It is often said that Shakespeare never blotted a line, but it is also true that he borrowed a few. As in most of his plays, the Bard drew upon existing literary sources in composing Romeo and Juliet. Thus, for example, Mercutio's "Queen Mab" speech (I.iv.53-95) bears a close resemblance to a verse passage from Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Fowles written two centuries before Shakespeare's age. As for the central story of Romeo and Juliet, the direct source of Shakespeare's plot was a 3,000 line verse drama written by the English poet Arthur Brooke in 1562 and republished in 1587 as The Tragically Historye of Romeus and Juliet. Brooke, in his turn, drew upon a French version by Pierre Boaistua. It is, however, an Italian poet, Luigi Da Porto, who first set the story of the doomed lovers in Verona and gave them the names Romeo and Guiletta in 1530. Beyond this, the story of a family feud serving as an obstacle to true love dates back to ancient Roman comedies and their Greek antecedents.
The extensive literary lineage of the Romeo and Juliet story may appear to be incongruent with recent approaches to Shakespeare's play that focus on its experimental nature. It is, however, in the radical departures from existing forms that Shakespeare displays his creative brilliance in Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare was the first to dramatize the "tragicall historye" of the Veronese lovers. This, in itself, required consummate skill to reduce a story that unfolds over months or years to less than a week's duration and to boil the presentation down into "two hours traffic of our stage" (First Prologue, 12). But far more important than this alteration, Shakespeare had the creative audacity to present the story of Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy in the same class as the tragedies of Ancient Greece. For openers, while Romeo and Juliet are scions of noble families, they are not royals. Given the age-long limitation of tragedy to the affairs of kings and queens, the notion that two upper-middle class youths could serve as the protagonist of a tragedy was outlandish to Elizabethan audiences. As the Prince says in the plays concluding couplet: "For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo" (V.iii.309-310). The story is, in fact, sad; but in this, it manifests two further innovations. First, when Elizabethan audiences saw two young lovers on stage in opposition to resistant parents (usually fathers), they customarily assumed that love would triumph in a happy ending. In a sense, love does triumph, and there is a restoration of civil harmony in the play's final scene; but Romeo and Juliet, despite the youth of its title characters, ends badly. At the same time, while both characters have adolescent shortcomings, neither (nor both) of them have a classical tragic flaw. Their demise is the outcome of circumstance and Fortune.
By way of addition, Romeo and Juliet is an experimental play in that it embodies forms and techniques that had not been used by playwrights in the past. The inclusion of two choral sonnets before Act I and Act II and, even more stunningly, of Romeo and Juliet's jointly composed sonnet in Act I, scene v (92-105) is a technical innovation with a supreme purpose. It sets Romeo and Juliet apart from a generally prosaic world, for the language that they exchange between each other possesses a lyrical quality that is noticeable (and deliberately) of a higher order than the rest of the play's text. As will be discussed further under the heading of Time, not only did Shakespeare telescope and compress events, Romeo and Juliet is self-consciously designed with a pace of events that takes on momentum as the lives of the lovers careen toward catastrophe.
In the first two quatrains of the play's opening sonnet, the chorus spells out the story line and establishes its central theme as the antithesis between love and hate.
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur'd piteous overthrows,
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
(Opening Prologue, 1-8)
There are, to be sure, variants upon the love/hate polarity in terms of youth versus age and, less importantly, good versus evil; but it is the conflict between the love of Romeo and Juliet, on the one hand, and the hate that divides their respective families, on the other, that predominates. Thus, in the play's opening scene, after witnessing the evidence of the first fray between his kinsman and the Capulets, Romeo observes, "Here's much to do with hate, but more with love" (I.i.175); while after learning Romeo's last name, Juliet similarly remarks, "My only love sprung from my only hate!" (I. v.138). At the play's midpoint, Juliet is told that Romeo has killed her...
(The entire section is 2066 words.)