Romeo and Juliet is certainly among the world’s greatest plays, and the story of Shakespeare’s ‘star-crossed’ young lovers whose fate is sealed by their quarreling families, the Montagues and the Capulets, is the touchstone fable of romantic love. Love so threatened and fragile is beautiful because it is so brief. Coincidence, chance, unawareness: fate weaves its inexorable pattern against the background of a bitter and deadly feud, working through persons who would never knowingly harm the lovers, but who do so nonetheless. It has been stated that the real tragedy in Romeo and Juliet is the lack of a telephone.
The play is not one of Shakespeare’s cosmic tragedies like King Lear, Othello, Hamlet, or Macbeth. In the Greek concept of the tragic hero as a great personage destroyed by some tragic flaw, referred to as the “Fall of Princes,” Romeo has no place. He is merely a young man in love with love, and it is his misfortune that his eye falls upon the beautiful daughter of his father’s enemy. All disasters that befall the two families flow from this situation; thus the drama becomes one of pathos and pity rather than the type of soul-purging tragedy Shakespeare came to write in his maturity.
Vivid poetry, likely unsurpassed in lyrical exuberance, contributes to 400 years of audience fascination with the play. The balcony scene (Act II Scene 2) is one of the most famous in all literature; Shakespeare makes essentially complete his own triumph over the most difficult medium of words. Using a variety of rhyme schemes (couplets, octets, sonnets) and reveling in punning, metaphor and wit combat, the play’s language grows in intensity to the final scene, wherein apostrophes to death are in one moment of lyrical magnificence welded intimately to our hearts and to our world heritage of quotations.
Shakespeare lifted much of the plot for Romeo and Juliet directly from a poem by Arthur Brooke written in 1562. Brooke’s poem, in turn, was deeply indebted to Bandel, an Italian novelist. Since no copyright laws existed in Shakespeare’s time, such “lifting” was permissible; indeed the Elizabethans expected it.
Popularity of this play has been constant since its first appearance. A printed version appeared in 1597 stating that the play had even then “been often (with great applause) plaid publiquely.” When the playhouses reopened after the Puritan Revolution, Romeo and Juliet was one of the plays selected for revival, and it regained at once its place on the popular stage.
About this time someone prepared an edition with a happy ending in which hero and heroine were saved and lived happily ever after. Two versions, one tragic and one happy, played on alternate nights and spectators could choose whichever suited their moods.
David Garrick produced a vastly influential version of Romeo and Juliet in the Drury Lane Theatre in 1748, and Gounod’s opera, another “modernization” of Shakespeare’s material, appeared in 1867. A 1753 picture from the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, shows Juliet on a balcony. . . this famous staging convention apparently originated at this time; Shakespeare mentions only a window.
In our own time, the Zefferelli motion picture and the Broadway production of West Side Story are well established. In fact, given the realism and visual power of today’s media, theatre is challenged to restore concepts that preserve the tragedy of the young lovers in Shakespeare’s setting, meanwhile renewing and refreshing our experience with the play.