(Shakespearean Criticism)

Romeo and Juliet

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.”

Cedric Watts (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Stanley Wells (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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,...

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John F. Andrews (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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William B. Toole (essay date January 1980)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Toole, William B. “The Nurse's ‘Vast Irrelevance’: Thematic Foreshadowing in Romeo and Juliet.South Atlantic Bulletin 45, no. 1 (January 1980): 21-30.

[In the following essay, Toole studies the character of the Nurse through an analysis of her speech about Juliet's childhood.]

One of the most fascinating aspects of Shakespeare's dramatic artistry lies in his ability to create minor characters whose highly individualistic manner of speech can on occasion be true to their personalities and at the same time point the audience indirectly in one way or another to something crucial in the experience of the central characters of the drama. A...

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Paula Newman and George Walton Williams (essay date 1982)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Newman, Paula, and George Walton Williams. “Paris: The Mirror of Romeo.” In Renaissance Papers (1981): 13-19.

[In the following essay, Newman and Williams discuss how Shakespeare's dialogue and action establish Paris and Romeo as mirror images of one another.]

In the structure of Romeo and Juliet, Paris serves the function of a parallel or opposite figure to Romeo, both standing as suitors for Juliet's hand and both lying with her finally in her tomb; but this rivalry, however clear in the lines of the plot, is not realized in the action. Paris and Romeo are oblivious to it, and they do not encounter one another until they meet in death. In the...

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Dave Kehr (review date 17 August 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Kehr, Dave. “Hip-Hop Romeo, Hasidic Juliet.” New York Times (17 August 2001): B8, E8.

[In the following review of Marc Levin's Brooklyn Babylon—a film loosely based on Romeo and Juliet—Kehr finds the film's ending unnecessarily ambiguous.]

Brooklyn Babylon begins with some pointed intercutting between a Jamaican rap band in rehearsal and a Hasidic wedding in ecstatic progress. The director, Marc Levin, is establishing images of two cultures on a collision course—the setting is the divided Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn—but he is also suggesting how much the two groups have in common.

Not only do the...

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Jana J. Monji (review date 10 January 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Monji, Jana J. “Romeo Becomes a Bawdy Comedy.” Los Angeles Times (10 January 2002): F49.

[In the following review, Monji maintains that the Troubadour Theater Company's production of Romeo Hall and Juliet Oates was “a wonderfully silly sendup” of Shakespeare's tragedy.]

Romeo (Rick Batalla) has a wandering mustache and a mostly Italian accent. Juliet (Meleney Humphrey) is a giggly rich girl in sneakers. Juliet's mother, Lady Oates (Beth Kennedy), has a makeup job straight from the Barnum & Bailey Circus but is doing a mean mommy dearest impression. The nurse (Michelle Anne Johnson) has a curiously active chest.


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Sheridan Morley (review date 18 November 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Romeo Reaches Rock Bottom.” New Statesman 131, no. 4614 (18 November 2002): 46.

[In the following excerpt, Morley finds little to praise in David Freeman's production of Romeo & Juliet: The Musical.]

To understand what has gone so horribly wrong over here with a musical [Romeo and Juliet: The Musical] that has been running triumphantly in Paris these many months, we need to understand something about the French and musicals, which is basically that they hate them. Only in Paris has West Side Story ever flopped, not to mention their very own Les Misérables, whose authors were so depressed by their fellow...

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Michael W. Shurgot (review date fall 2003)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Shurgot, Michael W. Review of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare Bulletin 21, no. 3 (fall 2003): 100-02.

[In the following review, Shurgot states that the massive sets in the Seattle Repertory Theatre's production of Romeo and Juliet left “no room for subtlety in staging or lighting.”]

In Sharon Ott's Romeo and Juliet at Seattle Repertory Theatre, huge, thick black panels, reaching floor to ceiling, textured to resemble the rough stone walls of medieval buildings, dominated the stage. Initially these panels defined the exterior walls of two castles—those of Capulet and Montague—and dark, forbidding streets lighting the way to dusty...

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Heather Neill (review date 3 October 2003)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Neill, Heather. “High Drama and Tension in a Star-Crossed Classic.” Times Educational Supplement, no. 4552 (3 October 2003): 14.

[In the following review, Neill describes 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.]

Romeo and Juliet lends itself to all kinds of interpretation. Students who are reasonably familiar with the text will be intrigued by two unusual London productions.

At the Young Vic an acrobatic Icelandic company launch into their native tongue...

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Joseph S. M. J. Chang (essay date 1967)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Chang, Joseph S. M. J. “The Language of Paradox in Romeo and Juliet.Shakespeare Studies 3 (1967): 22-42.

[In the following essay, Chang disputes criticism that considers love the primary concern of Romeo and Juliet, citing themes of time, death, and immortality as more important to the play.]

Critical insight has foundered in the case of Romeo and Juliet,1 in part because critics restrict their readings to the level of understanding defined by the two choric sonnets, and in part because students of the play have misread Shakespeare's major artistic tool here, making it subserve their own penchant for analysis of character....

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J. C. Gray (essay date spring 1968)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Gray, J. C. “Romeo and Juliet, and Some Renaissance Notions of Love, Time, and Death.” Dalhousie Review 48, no. 1 (spring 1968): 58-69.

[In the following essay, Gray discusses Shakespeare's paradoxical treatment of the tragedy's main themes and recommends that readers consider the contradictory nature of love, time, and death in the play.]

The literature of Renaissance England is second to none in its rich explorations of all possible manifestations of human love, in both their healthy and their distorted states. Generally speaking, when one loves God and his fellow man as Christ commanded, one loves wisely and well; one loves with entire affection....

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Ruth Nevo (essay date spring 1969)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Nevo, Ruth. “Tragic Form in Romeo and Juliet.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 9, no. 2 (spring 1969): 241-58.

[In the following essay, Nevo explains the uniquely Shakespearean approach to tragedy employed in Romeo and Juliet that depends on neither providence nor fate as the source of human suffering.]

The plot of Romeo and Juliet stresses the accidental. The fortuitous meeting of Romeo and Benvolio with Capulet's illiterate messenger bearing the invitations he cannot decipher, the chance encounter between Romeo and Tybalt at a most unpropitious moment, the outbreak of the plague which quarantines Friar John, the meeting of...

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Laurence Lerner (essay date 1979)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Lerner, Laurence. “Shakespeare and Love: Romeo & Juliet.” In Essays on Shakespeare in Honour of A. A. Ansari, edited by T. R. Sharma, pp. 117-35. Meerut, India: Shalabh Book House, 1986.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1979, Lerner explores the connections between love and death in Romeo and Juliet.]

‘Oh she doth teach the torches to burn bright’: Romeo's first glimpse of Juliet transforms his world, and the line tells us, instantly, that it is a play about the transfiguring power of love.

If there ever was a play which had to be in poetry, it is this: for only through heightened language can the heightened...

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Chris Fitter (essay date spring 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Fitter, Chris. “‘The quarrel is between our masters and us their men’: Romeo and Juliet, Dearth, and the London Riots.” English Literary Renaissance 30, no. 2 (spring 2000): 154-83.

[In the following essay, Fitter discusses the violence in Romeo and Juliet within the context of the 1595 London riots.]

                    Famine is in thy cheeks,
Need and oppression starveth in thy eyes,
Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back.
The world is not thy friend, nor the world's law;
The world affords no law to make thee rich;
Then be not poor, but break it


“The aesthetic,” as contemporary literary...

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Thomas Moisan (essay date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Moisan, Thomas. “‘Now Art Thou What Thou Art’; or, Being Sociable in Verona: Teaching Gender and Desire in Romeo and Juliet.” In Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, edited by Maurice Hunt, pp. 47-58. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2000.

[In the following essay, Moisan examines gender issues in the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.]

That gender has a good deal to do with the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, that Romeo and Juliet derives its tragedy in no small measure from the relation between the love of the eponymous protagonists and what is expected of them, or what they expect of themselves, as a...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Burt, Richard. “No Holes Bard: Homonormativity and the Gay and Lesbian Romance with Romeo and Juliet.” In Shakespeare Without Class: Misappropriations of Cultural Capital, edited by Donald Hedrick and Bryan Reynolds, pp. 153-86. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Surveys the gay and lesbian performance history of Romeo and Juliet.

Conrad, Peter. “Romeos, Juliets, and Music.” In To Be Continued: Four Stories and Their Survival, pp. 47-93. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1995.

Discusses various adaptations of Romeo and Juliet involving the replacement of Shakespeare's words with music....

(The entire section is 464 words.)