I first read Romeo and Juliet in my 9th grade English class. It was hard and I hated it. I got as far as “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” before I threw down the book. I could not believe that Shakespeare was so famous—it was all clichés! (What I did not yet realize was that those clichés came from Shakespeare.)
This edition of Romeo and Juliet was edited by students for students. We believe that reliably edited versions of the play should be available for free online. But we wanted ours to be easy to get in other ways as well. The editors—Oregon State University students who remember, far better than their professors, what it was like to read the play for the first time—carefully considered every pronoun, punctuation mark, and indent. Our goal: to make a friendly, confidence-building edition that supported classroom activities at the high school and college level. (For example, we wanted speakers’ names to be bold so that students reading aloud or performing in class would not miss their cues.)
One of the most radical things about this textbook is its minimalism: it has fewer marginal glosses and footnotes than most other scholarly editions. This was a deliberate choice: the editors felt that important conversations were more likely to happen in the classroom than in footnotes, and they wanted our edition to resist pushing readers toward specific interpretations. As a result, our edition features a lot of white space. If, like us, you find it helpful to take notes (and to doodle) while you read, we hope you’ll print it out and make it your own.
The edition may look simple, but it’s not. In order to avoid overwhelming the page with notes—but still help the reader understand the sixteenth-century language—my students went word by word through the play, comparing three early modern printings to select the clearest language. Emboldened by the knowledge that there is no “authoritative” version of the play (we don’t actually know what Shakespeare wrote), they also made their own minor adjustments, typically in the less culturally iconic scenes and passages. For example, in Act 3 scene 5, Juliet’s father is angry that she does not want marry Paris on Thursday. In the first printed edition of the play (known as Q1, and printed in 1597), he says:
But if you cannot wedde Ile pardon you.
Graze where you will, you shall not house with me.
Looke to it, thinke ont, I doe not vse to iest.
I tell yee what, Thursday is neere,
Lay hand on heart, aduise, bethinke your selfe,
In the second printed edition (Q2, printed in 1599) he says something slightly different:
But and you will not wed, ile pardon you.
Graze where you will, you shall not house with me,
Looke too’t, thinke on’t, I do not vse to iest.
Thursday is neare, lay hand on hart, aduise,
Our edition modernizes spelling and punctuation, but makes other minor adjustments as well:
But if you will not wed, I’ll pardon you!
Graze where you will; you shall not house with me.
Look to’t, think on’t; I do not often jest.
Thursday is near. Lay hand on heart. Think well.
Here, the student editors have retained Q1’s “But if” instead of Q2’s now-archaic “But and.” They have replaced the potential confusing phrase “use to” (which does not mean “used to” and would have required an explanatory note) with “often,” a word that retains the original meter of the line. Similarly, they swapped out “advise”—which today tends to mean “give advice” rather than consider it—with “think well,” a phrase that also picks up on Q1’s “bethinke your self.”
This project would not have been possible even a decade ago: in the past, if you wanted to compare the early printings up close you had to gain physical access to rare book libraries. Now, there are wonderful resources online—my students made use of digital images and transcriptions of the early editions of Romeo and Juliet on the invaluable website Internet Shakespeare Editions. Other essential sources included online dictionaries (including the Oxford English Dictionary), print editions (especially those printed by Pelican and The Folger Shakespeare Library), the No Fear Shakespeare website, and David Crystal and Ben Crystal’s Shakespeare’s Words (Penguin, 2002). In preparation the editors took a course devoted to the print history of Shakespeare’s plays and studied recent scholarship on editing practices. They also interviewed high school teachers and students about their experiences with the text.
We believe that there is no one “perfect” edition of Romeo and Juliet—different readers need different things. This edition is ideal for first-time readers, and especially those of you who are young: its editors literally speak your language. That said, more seasoned readers of Shakespeare will appreciate its readability and the editors’ obvious respect for Elizabethan language. During the editing process I served as a resource to my students, lending my expertise on Shakespeare’s time period as needed. I checked my students’ work against the early modern editions to ensure that they had not misconstrued particularly archaic passages and that they preserved the play’s famous iambic pentameter. They did a really good job.
Update December 2020: As is appropriate for a Shakespearean text that has existed in various versions since the late 16th century, and in keeping with larger trends in the delivery of open educational resources, we have revised this open textbook with the specific goal of improving access. The course in which we completed the revision was scheduled and designed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and when I found out that we would be learning remotely Fall term, I worried that our inability to meet face to face would inhibit collaboration and creativity. I needn’t have worried: if anything, the events of 2020 gave new urgency to our task. In the months prior, protests over the murder of George Floyd by police and ongoing pandemic mismanagement, among other events, had made our society’s great inequities even more visible. Like many white people who teach and research Shakespeare, I committed to a more serious and sustained interrogation of the ways that my own practices have supported white supremacy and contributed to disparities in access to education. The new group of student editors—many of whom plan to teach, and some of whom already are—were just as committed to finding new, more socially just ways to engage future students in material that might be part of a mandated curriculum.
And so we spent the Fall considering—in online discussion boards and via Zoom—how to translate antiracist teaching practices advocated by early modern scholars of color into editing strategies; how to improve our textbook’s readability; and how to handle particularly harmful aspects of the text, including the explicit misogyny of the play’s first scene (which also happens to be the first lines of Shakespeare many young people ever read). For ten weeks, we also debated the extent to which editing can or should mitigate Shakespeare’s status as “team captain” of a Western literary canon that marginalizes the vast majority of today’s students. The editors’ introduction explains in more detail how these conversations resulted in specific updates to the text. What I learned from working with these dedicated and incredibly resilient students is that editing is itself a profoundly social act: they have helped me understand that the effective editor is one who makes the reader marginalized by the text feel seen. Their edition recognizes the misogyny and racism that goes unremarked upon in other editions; it anticipates which sentence constructions are most difficult for new readers of Shakespeare; and it even reaches out to help overworked teachers who are interested in designing culturally responsive Romeo and Juliet lesson plans but don’t know where to start . To say that I wish this was the edition I had read in ninth grade is an understatement.
In the preface to the first collected works of Shakespeare—printed after the playwright’s death in 1623 and known as the First Folio—his colleagues John Heminge and Henrie Condell suggest that if you do not like reading Shakespeare’s plays, it is probably because you do not understand them. If that’s the case, “his Friends, whom if you need, can be your guides”: in other words, if you want to enjoy Shakespeare, read his works with people who already get it. As an experienced teacher of Shakespearean drama, I can vouch that the opposite is also true: I did not love Romeo and Juliet until I read it with students.
I hope to hear from our readers—please reach out to me with your questions, suggestions, or thoughts about the text at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Rebecca Olson
Associate Professor of English
Oregon State University