Shakespeare is largely considered to be the greatest writer in the English language. In his lifetime, he wrote thirty-nine plays, most of which are still read and performed today. Of these thirty-nine plays, Romeo and Juliet is one of the best known. Shakespeare, however, did not invent the story of Romeo and Juliet. The tragic tale of two star-crossed lovers existed for a few hundred years before Shakespeare took a stab at it, and audiences in the early modern era were familiar with the story before setting foot in the theater. It might seem surprising to modern audiences that this story wasn’t treading any new ground at the time of its “conception,” and some might wonder why the brilliant, the mighty Shakespeare might have retold a story whose twisted ending came as no surprise to its audience. Shakespeare felt “driven” (in his own words) to write the narrative all over again, and something about his version impacted audiences so intensely that it is today considered one of the greatest stories ever told. Why is it that Shakespeare’s version affected his audience deeply enough that it is still firmly lodged in the literary cannon? What about this story is so enduring? And most importantly: why is it so popular?
The time period in which Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet debuted was one of particular distress and turmoil. At the time, England was ravaged by the Bubonic Plague, which had a fatality rate of 50%. Theaters were closed during mass outbreaks, which likely impacted Shakespeare financially, since he lived off the revenue from theater admissions to his plays. England was also in the grips of the Catholic-Protestant divide, which often erupted into violence. Romeo and Juliet was written, directed, and enjoyed during a time characterized by fear, tension, and disease, effectively making it a play for people of any era, who grapple with their own catastrophes and terrors. The role of theatre and literature (in society at large. and in…ahem…classrooms) is hotly debated, and we cannot claim to have a definitive answer to this age-old question. We can, however, assert that the endurance of plays such as this one speaks to their ability to move people, to speak to them in ways that inspire their preservation through the ages. And so, we became inspired to make this age-old classic more readily accessible to you, both in the digital format that has made its way onto your screens, or paper copies that you hold in your hands, and in way that the content has been carefully collected and presented.
In an effort funded through Open Oregon State and with support from Oregon State’s School of Writing, Literature, and Film, a group of 20 students, led by Dr. Rebecca Olson, crafted this edition of Romeo and Juliet with the vision that it be easily read and accessed by high school students everywhere. As a group, we decided upon a set of guiding principles, which included an effort to modernize spellings that are no longer in use, encourage your interaction with the text, and (of course) support the Shakespeare-related Common Core educational goals. Above all, we hope that this edition will allow you, the reader, to move through the text with little need to stop and look up an unfamiliar word, or to try and figure out what in the world a “Lanthorne” is (it’s an old-fashioned word for “lantern.” Could you imagine using that word for a lantern? Neither could we, so we changed it).
To put all this together, we created a set of guidelines to get us started. We decided which text versions of the play to use as primary sources—we chose from five Quarto versions and four Folio editions, settling on Quarto 1, Quarto 2, and the First Folio. We decided that we wanted to include some very important things like footnotes—necessary to clarify some words and concepts, but often intimidating and numerous—but we determined that we’d keep them brief and use them only when necessary. We decided on some more mundane things, like the font we wanted (Garamond instead of that nasty Times New Roman. What ever happened to Times Old Roman anyway? ). We made countless other decisions at the outset of this project, and after establishing these ground rules we separated into editing groups, each focusing on a particular act within the play.
When the groups had completed their edited acts, we met again as a large group to review all the work together. It was at this time that we discovered how differently each editing group had approached our individual edited acts and scenes, while still following the same set of established guidelines. Should we use bold for the character names? How much white space should we include? Should there be one space after a line of dialogue, or two? How far should we indent the stage directions? What is the impact of these seemingly trivial questions on the experience of the reader? The team set out to analyze these and many other questions. Our deliberations were lengthy, and at times unexpectedly heated. We learned much about ourselves (and about our apparent passion for uniform margins and un-bolded character names).
After arranging our edition into a single, consistent document, we set out to consider the other requirements that go along with creating a new edition of an old work. We again separated into groups to address the facets of this project. There was a group to draft out scene and location summaries; a group to establish the technical formatting of the finished work; a group to reach out to high school teachers and students to better understand their needs and concerns when engaging with an old-fashioned work such as Romeo and Juliet; and a group to ensure that there was consistency in formatting throughout the edition. We also created a group to draft this introduction, and a group of lead editors met with Dr. Olson to identify all topics that would be covered within it (we won’t list those as long as you promise to read the whole thing). We also identified individuals to work on creating the cover of this edition (which, we are sure you will agree, is top notch). With the groupings settled, and the work underway, the edition that you hold in your very hands (or upon your very screen) began to take shape.
We recognize that there are numerous other editions out there, and fervently hope that this one will be effectively suited to your educational needs. But this may beg the question: why are there so many editions? Why not just use the original? Great question! The answer is that there not just one original edition. The idea of a singular “original” Shakespeare text is a common misunderstanding. Shakespeare was a 17th Century playwright, so he didn’t necessarily intend his works to be published for broad literary audiences–most published versions were printed after his death. This being the case, there is much debate regarding the authority of different published versions. In the particular instance of Romeo and Juliet, there are multiple versions, all of which can be seen as authentic or “original”, but are dissimilar from each other in sometimes slight and sometimes significant ways. Some scholars believe that people who attended the play numerous times and recorded the dialogue in writing produced the earliest versions of the texts. Others believe that these texts were generated by a few of the play actors. Theories abound regarding original production. Maybe several of them are correct, maybe none, but whatever the case, this allows modern editors to have a selection of authentic Shakespearean texts to draw from, which leads to some distinct differences from one edition to the next. (Spoiler alert!) Did Juliet awaken before Romeo was fully dead? The text seems to indicate that she didn’t, but others have interpreted it differently. This play has passed through the hands of many, many editors through the centuries, all of whom have left their own distinct marks; our hope is that our varied perspectives and orientation toward our readers’ needs will result in an edition that is relatable in the events and motivations of characters that you will encounter.
Shakespeare is famous for his plays. He is famous for the emotions and the responses that these plays inspire in those who interact with them. He is credited with creating over 1700 original words alone in the English language (you’re welcome, Jessica). And so, when we’re considering Shakespeare, we’re not looking just at the play, or the performance, or its history—we’re looking at the language.
Language has acted as Shakespeare’s central tool in creating some of the world’s greatest literary compositions. Both a powerful playwright and literary icon, the fundamental aspects of what makes Shakespeare’s work Shakespeare’s work in the first place—and what continues to perpetuate his worldwide fame—can be understood in some of his most recognizable moments. Even without reading Romeo and Juliet, the average high school student can identify “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” as easily as they can fail a math test.
When we started out to create the world’s most accessible version of Romeo and Juliet, the biggest question that we were tasked to answer was: how do we treat the language? What needs to be changed? Should the text be completely modernized—removing early modern English altogether? What about iambic pentameter—the rhythmic meter that makes poetry of Shakespeare’s words? Is it necessary to preserve a rhythm that doesn’t seem so universal without the archaic pronunciation of the words within? Where does the line between historical preservation and accessibility meet, and how do we land at that crossroad?
The language in this edition is thus a compilation of the First Folio, Quarto 1, and Quarto 2, as well as the collective minds of twenty plus (how many of us are there?) students working diligently to achieve clarity and ensure comprehension. The language has been only slightly altered, so as to maintain Shakespeare’s original intent, and in order to also appeal to a more modern audience. The plot has remained untouched. Punctuation has been updated where appropriate. Spellings have been modernized. But the story is the same. The famous, dramatic, moving story of a forbidden love and its original contexts remains. If we have changed anything, it is so that such a story can be loved and adored (though, perhaps with a bit more reserve than either Romeo or Juliet display toward one another) and can be read by many, many more people.
Romeo and Juliet Onstage
“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks” is probably one of the most quoted and easily recognizable lines of Shakespeare. Good ol’ Romeo and Juliet have been around for centuries, brought to life again and again through the text that houses them. This text is read in high schools, watched on the stage, adapted for film, and even re-written in terms of a text conversation. But where did it all begin?
Originally, Romeo and Juliet was designed to be played on a thrust stage, which extends into the audience, allowing viewers to watch from three sides. Scenery was sparse to allow for quick action and a focus on the carefully crafted language. There was a rear balcony staged as Juliet’s window and a trapdoor for her tomb. The play ran briefly in London following the Restoration of Charles II when William Davenant, acclaimed “son of Shakespeare” (whether literary or biological, we’re still not sure), presented it at Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Several adaptations made their way around, including a version set in ancient Rome and a version in which a father and daughter played the titular characters in 1744, which was not widely accepted (for obvious reasons, we think). In 1748, David Garrick, a man renowned in the world of theatre, staged a production of Romeo and Juliet at Drury Lane and removed all sexual references and jokes present in the text. This version became the standard for the next century.
When Shakespeare was staging performances of Romeo and Juliet, most all actors were men, which means that Juliet was traditionally played by men dressed up as women. This tradition persisted until the late 17th century. By the 19th century, playing the role of Juliet became an actress’s marker of success in the theatrical world, and by the mid-19th century girls were even allowed to take on the role of Romeo as well.
Throughout the 1900s, several noted playwrights and producers adapted and toured the play. William Poel of the Elizabethan Stage Society created a version chock-full of fast-paced action and complicated stage directions, or blocking. Before directing the 1968 film version of the play, Franco Zeffirelli created an adaptation of the original script for the stage, and then his film premiered in 1968 at the Old Vic Theatre in London. The Old Vic was traditionally a venue for live theater, and had never before hosted a film screening. The Italian renaissance setting at the Old Vic was so realistic and natural that audience members were awed by the never-before-seen representational style of stepping into a virtual snapshot of Verona.
The film was adapted again for Baz Luhrman’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet, a lush cinematic experience that exemplified Lurhman’s decadent style. This version starring Leonardo DiCaprio brought the tale of tragic romance to a whole new generation of teenagers. To this day, the play is read, performed, and referenced at a massive scale, but echoes of the original production linger.
Love and Death: Reading Romeo and Juliet Today
A play is more than words on a page; a play is a story full of feelings and experiences that the actors and the audience bring to the table. A play like Romeo and Juliet is an experience that captivates and challenges the imaginations of people across generations, across centuries. Romeo and Juliet is not a static story about a boy and a girl. It is an open story about love between two people—a story that adapts and changes in the minds and bodies that contemplate and reenact it. We believe this play offers a chance to explore what love can actually mean, from a wide variety of genders, sexual orientations, and experiences. It is a story about the tragedies and triumphs of love, and its special power lies in its ability to inspire contemplation of these ideas in all who encounter it.
Slowly but surely, our world is warming up to the idea that love is universal regardless of the identity of the bodies involved with it. More and more, people are exploring characters with more flexible categories of analysis, opening up new (or centuries-old) avenues of sexuality that challenge a heterosexual-dominant narrative. Actors of all ages are subverting historically gendered roles to inspire audiences to question their implicit assumptions. Players and playgoers are not disregarding what these stories were, but are imagining new possibilities for what these stories could be. In other words, it can be tempting to think that the script is rigidly set, but in actuality there is a real freedom in the performance. We encourage students and teachers alike to embrace that freedom, to widen their perspectives and see Romeo and Juliet (and plays in general) as tools to help explore what it means to be human.
While we’re on the subject of important social ramifications of the play, we feel it’s important to talk about the crux of the play’s tragedy: the choice Romeo and Juliet make to commit suicide. To some it can seem strange, absurd, or even silly. Why would anyone kill themselves over someone they met only earlier that same week?
The suicides of Romeo and Juliet suggest that their love and subsequent marriage were more than the result of the exaggerated emotions of a first love. What other, less obvious factors were at play? What would drive someone to make the worst and most permanent of all mistakes? Rather than attempt to answer this question that has followed this text around like a phantom, we’ll leave you with some questions that help us contemplate the complicated tangle of intention and action in this play: How did Juliet view her future after being forced to marry someone she barely knew? Maybe Romeo felt locked into the family feud and was looking for an escape? By seriously considering the motivations that led these characters to a tragic end, can we learn how to better respond to those situations that inspire feelings of powerlessness?
In any case, we’ll leave the answering of those questions to you. Just as we have enjoyed Romeo and Juliet in its many forms, and from the many angles through which we have viewed it, we hope that you will enjoy this new edition!
- Quartos are standalone books, with the paper folded into quarters, and they contained the earliest printing of the plays. There are five Quarto versions of Romeo and Juliet, published in 1597, 1609, 1622, 1623, and 1637. Folios are compilations of several plays (they were published in folio format), and there are four Folio versions of Romeo and Juliet, published in 1623, 1632, 1664, and 1685. ↵
- Shakespeare gets the credit for first using many first names that are still popular today, including Jessica. ↵
- If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help. There are people who care about you, and who want to help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. ↵