Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet Study Guide

Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's most famous tragedy and one of the world's most enduring love stories, derives its plot from several sixteenth century sources. Shakespeare's primary inspiration for the play was Arthur Brooke's Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562), a long and dense poem. Brooke's poem, in turn, was based on a French prose version written by Pierre Boiastuau (1559), which was derived from an Italian version written by Bandello in 1554. Bandello's poem, meanwhile, was an interpretation of Luigi da Porto's 1525 version of a story by Masuccio Salernitano (1476).

The plot of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet remains mostly true to Brooke's poem, though Shakespeare exercised artistic license in several instances. For example, as he often does, Shakespeare telescopes the events from Brooke's poem (which took place over 90 days) into a few days in the play. Additionally, Shakespeare's Juliet is thirteen, while Brooke wrote her as sixteen. The time compression and the younger Juliet enhance the youthful nature of the central relationship, emphasizing its passion and newness.

One of the most powerful aspects of Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare's use of language. The characters curse, vow oaths, banish each other, and, in general, demonstrate great verbal dexterity through an overuse of action verbs. In addition, the play is saturated with oxymorons, puns, paradoxes, and double entendres. Shakespeare even calls the use of names into question, most famously in Juliet's balcony soliloquy. Shakespeare also executed a rather strong shift in the language spoken by both Romeo and Juliet after they fall in love. Whereas Romeo is hopelessly normal in his courtship before meeting Juliet, after he falls in love, his language becomes infinitely richer and stronger.

Romeo and Juliet also deals with the issue of authoritarian law and order. Many of Shakespeare's plays feature characters that represent the unalterable force of the law, such as the Duke in The Comedy of Errors and Prince Escalus in Romeo and Juliet. In this play, the law attempts to stop the civil disorder, and even banishes Romeo at the midpoint. However, as in The Comedy of Errors, the law is eventually overpowered by the forces of love.

There are several different sources that inform the contemporary text of Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet was first published in quarto in 1597, and republished in a new edition only two years later. The second copy was used to created yet a third quarto in 1609, from which both the 1623 Quarto and First Folio are derived. The first quarto is generally considered a bad quarto, or an illicit copy created from the recollections of several actors rather than from the writer's original material. The second quarto seems to be taken from Shakespeare's rough draft, and thus has some inconsistent speech and some lines which Shakespeare apparently meant to eliminate. Please see the "About Shakespearian Theater" section of this note for more guidance as to these concepts.

Romeo and Juliet was popular during Shakespeare's time, but over the centuries it has become nothing short of omnipresent. It is arguably the most-filmed play of all time, and has been adapted 4 times to date - first by George Cukor in 1936, then by Franco Zeffirelli in 1968, Baz Luhrmann in 1996, and most recently, by Carlo Carlei in 2013. John Madden's Academy-Award winning film Shakespeare in Love is a fictional account of Shakespeare's life while writing the play. It was the basis for Prokofiev's famous ballet, and has inspired numerous Operas, pop and jazz songs, books, games, and musicals.