provides a comparison through which the audience can see the seriousness of Romeo and Juliet's love and marriage. Paris' love for Juliet also sets up a contrast between Juliet's feelings for him and her feelings for Romeo. The formal language she uses around Paris, as well as the way she talks about him to her Nurse, show that her feelings clearly lie with Romeo. Beyond this, the subplot of the Montague-Capulet feud over-arches the whole play, providing an atmosphere of hate that is the main contributor to the play's tragic end.
Shakespeare uses a large variety of poetic forms throughout the play. He begins with a 14-line prologue by a Chorus in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet. Like this sonnet much of Romeo and Juliet is written in iambic pentameter, with ten syllables of alternating stress in each line. However, the most common form used is blank verse, a more fluid, nonstructured approach, although Shakespeare uses this form less often in this play than in his later plays. In choosing forms, Shakespeare matches the poetry to the character who uses it. Friar Laurence, for example, uses sermon and sententiae forms, and the Nurse uses a unique blank verse form that closely matches colloquial speech. Each of these forms is also moulded and matched to the emotion of the scene the character occupies. For example, when Romeo talks about Rosaline earlier in the play, he uses the Petrarchan sonnet form. Petrarchan sonnets were often used by men at the time to exaggerate the beauty of women who were impossible for them to attain, as in Romeo's situation with Rosaline. This sonnet form is also used by Lady Capulet to describe Count Paris to Juliet as a handsome man. When Romeo and Juliet meet, the poetic form changes from the Petrarchan (which was becoming archaic in Shakespeare's day) to a then more contemporary sonnet form, using "pilgrims" and "saints" as metaphors. Finally, when the two meet on the balcony, Romeo attempts to use the sonnet form to pledge his love, but Juliet breaks it by saying "Dost thou love me?" By doing this, she searches for true expression, rather than a poetic exaggeration of their love. Juliet uses monosyllabic words with Romeo, but uses formal language with Paris. Other forms in the play include an epithalamium by Juliet, a rhapsody in Mercutio's Queen Mab speech, and an elegy by Paris. Shakespeare saves his prose style most often for the common people in the play, though at times for other characters, such as Mercutio.
Themes and motifs
Scholars have found it extremely difficult to assign one specific, overarching theme to the play. Proposals for a main theme include a discovery by the characters that human beings are neither wholly good nor wholly evil, but instead are more or less alike, awaking out of a dream and into reality, the danger of hasty action, or the power of tragic fate. None of these have widespread support. However, even if an overall theme cannot be found it is clear that the play is full of several small, thematic elements which intertwine in complex ways. Several of those which are most often debated by scholars are discussed below.
Romeo and Juliet is sometimes considered to have no unifying theme, save that of young love. In fact, the characters in it have become emblems of all who die young for their lovers. Since it is such an obvious subject of the play, several scholars have explored the language and historical context behind the romance of the play.
On their first meeting, Romeo and Juliet use a form of communication recommended by many etiquette authors in Shakespeare's day: metaphor. By using metaphors of saints and sins, Romeo can test Juliet's feelings for him in a non-threatening way. This method was recommended by Baldassare Castiglione (whose works had been translated into English by this time). He pointed out that if a man used a metaphor as an invitation, the woman could pretend she did not understand the man, and the man could take the hint and back away without losing his honour. Juliet, however, makes it clear that she is interested in Romeo by playing along with his metaphor. Later, in the balcony scene, Shakespeare has Romeo overhear Juliet's declaration of love for him. In Brooke's version of the story, her declaration is done in her bedroom, alone. By bringing Romeo into the scene to eavesdrop, Shakespeare breaks from the normal sequence of courtship. Usually, a woman was required to play hard to get, to be sure that her suitor was sincere. Breaking this rule, however, serves to speed along the plot. The lovers are able to skip a lengthy part of wooing, and move on to plain talk about their relationship—developing into an agreement to be married after knowing each other for only one night. In the final suicide scene, there is a contradiction in the message - in Christianity, suiciders are condemned to hell, whereas people who die to be with their loves under the "Religion of Love" are joined with their loves in paradise. Romeo and Juliet's love seems to be expressing the "Religion of Love" view rather than the Christian view. Another point is that although their love is passionate, it is only consummated in marriage, which prevents them from losing the audience's sympathy.
The play arguably equates love and sex with death. Throughout the story, both Romeo and Juliet, along with the other characters, fantasize about death as a dark being, often equating him with a lover. Capulet, for example, when he first discovers Juliet's (faked) death, describes it as having deflowered his daughter. Juliet later even compares Romeo to death in an erotic way. One of the strongest examples of this in the play is in Juliet's suicide, when she says, grabbing Romeo's dagger, "O happy dagger! / ...This is thy sheath / there rust, and let me die." The dagger here can be a sort of phallus of Romeo, with Juliet being its sheath in death, a strong sexual symbol.
Fate and chance
Scholars are divided on the role of fate in the play. No consensus exists on whether the characters are truly fated to die together no matter what, or whether the events take place by a series of unlucky chances. Arguments in favour of fate often refer to the description of the lovers as "star-crossed". This phrase seems to hint that the stars have predetermined the lovers' future. Another scholar of the fate persuasion, Draper, points out the parallels between the Elizabethan belief in humorism and the main characters of the play (for example, Tybalt as a choleric). Interpreting the text in the light of the Elizabethan science of humorism reduces the amount of plot attributed to chance by modern audiences. Still, other scholars see the play as a mere series of unlucky chances—many to such a degree that they do not see it as a tragedy at all, but an emotional melodrama. Nevo believes the high degree to which chance is stressed in the narrative makes Romeo and Juliet a "lesser tragedy" of happenstance, not of character. For example, Romeo's challenging Tybalt is not impulsive, it is, after Mercutio's death, the expected action to take. In this scene, Nevo reads Romeo as being aware of the dangers of flouting social norms, identity and commitments. He makes the choice to kill, not because of a tragic flaw, but because of circumstance.
Light and dark
Scholars have long noted Shakespeare's widespread use of light and dark imagery throughout the play. The light theme was initially taken to be "symbolic of the natural beauty of young love", an idea beginning in Caroline Spurgeon's work Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us, although the perceived meaning has since its publication branched in several directions. For example, both Romeo and Juliet see the other as light in a surrounding darkness. Romeo describes Juliet as being like the sun, brighter than a torch, a jewel sparkling in the night, and a bright angel among dark clouds. Even when she lies apparently dead in the tomb, he says her "beauty makes / This vault a feasting presence full of light." Juliet describes Romeo as "day in night" and "Whiter than snow upon a raven's back." This contrast of light and dark can be expanded as symbols—contrasting love and hate, youth and age in a metaphoric way. Sometimes these intertwining metaphors create dramatic irony. For example, Romeo and Juliet's love is a light in the midst of the darkness of the hate around them, but all of their activity together is done in night and darkness, while all of the feuding is done in broad daylight. This paradox of imagery adds atmosphere to the moral dilemma facing the two lovers: loyalty to family or loyalty to love. At the end of the story, when the morning is gloomy and the sun hiding its face for sorrow, light and dark have returned to their proper places, the outward darkness reflecting the true, inner darkness of the family feud out of sorrow for the lovers. All characters now recognize their folly in light of recent events, and things return to the natural order, thanks to the love of Romeo and Juliet. The "light" theme in the play is also heavily connected to the theme of time, since light was a convenient way for Shakespeare to express the passage of time through descriptions of the sun, moon, and stars.
Time plays an important role in the language and plot of the play. Both Romeo and Juliet struggle to maintain as imaginary world void of time in the face of the harsh realities that surround them. For instance, when Romeo attempts to swear his love to Juliet by the moon, Juliet tells him not to, as it is known to be inconstant over time, and she does not desire this of him. From the very beginning, the lovers are designated as "star-crossed" referring to an astrological belief which is heavily connected to time. Stars were thought to control the fates of men, and as time passed, stars would move along their course in the sky, also charting the course of human lives below. Romeo speaks of a foreboding he feels in the stars movements' early in the play, and when he learns of Juliet's death, he defies the stars' course for him.
A "haste theme" can be considered as fundamental to the play. For example, the action of Romeo and Juliet spans a period of four to six days, in contrast to Brooke's poem's spanning nine months. Scholars such as Tanselle believe that time was "especially important to Shakespeare" in this play, as he used references to "short-time" for the young lovers as opposed to references to "long-time" for the "older generation" to highlight "a headlong rush towards doom". Romeo and Juliet fight time to make their love to last forever. In the end, the only way they see to defeat time is through a noteworthy death which makes them immortal through art.
Time is heavily connected to the theme of light and dark as well. The play is said in the Prologue to be about two hours long, creating a problem for any playwright wishing to express longer amounts of time. In Shakespeare's day, plays were often performed at noon in broad daylight. This forced the playwright to use words to create the illusion of day and night in his plays. Shakespeare uses references to the night and day, the stars, the moon, and the sun to create this illusion. He also has characters frequently refer to days of the week and specific hours to help the audience understand that time has passed in the story. All in all, no fewer than 103 references to time are found in the play, adding to this illusion of its passage.
Psychoanalytic critics focus largely on Romeo's relationships with Rosaline and Juliet, as well as the looming image of inevitable death. Romeo and Juliet is not considered to be extremely psychologically complex, and sympathetic psychoanalytic readings of the play make the tragic male experience equivalent with sicknesses. The first line of criticism argues that Shakespeare is in love with Rosaline and Juliet because she is the all-present, all-powerful mother which fills a void. According to this theory, this void was caused by the negligence of his mother. Another theory argues that the feud between the families provides a source of phallic expression for the male Capulets and Montagues. This sets up a system where patriarchal order is in power. When the sons are married, rather than focusing on the wife, they are still owed an obligation to their father through the feud. This conflict between obligation to the father (the family name) and the wife (the feminine), determines the course of the play. Some critics argue this hatred is the sole cause of Romeo and Juliet's passion for each other. The fear of death and the knowledge of the danger of their relationship is in this view channelled into a romantic passion.
Feminist critics argue that the blame for the family feud lies in Verona's patriarchal society. In this view, the strict, masculine code of violence imposed on Romeo is the main force driving the tragedy to its end. When Tybalt kills Mercutio, for example, Romeo shifts into this violent mode, regretting that Juliet has made him so "effeminate". In this view, the younger males "become men" by engaging in violence on behalf of their fathers, or in the case of the servants, their masters. The feud is also linked to male virility, as the joke about the maid's heads shows. Juliet also submits to a female code of docility by allowing others, such as the Friar, to solve her problems for her. Other critics, such as Dympna Callaghan, look at the play's feminism from a more historicist angle. They take into account the fact that the play is written during a time when the patriarchal order was being challenged by several forces, most notably the rise of Puritanism. When Juliet dodges her father's attempt to force her to marry a man she has no feeling for, she is successfully challenging the patriarchal order in a way that would not have been possible at an earlier time.
Gender studies critics largely question the sexuality of two characters, Mercutio and Romeo. From the perspective of this form of criticism, the difference between the two characters' friendship and sexual love is discussed heavily in the play. Mercutio's friendship with Romeo, for example, leads to several friendly conversations, including ones on the subject of Romeo's phallus. This would seem to suggest traces of homoeroticism. Romeo, as well, admits traces of the same in the manner of his love for Rosaline and Juliet. Rosaline, for example, is distant and unavailable, bringing no hope of offspring. As Benvolio argues, she is best replaced by someone who will reciprocate. Shakespeare's procreation sonnets describe another young man who, like Romeo, is having trouble creating offspring and who is homosexual. Gender critics believe that Shakespeare may have used Rosaline as a way to express homosexual problems of procreation in an acceptable way. In this view, when Juliet says "...that which we call a rose [or Rosaline] / By any other name would smell as sweet", she may be raising the question of whether there is any difference between the beauty of a man and the beauty of a woman.
Romeo and Juliet has had a strong influence on subsequent literature. For example, until this play romance had not been viewed as a worthy topic for tragedy. The play directly influenced several literary works, both in Shakespeare's own day through the works of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, and later works such as those of Charles Dickens.
The play has also influenced world culture, specifically with regard to romance and relationships. For example, the word "Romeo" has become synonymous with "male lover" in English. The juliet cap, worn either close to the scalp as a small headpiece or as a wedding headband to hold the bridal veil, was so named because of the actresses who wore it on stage in performances of the play. It has inspired the name of a psychological problem between couples, called "The Romeo and Juliet Effect". This title is used to describe relationships which suffer divisions because of hatred between partners' parents. More recently, scholars have described the play as having a unique adaptive and iconic ability, causing its characters to transcend the original texts and project themselves into the modern world. For example, Romeo and Juliet are mentioned in a song by Sublime titled Romeo, which portrays the Montague as a modern character pining for love in a modern way. Both characters have become symbols of love, teenage struggles, resistance to authority, and doers of the forbidden. Songs such as sublime take advantage of the influence these characters have had by communicating through them to achieve their ends.
Performances and adaptations
Romeo and Juliet ranks with Hamlet as one of Shakespeare's most-performed plays. Its many adaptations have made it today one of his more popular and famous stories. Even in Shakespeare's lifetime it was a popular play. Gary Taylor measures it as the sixth most popular of Shakespeare's plays, in the period after the death of Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd but before the ascendancy of Ben Jonson during which Shakespeare was London's dominant playwright. The exact date of the first performance of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, however, is unknown. The First Quarto, printed in 1597, says that "it hath been often (and with great applause) plaid publiquely", setting the first performance prior to that date. The Lord Chamberlain's Men were certainly the first to perform it. Besides their strong connections with Shakespeare, the Second Quarto actually names one of its actors, William Kempe, instead of Peter in a line in Act five. Thus, Richard Burbage was probably the first Romeo, being the company's leading actor, and Master Robert Goffe (a male) the first Juliet.
After the theaters reopened in the English Restoration, Sir William Davenant staged a 1662 production in which Henry Harris played Romeo, Thomas Betterton was Mercutio, and Betterton's wife Mary Saunderson played Juliet (Mrs. Saunderson was probably the first female to play Juliet professionally). This play was criticized by Samuel Pepys as the worst he had ever heard. Versions immediately following this were changed to tragicomedies, where the two lovers did not die in the end. Thomas Otway's adaptation The History and Fall of Caius Marius, one of the more extreme of the Restoration versions of Shakespeare, debuted in 1680. The scene is shifted from Renaissance Verona to ancient Rome; Romeo is Marius, Juliet is Lavinia, the feud is between patricians and plebeians; Juliet/Lavina wakes from her potion before Romeo/Marius dies. Otway's version was a hit, and was acted for the next seventy years. It altered the sexual language of the play as well, toning down the Queen Mab speech, for example. Theophilus Cibber mounted his own adaptation in 1744, followed by David Garrick's in 1748. Both Cibber and Garrick used variations on Otway's innovation in the tomb scene. These versions also eliminated elements deemed inappropriate for the time. For example, Garrick's version transferred all language describing Rosaline to Juliet, in order to heighten the idea of faithfulness and downplay the love-at-first-sight theme. In 1750 a "Battle of the Romeos" began, with Spranger Barry and Susannah Maria Arne (Mrs. Theophilus Cibber) at Covent Garden versus David Garrick and George Anne Bellamy at Drury Lane.
Garrick's altered version of the play was very popular, and ran for nearly a century. Not until 1845 did Shakespeare's original returned to the stage in the United States (with the sisters Charlotte and Susan Cushman as Romeo and Juliet), and in 1847 in Britain (Samuel Phelps at Sadler's Wells Theater). Saunders actively reverted Garrick's additions and changes to the original, and adhered to Shakespeare's version, beginning a string of eighty-four performances. Her portrayal of Romeo was considered genius by many, as she called more attention to Romeo's character than others, making the play largely his tragedy. Cushman's success broke the Garrick tradition and paved the way for later plays. Henry Irving's 1882 production at the Lyceum Theater is considered an archetype of his "pictorial" style, placing the action on elaborate sets. Irving himself played Romeo, and Ellen Terry played Juliet. In 1895, actor Forbes-Robertson took over for Irving, and laid the groundwork for a more natural portrayal of Shakespeare that remains popular today. Forbes-Robertson avoided the showiness of Irving and instead portrayed a down-to-earth Romeo, expressing the poetic dialogue as realistic prose and avoiding melodramatic flourish. Meanwhile, American theaters began performing the play, eventually rivalling their British counterparts with the likes of Edwin Booth (brother to John Wilkes Booth) and Mary McVicker as Romeo and Juliet. The play found popularity throughout continental Europe, as well.
In one of the most notable twentieth century performances, staged by John Gielgud at the Noël Coward Theater in 1935, Gielgud and Laurence Olivier played the roles of Romeo and Mercutio, exchanging roles six weeks into the run, with Peggy Ashcroft as Juliet. Gielgud used a scholarly combination of Q1 and Q2 texts, omitting only minor portions of the originals, such as the second Chorus. He also organized the set and costumes to match as closely as possible to the Elizabethan period. His efforts were a huge success at the box office, and set the stage for increased historical realism in later plays. Meanwhile, Peter Brook's 1947 version was the beginning of a different style of Romeo and Juliet performances. Brook was less concerned with realism, and more concerned with translating the play into a form that could communicate with the more modern world. He argued, "A production is only correct at the moment of its correctness, and only good at the moment of its success." Other notable twentieth century productions include Guthrie McClintic's 1934 Broadway staging in which Katharine Cornell had a triumph as Juliet opposite Basil Rathbone as Romeo and Edith Evans (who also played the role in John Gielgud's production) as the Nurse. Cornell later revived the production with Maurice Evans as Romeo and Ralph Richardson as Mercutio, both making their Broadway theater debuts. Franco Zeffirelli mounted a legendary staging for the Old Vic in 1960 with John Stride and Judi Dench that served as the basis for his 1968 film "Romeo and Juliet". Zefferalli borrowed from Brook's ideas, altogether removing nearly a third of the play's text in order to make it more accessible to a contemporary audience. He also paid close attention to detail, making sure that nothing which would add to the realism of the performance was neglected. Zefferelli's performances were so successful worldwide that he made a film of the play in 1968.
More recent professional performances have grown more and more adaptive to the contemporary world. For example, the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company developed a 1986 version of the play set in present-day Verona, Italy. Switchblades replace swords, feasts and balls become drug-laden rock parties, and Romeo commits suicide by hypodermic needle. Later, in 1997, the Folger Shakespeare Theater produced another modern version, this time set in a typical suburban world. Romeo sneaks into the Capulet barbecue to meet Juliet, and Juliet discovers Tybalt's death while in class at school. Other contemporary performances give the play a well-known historical setting, enabling audiences to understand, and perhaps to reflect upon, the underlying conflicts. For example, adaptations have been set in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict]], in South Africa's apartheid era, and in the aftermath of the Pueblo Revolt. Among the most famous of such adaptations is Peter Ustinov's 1956 comic adaptation, Romanoff and Juliet, set in a fictional mid-European country in the depths of the Cold War.
Roméo et Juliette by Hector Berlioz is a "symphonie dramatique", a large scale work in three parts for mixed voices, chorus and orchestra, premiered in 1839. The Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture (1869, revised 1870 and 1880), by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is a long symphonic poem, containing the famous melody known as the "love theme".
At least 24 operas and plays have been based on Romeo and Juliet, the best known being Charles Gounod's Roméo et Juliette (1867) and Vincenzo Bellini's opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi. The libretto in Gounod's play was by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Bellini's opera has rarely been judged favorably, in part because of its perceived liberties with Shakespeare; however, Bellini and his librettist, Felice Romani, worked from Italian sources, with no intention to adapt Shakespeare's play. In 2004 American composer Lee Hoiby also adapted Romeo and Juliet to write an opera of the same name. Several ballet versions have also been composed; among the better-known is Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, first performed in 1938.
The play led to a number of musical theater adaptations, the most famous of which was West Side Story with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It debuted on Broadway in 1957 and in London's West End in 1958, and became a popular film in 1961. This version updated the setting to mid-20th century New York City, and the warring families to ethnic gangs. Other musical adaptations include Terrence Mann's 1999 rock musical William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, co-written with Jerome Korman, Gérard Presgurvic's 2001 Roméo et Juliette, de la Haine à l'Amour and Riccardo Cocciante's 2007 Giulietta & Romeo.
Shakespeare's play has been filmed numerous times. In putting Romeo and Juliet on screen, the director must set the action in a social context that illuminates the characters, and mediates between the Renaissance play and modern audiences. George Cukor, in 1970, commented on why his "stately" and "stodgy" 1936 film "Romeo and Juliet" had not stood the test of time, saying that if he had the opportunity to make it again he would "get the garlic and the mediterranean into it". Yet that performance (featuring Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard, with a combined age over 75, as the teenage lovers) had garnered no fewer than four Oscar Academy Award nominations.
The films' openings highlight each director's care to establish authenticity: Cukor introduces his characters in a shot of a scene played on a proscenium stage; Renato Castellani's 1954 version "Romeo and Juliet" opens with John Gielgud, famous as a stage Romeo, as the Prologue in Elizabethan doublet and hose; Zeffirelli sets his scene with an overview of Verona, and his Prologue, in voiceover, was another famous stage Romeo: Laurence Olivier. In contrast, "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" in 1996 was targeted at a young audience, and opens with images of television and print journalism.
A particular difficulty for the screenwriter arises towards the end of the fourth act, where Shakespeare's play requires considerable compression to be effective on the big screen, without giving the impression of "cutting to the chase". In Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version "Romeo and Juliet", Juliet's return home from the Friar's cell, her submission to her father and the preparation for the wedding are drastically abbreviated, and similarly the tomb scene is cut short: Paris does not appear at all, and Benvolio (in the Balthazar role) is sent away but is not threatened. In Baz Luhrmann's "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet", the screenplay allows Juliet to witness Romeo's death, and the role of the watch is cut, permitting Friar Lawrence to remain with Juliet and to be taken by surprise by her sudden suicide.
In addition, several reworkings of the story have also been filmed. Shakespeare in Love (1998) attempts tell the story of how Shakespeare came up with the play, placing him in the midst of his own tragic romance as he writes it. The movie creates other parallels to the play as well, such as a quarrel between two playhouses, The Curtain and The Rose, and an antagonist with similarities to both Count Paris and Tybalt. Romeo Must Die (2000) uses elements of the plot to introduce Jet Li to an American audience, with Asian Americans as Montagues and African Americans as Capulets. The most recent screen adaptation to garner worldwide attention is Disney's High School Musical (2006), which began as a made-for-tv Disney movie and was subsequently turned into a live stage musical and touring concert. According to executive producer Bill Borden, "Our story line is maybe not the most original or creative, but it's Shakespearean," said Borden, who described the plot as a modern version of Romeo and Juliet. "We took from the best." In the show, the two young love interests, Troy and Gabriella, are from rival cliques, not rival gangs. They resist the wishes of their families and their peers to be together, and try-out for the spring musical that is dividing the school. In David Simpatico's stage version, the title of the musical (unnamed in the movie), was changed to Juliet and Romeo.