Study Guide

Romeo and Juliet

by William Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet Essay - Romeo and Juliet (Vol. 87)

Romeo and Juliet (Vol. 87)

Introduction

Romeo and Juliet

See also Romeo and Juliet Criticism (Volume 33), and Volumes 51, 65, 76.

Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare's most popular and frequently performed plays. The familiar story of star-crossed adolescent lovers and their feuding families has enjoyed a richly diverse legacy and has been adapted for films, musicals, operas, ballets, and television productions. Despite the play's tragic elements, the work has been endlessly lampooned, particularly the famous balcony scene. Jana J. Monji (2002) reviews a recent parody staged by the Troubadour Theater Company in Burbank, California, featuring American pop music from the 1980s. Titled Romeo Hall and Juliet Oates, the production is characterized as “bawdy fun,” according to Monji, but is definitely not for purists. Dave Kehr (2001) reviews another recent adaptation, Brooklyn Babylon, a film loosely based on Romeo and Juliet. The film, directed by Marc Levin, features rival ethnic groups in Crown Heights, represented by a “hip-hop Romeo” and a “Hasidic Juliet.” Reviewer Heather Neill (2003) notes that Shakespeare's famous play “lends itself to all kinds of interpretation.” Neill reviews two recent unusual stagings in London: the Theatre Vesturport's production of Romeo and Juliet, which featured acrobats on trapezes, and the Splinter Group's production of Shakespeare's R & J, told from the perspectives of four teenage boys.

The original version of Romeo and Juliet was probably written in 1595, and appeared in print in 1597 as the First Quarto (a small, paperback edition). Because of the numerous additions, deletions, and alterations to the original text, Shakespeare scholars disagree on whether the First or Second Quarto (1599) can be considered the authoritative text. Modern critics generally privilege the second edition over the earlier version, which is regarded as a “bad” quarto, or a text written from memory by witnesses or participants in the production. However, scholar Cedric Watts (1995) suggests that the First Quarto is useful for its insight into the way in which the play was originally staged and performed. Contemporary editors have often borrowed stage directions and additional verse from the First Quarto, but the Second Quarto, commonly referred to as the “Good Quarto,” remains the dominant version. Stanley Wells (1996) explores some of the staging and interpretive challenges faced by modern directors of Romeo and Juliet. According to Wells, directors must take into account that audiences have been influenced by a number of derivative ballets, operas, symphonies, and films. These offshoots, Wells asserts, “create images that superimpose themselves on the Shakespearian text, forming expectations in the imaginations of the play's interpreters and audiences which subtly affect our response.”

Character studies of the principals in Romeo and Juliet constitute a great deal of the play's criticism; however, modern scholars have turned their attention to the minor players as well. William B. Toole (1980) praises Shakespeare's skill in creating secondary characters whose dialogue carry significant meaning for the play as a whole. Toole offers the example of the Nurse, whose seemingly insignificant anecdote on Juliet's infancy “foreshadows a theme close to the heart of the play: growth through adversity.” Similarly, Paula Newman and George Walton Williams (1982) explore the characterization of Paris, Juliet's other suitor, as the mirror image of Romeo. The parallel, they claim, is “evident in verbal description, in action, and in dialogue.” Sasha Roberts (see Further Reading) concentrates less on single characters than on the interactions between them, specifically the family dynamics of marriage and parenthood. Roberts concludes that the main focus of the play is “rivalry between civic, household, and church fathers,” stressing the connection between public and private realms. This connection between public and private is further explored by Chris Fitter (2000), who examines the violent behavior of the feuding Montagues and Capulets within the context of the 1595 London riots.

Modern criticism also centers on the nature of Romeo and Juliet's love relationship, described by J. C. Gray (1968) as “that erotic, heterosexual love that is intense, mutual, and short-lived.” That such relationships often end in death is discussed by Laurence Lerner (1986), who maintains that while the play connects love and death, the lovers' feelings do not quite constitute a death wish, since “whatever longing there is for the ecstasy of annihilation, is concealed.” Critical speculation abounds on the specific nature of the tragedy in Romeo and Juliet. Some scholars view the play as a tragedy of fate, wherein Romeo and Juliet are victims of circumstances beyond their control, while other view it as a tragedy of character, wherein the couple bears some responsibility for the play's outcome. Ruth Nevo (1969) suggests that Romeo and Juliet forgoes these traditional views, and contends that the play is a “tragedy of chance” (dependent on accident and coincidence), a form unique to Shakespeare in her view. Joseph S. M. J. Chang (1967) contends that the play is not a tragedy of character and disputes the common assessment of the work as primarily a love story; rather, he suggests, “the play exploits a love-centered situation to explore problems of larger import, the abiding concerns of time, death, and immortal aspiration.”

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Cedric Watts (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Watts, Cedric, ed. Introduction to An Excellent Conceited Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, pp. 13-22. London: Prentice Hall, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1995.

[In the following introduction, Watts compares the First and Second Quarto editions of Romeo and Juliet.]

Brace yourself for some scholarly jargon.

The First Quarto (Q1) of Romeo and Juliet, a small paperback, was printed in 1597, the Second Quarto (Q2) in 1599. Subsequent versions—Q3 (1609), Q4 (1622), First Folio (1623) and Q5 (1637)—were all derivative, without independent authority. Recent editors suggest (with variations) that Q3 was reprinted from Q2, with...

(The entire section is 3459 words.)

Stanley Wells (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Wells, Stanley. “The Challenges of Romeo and Juliet.” In Shakespeare Survey 49 (1996): 1-14.

[In the following essay, Wells details the legacy of Romeo and Juliet, which includes productions in a variety of media as well as parodies and comic sketches.]

The story of Romeo and Juliet—one of the great myths of the Western world—first appeared fully formed in an Italian version of 1530, and since then has had a vigorous afterlife, not all of it deriving from Shakespeare. It has been frequently reincarnated and recollected in a multitude of forms and media—prose narratives, verse narratives, drama, opera, orchestral and choral music, ballet,...

(The entire section is 9203 words.)

John F. Andrews (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Andrews, John F. “Falling in Love: The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.” In Classical, Renaissance, and Postmodernist Acts of the Imagination: Essays Commemorating O. B. Hardison, Jr., edited by Arthur F. Kinney, pp. 177-94. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Andrews discusses the effect of Romeo and Juliet on contemporary audiences.]

What happens in Romeo and Juliet?1 What did a dramatist of the 1590s want the “judicious” members of his contemporary audiences to see and hear, and how did he expect them to feel, as they attended the play2 a later age would laud as the most lyrical...

(The entire section is 7722 words.)