Introduction: Romeo and Juliet

November 5, 2009 in Introduction

Probably composed in late 1596, Shakespeare’s version of ‘the greatest love story ever told’ marks a new stage in his writing career. Ever versatile, Shakespeare now creates pathos from the forbidden love plot that he had previously parodied in the play-within-a-play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Similarly, the Senecan excesses of Titus Andronicus have been toned down to produce the first example of a ‘Shakespearean’ tragedy. Shakespeare takes Brooke’s The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet as his source, but gives the theatrical version two new features that make the original story even more ‘tragical’: pace (the lovers court, marry and die in a matter of days rather than months) and sympathy with the protagonists (Brooke presented the lovers’ desire at the expense of filial duty as the greater sin than the older generation’s feud).

The play is firmly rooted in the tradition of courtly love and is even considered responsible for a boom in sonnet-printing in London at the end of the sixteenth century. Examples abound: Romeo’s paradoxical musings on love echo Petrarch; when he meets Juliet, their first words to each other form a sonnet; and the lovers’ separation following Romeo’s exile is inspired by the contemporary French poet Guillaume du Bartas. However, the play never seems like a poetry anthology with a plot, thanks to its textured cast of secondary characters; the staging possibilities provided by masked balls, sword fights and descents into crypts; and an often-overlooked sense of humour.

Although a performance is not officially documented until Samuel Pepys expresses his disdain for it in 1662, the play was popular right from its composition. A quarto edition of 1597, successful enough to be reprinted just two years later, declares that it “hath been often (with great applause) plaid”. This popularity has endured: no other Shakespeare play has been filmed in more languages and it has survived modifications in plot (as an inter-racial or lesbian romance) and setting (to 19th Century Louisiana, 1960′s New York, and 1990′s California). But all of these adaptions keep Shakespeare’s Verona as their inspiration, a place where “love’s light wings” struggle to overcome the “stony limits” of conflict.

Contributed by Jack Belloli

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