Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy written early in the career of William Shakespeare about two teenage "star-cross'd lovers" whose untimely deaths ultimately unite their feuding families. It was among Shakespeare's most popular plays during his lifetime and, along with Hamlet, is one of his most frequently performed plays. Today, the title characters are regarded as archetypal "young lovers".
Romeo and Juliet belongs to a tradition of tragic romances stretching back to Ancient Greece. Its plot is based on an Italian tale, translated into verse as The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke in 1562, and retold in prose in Palace of Pleasure by William Painter in 1582. Shakespeare borrowed heavily from both, but developed supporting characters, particularly Mercutio and Paris, in order to expand the plot. Believed to be written between 1591 and 1595, the play was first published in a quarto version in 1597. This text was of poor quality, and later editions corrected it, bringing it more in line with Shakespeare's original text.
Shakespeare's use of dramatic structure, especially such effects as switching between comedy and tragedy to heighten tension, his expansion of minor characters, and his use of subplots to embellish the story, has been praised as an early sign of his dramatic skill. The play ascribes different poetic forms to different characters, sometimes changing the form as the character develops. Romeo, for example, grows more adept at the sonnet form over the course of the play.
Romeo and Juliet has been adapted numerous times for stage, film, musical and opera. During the Restoration, it was revived and heavily revised by William Davenant. David Garrick's 18th-century version also modified several scenes, removing material then considered indecent, and Georg Benda's operatic adaptation omitted much of the action and added a happy ending. Performances in the 19th century, including Charlotte Cushman's, restored the original text, and focused on greater realism. John Gielgud's 1935 version kept very close to Shakespeare's text, and used Elizabethan costumes and staging to enhance the drama. In the 20th century the play has been adapted in versions as diverse as MGM's comparatively faithful 1936 film, the 1950s stage musical West Side Story, and 1996's MTV-inspired Romeo + Juliet.
Ruling house of Verona
The play begins with a street brawl between Montagues and Capulets. The Prince of Verona, intervenes and declares that the heads of the families will be held accountable for any further breach of the peace. Meanwhile, Count Paris talks to Lord Capulet about marrying his daughter, but Capulet is wary of the suit because Juliet is still too young. Capulet asks Paris to wait another two years and invites him to attend a planned Capulet ball. Lady Capulet tries to persuade her daughter to accept Paris' courtship. In this scene Juliet's nurse is introduced as a talkative and humorous character, who raised Juliet from infancy. After the brawl, Benvolio talks with his cousin Romeo, Lord Montague's son, over Romeo's recent depression. Benvolio discovers that it stems from unrequited love for a girl named Rosaline, one of Lord Capulet's nieces. Persuaded by Benvolio and Mercutio, Romeo attends the ball at the Capulet house in hopes of meeting Rosaline. Romeo and Juliet fall in love, not knowing that they are on opposite sides of the feuding families. After the ball, Romeo sneaks into the Capulet courtyard and overhears Juliet vowing her love to him in spite of her family's hatred of the Montagues. Romeo makes himself known to her and they agree to be married.
With the help of Friar Lawrence, who hopes to reconcile the two families through their children's union, they are married secretly the next day. Juliet's cousin Tybalt, however, is offended that Romeo snuck into a Capulet ball and challenges him to a duel. Romeo, considering Tybalt a kinsman to his wife, refuses to fight him. Mercutio is incensed by Tybalt's insolence, as well as Romeo's "vile submission", and accepts the duel on Romeo's behalf. Mercutio is fatally wounded and Romeo, angered by his friend's death, pursues and slays Tybalt. The Prince exiles Romeo from Verona for the killing. He also adds that if Romeo comes back, "that hour is his last". Lord Capulet, misinterpreting Juliet's grief, agrees to marry her to Count Paris and threatens to disown her when she refuses to become Paris's "joyful bride". Her mother coldly walks away from her when she pleads for her to delay it for even a month.
Juliet visits Friar Lawrence for help, and he offers her a drug which will put her into a death-like coma for "two and forty hours". She takes it and, when discovered apparently dead, she is laid in the family crypt. While she is sleeping the Friar sends a messenger to inform Romeo of the plan, so that he can rejoin her when she awakens.
The messenger, however, does not reach Romeo and he learns of Juliet's apparent death from his servant Balthasar. Grief-stricken, Romeo buys poison from an apothecary, goes to the Capulet crypt. He encounters Paris who has come to mourn Juliet privately. Paris confronts Romeo believing him to be a vandal, and in the ensuing battle Romeo kills Paris. Still believing Juliet to be dead, he drinks the poison. Juliet then awakens and, finding Romeo dead, stabs herself with her lover's dagger. The feuding families and the Prince meet at the tomb to find all three dead. Friar Lawrence recounts the story of the two "star-cross'd lovers" and Montague reveals that his wife has died of grief after hearing of her son's exile. The families are reconciled by their children's deaths and agree to end their violent feud. The play ends with the Prince's elegy for the lovers: "For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
Romeo and Juliet borrows from a tradition of tragic love stories dating back to antiquity. One of these is Pyramus and Thisbe, from Ovid's Metamorphoses, which contains parallels to Shakespeare's story: the lovers' parents despise each other, and Pyramus falsely believes his lover Thisbe is dead. The Ephisiaca of Xenophon of Ephesus, written in the mid-2nd century, also contains several similarities to the play, including the separation of the lovers, and a potion which induces a deathlike sleep.
The earliest known version of the Romeo and Juliet tale is the story of Mariotto and Gianozza by Masuccio Salernitano, in the 33rd novel of his Il Novellino published in 1476. Salernitano sets the story in Siena and insists its events took place in his own lifetime. His version of the story includes the secret marriage, the colluding friar, the fray where a prominent citizen is killed, Mariotto's exile, Gianozza's forced marriage, the potion plot, and the crucial message that goes astray. In this version, Mariotto is caught and beheaded and Gianozza dies of grief.
Luigi da Porto adapted the story as Giulietta e Romeo and included it in his Historia novellamente ritrovata di due Nobili Amanti published in 1530. Da Porto drew on Pyramus and Thisbe and Boccacio's Decameron. He gave it much of its modern form, including the names of the lovers, the rival families of Montecchi and Capuleti, and the location in Verona. He also introduces characters corresponding to Shakespeare's Mercutio, Tybalt, and Paris. Da Porto presents his tale as historically true and claims it took place in the days of Bartolomeo II della Scala (a century earlier than Salernitano). Montecchi and Capuleti were actual 13th-century political factions, but the only connection between them is a mention in Dante's Purgatorio as an example of civil dissention. In da Porto's version Romeo takes poison and Giulietta stabs herself with his dagger.
In 1554, Matteo Bandello published the second volume of his Novelle which included his version of Giuletta e Romeo. Bandello emphasises Romeo's initial depression and the feud between the families, and introduces the Nurse and Benvolio. Bandello's story was translated into French by Pierre Boaistuau in 1559 in the first volume of his Histories Tragiques. Boaistuau adds much moralizing and sentiment, and the characters indulge in rhetorical outbursts.
In his 1562 narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, Arthur Brooke translated Boaistuau faithfully, but adjusted it to reflect parts of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. There was a trend among writers and playwrights to publish works based on Italian novelles—Italian tales were very popular among theatre-goers—and Shakespeare may well have been familiar with William Painter's 1567 collection of Italian tales titled Palace of Pleasure. This collection included a version in prose of the Romeo and Juliet story named "The goodly History of the true and constant love of Rhomeo and Julietta". Shakespeare took advantage of this popularity: The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Romeo and Juliet are all from Italian novelle. Romeo and Juliet is a dramatisation of Brooke's translation, and Shakespeare follows the poem closely, but adds extra detail to both major and minor characters (in particular the Nurse and Mercutio).
Christopher Marlowe's Hero and Leander and Dido, Queen of Carthage, both similar stories written in Shakespeare's day, are thought to be less of a direct influence, although they may have created an atmosphere in which tragic love stories could thrive.
It is unknown when exactly Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet. Juliet's nurse refers to an earthquake which she says occurred 11 years ago. An earthquake did occur in England in 1580, possibly dating that particular line to 1591, although other earthquakes—both in England and in Verona—have been proposed in support of different dates. But the play's stylistic similarities with A Midsummer Night's Dream and other plays conventionally dated around 1594–95, place its composition sometime between 1591 and 1595. One conjecture is that Shakespeare may have begun a draft in 1591, which he completed in 1595.
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was published in two quarto editions prior to the publication of the First Folio of 1623. These are referred to as Q1 and Q2. The first printed edition, Q1, appeared in early 1597, printed by John Danter. Because its text contains numerous differences from the later editions, it is labelled a 'bad quarto'; the 20th-century editor T. J. B. Spencer described it as "a detestable text, probably a reconstruction of the play from the imperfect memories of one or two of the actors", suggesting that it had been pirated for publication. An alternative explanation for Q1's shortcomings is that the play (like many others of the time) may have been heavily edited before performance by the playing company. In any event, its appearance in early 1597 makes 1596 the latest possible date for the play's composition.
The superior Q2 called the play The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet. It was printed in 1599 by Thomas Creede and published by Cuthbert Burby. Q2 is about 800 lines longer than Q1. Its title page describes it as "Newly corrected, augmented and amended". Scholars believe that Q2 was based on Shakespeare's pre-performance draft (called his foul papers), since there are textual oddities such as variable tags for characters and "false starts" for speeches that were presumably struck through by the author but erroneously preserved by the typesetter. It is a much more complete and reliable text, and was reprinted in 1609 (Q3), 1622 (Q4) and 1637 (Q5). In effect, all later Quartos and Folios of Romeo and Juliet are based on Q2, as are all modern editions since editors believe that any deviations from Q2 in the later editions (whether good or bad) are likely to arise from editors or compositors, not from Shakespeare.
The First Folio text of 1623 was based primarily on Q3, with clarifications and corrections possibly coming from a theatrical promptbook or Q1. Other Folio editions of the play were printed in 1632 (F2), 1664 (F3), and 1685 (F4). Modern versions—that take into account several of the Folios and Quartos—first appeared with Nicholas Rowe's 1709 edition, followed by Alexander Pope's 1723 version. Pope began a tradition of editing the play to add information such as stage directions missing in Q2 by locating them in Q1. This tradition continued late into the Romantic period. Fully annotated editions first appeared in the Victorian period and continue to be produced today, printing the text of the play with footnotes describing the sources and culture behind the play.
Critics have noted many weak points in Romeo and Juliet, but it is still regarded as one of Shakespeare's best plays. The earliest known critic of the play was diarist Samuel Pepys, who wrote in 1662: "it is a play of itself the worst that I ever heard in my life." Poet John Dryden wrote 10 years later in praise of the play and its comic character Mercutio: "Shakespear show'd the best of his skill in his Mercutio, and he said himself, that he was forc'd to kill him in the third Act, to prevent being killed by him." Criticism of the play in the 18th century was less sparse, but no less divided. Publisher Nicholas Rowe was the first critic to ponder the theme of the play, which he saw as the just punishment of the two feuding families. In mid-century, writer Charles Gildon and philosopher Lord Kames argued that the play was a failure in that it did not follow the classical rules of drama: the tragedy must occur because of some character flaw, not an accident of fate. Writer and critic Samuel Johnson, however, considered it one of Shakespeare's "most pleasing" plays.
In the later part of the 18th and through the 19th century, criticism centred on debates over the moral message of the play. Actor and playwright David Garrick's 1748 adaptation excluded Rosaline: Romeo abandoning her for Juliet was seen as fickle and reckless. Critics such as Charles Dibdin argued that Rosaline had been purposely included in the play to show how reckless the hero was, and that this was the reason for his tragic end. Others argued that Friar Laurence might be Shakespeare's spokesman in his warnings against undue haste. With the advent of the 20th century, these arguments were disputed by critics like Richard Green Moulton. He argued that accident, and not some character flaw, led to the lovers' deaths. Critics, however, remained divided on the issue of whether fate or recklessness was the driving force of the play. Another reading introduced early in the century argued that the tragedy is allowed to occur as a just punishment upon the two families, who are reconciled by the experience.
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare employs several dramatic techniques that have garnered praise from critics. Chief among them intense shifts between comedy and tragedy, like the punning exchange between Romeo and Mercutio just before Tybalt arrives. Before Mercutio's death in Act three, the play is largely a comedy. After his accidental demise, the play suddenly becomes serious and takes on a tragic tone. When Romeo is banished, rather than executed, and Friar Lawrence offers Juliet a plan to reunite her with Romeo, the audience can still hope that all will end well. They are in a "breathless state of suspense" by the opening of the last scene in the tomb: If Romeo is delayed long enough for the Friar to arrive, he and Juliet may yet be saved. These shifts from hope to despair, reprieve, and new hope, serve to emphasise the tragedy when the final hope fails and both the lovers die at the end.
Shakespeare also uses subplots to offer a clearer view of the actions of the main characters. For example, when the play begins, Romeo is in love with Rosaline, who has refused all of his advances. Romeo's infatuation with her stands in obvious contrast to his later love for Juliet. This provides a comparison through which the audience can see the seriousness of Romeo and Juliet's love and marriage. Paris' love for Juliet also sets up a contrast between Juliet's feelings for him and her feelings for Romeo. The formal language she uses around Paris, as well as the way she talks about him to her Nurse, show that her feelings clearly lie with Romeo. Beyond this, the sub-plot of the Montague–Capulet feud overarches the whole play, providing an atmosphere of hate that is the main contributor to the play's tragic end.
On their first meeting, Romeo and Juliet use a form of communication recommended by many etiquette authors in Shakespeare's day: metaphor. By using metaphors of saints and sins, Romeo was able to test Juliet's feelings for him in a non-threatening way. This method was recommended by Baldassare Castiglione (whose works had been translated into English by this time). He pointed out that if a man used a metaphor as an invitation, the woman could pretend she did not understand him, and he could retreat without losing honour. Juliet, however, participates in the metaphor and expands on it. The religious metaphors of "shrine", "pilgrim" and "saint" were fashionable in the poetry of the time and more likely to be understood as romantic rather than blasphemous, as the concept of sainthood was associated with the Catholicism of the earlier age. Later in the play, Shakespeare removes the more daring allusions to Christ's resurrection in the tomb he found in his source work: Brooke's Romeus and Juliet.
In the later balcony scene, Shakespeare has Romeo overhear Juliet's soliloquy, but in Brooke's version of the story her declaration is done alone. By bringing Romeo into the scene to eavesdrop, Shakespeare breaks from the normal sequence of courtship. Usually a woman was required to be modest and shy to make sure that her suitor was sincere, but breaking this rule serves to speed along the plot. The lovers are able to skip a lengthy part of wooing, and move on to plain talk about their relationship—developing into an agreement to be married after knowing each other for only one night. In the final suicide scene, there is a contradiction in the message—in the Catholic religion, suicides were often thought to be condemned to hell, whereas people who die to be with their loves under the "Religion of Love" are joined with their loves in paradise. Romeo and Juliet's love seems to be expressing the "Religion of Love" view rather than the Catholic view. Another point is that although their love is passionate, it is only consummated in marriage, which prevents them from losing the audience's sympathy.
The play arguably equates love and sex with death. Throughout the story, both Romeo and Juliet, along with the other characters, fantasize about it as a dark being, often equating it with a lover. Capulet, for example, when he first discovers Juliet's (faked) death, describes it as having deflowered his daughter. Juliet later erotically compares Romeo and death. Right before her suicide she grabs Romeo's dagger, saying "O happy dagger! This is thy sheath. There rust, and let me die.
Scholars have long noted Shakespeare's widespread use of light and dark imagery throughout the play. Caroline Spurgeon considers the theme of light as "symbolic of the natural beauty of young love" and later critics have expanded on this interpretation. For example, both Romeo and Juliet see the other as light in a surrounding darkness. Romeo describes Juliet as being like the sun, brighter than a torch, a jewel sparkling in the night, and a bright angel among dark clouds. Even when she lies apparently dead in the tomb, he says her "beauty makes / This vault a feasting presence full of light. Juliet describes Romeo as "day in night" and "Whiter than snow upon a raven's back." This contrast of light and dark can be expanded as symbols—contrasting love and hate, youth and age in a metaphoric way. Sometimes these intertwining metaphors create dramatic irony. For example, Romeo and Juliet's love is a light in the midst of the darkness of the hate around them, but all of their activity together is done in night and darkness, while all of the feuding is done in broad daylight. This paradox of imagery adds atmosphere to the moral dilemma facing the two lovers: loyalty to family or loyalty to love. At the end of the story, when the morning is gloomy and the sun hiding its face for sorrow, light and dark have returned to their proper places, the outward darkness reflecting the true, inner darkness of the family feud out of sorrow for the lovers. All characters now recognise their folly in light of recent events, and things return to the natural order, thanks to the love of Romeo and Juliet. The "light" theme in the play is also heavily connected to the theme of time, since light was a convenient way for Shakespeare to express the passage of time through descriptions of the sun, moon, and stars.
Another central theme is haste: Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet spans a period of four to six days, in contrast to Brooke's poem's spanning nine months. Scholars such as G. Thomas Tanselle believe that time was "especially important to Shakespeare" in this play, as he used references to "short-time" for the young lovers as opposed to references to "long-time" for the "older generation" to highlight "a headlong rush towards doom". Romeo and Juliet fight time to make their love last forever. In the end, the only way they seem to defeat time is through a death which makes them immortal through art.
Time is also connected to the theme of light and dark. In Shakespeare's day, plays were often performed at noon in broad daylight. This forced the playwright to use words to create the illusion of day and night in his plays. Shakespeare uses references to the night and day, the stars, the moon, and the sun to create this illusion. He also has characters frequently refer to days of the week and specific hours to help the audience understand that time has passed in the story. All in all, no fewer than 103 references to time are found in the play, adding to the illusion of its passage.
Feminist critics argue that the blame for the family feud lies in Verona's patriarchal society. In this view, the strict, masculine code of violence imposed on Romeo is the main force driving the tragedy to its end. When Tybalt kills Mercutio, for example, Romeo shifts into this violent mode, regretting that Juliet has made him so "effeminate". In this view, the younger males "become men" by engaging in violence on behalf of their fathers, or in the case of the servants, their masters. The feud is also linked to male virility, as the numerous jokes about maidenheads aptly demonstrate. Juliet also submits to a female code of docility by allowing others, such as the Friar, to solve her problems for her. Other critics, such as Dympna Callaghan, look at the play's feminism from a more historicist angle. They take into account the fact that the play is written during a time when the patriarchal order was being challenged by several forces, most notably the rise of Puritanism. When Juliet dodges her father's attempt to force her to marry a man she has no feeling for, she is successfully challenging the patriarchal order in a way that would not have been possible at an earlier time.
Romeo's homoeroticism is identified in his attitude to Rosaline, also: she is distant and unavailable, bringing no hope of offspring. As Benvolio argues, she is best replaced by someone who will reciprocate. Shakespeare's procreation sonnets describe another young man who, like Romeo, is having trouble creating offspring and who is homosexual. Gender critics believe that Shakespeare may have used Rosaline as a way to express homosexual problems of procreation in an acceptable way. In this view, when Juliet says "...that which we call a rose [or Rosaline] / By any other name would smell as sweet", she may be raising the question of whether there is any difference between the beauty of a man and the beauty of a woman.
Romeo and Juliet ranks with Hamlet as one of Shakespeare's most-performed plays. Its many adaptations have made it one of his most enduring and famous stories. Even in Shakespeare's lifetime it was extremely popular. Scholar Gary Taylor measures it as the sixth most popular of Shakespeare's plays, in the period after the death of Marlowe and Kyd but before the ascendancy of Jonson during which Shakespeare was London's dominant playwright. The date of the first performance is unknown. The First Quarto, printed in 1597, says that "it hath been often (and with great applause) plaid publiquely", setting the first performance prior to that date. The Lord Chamberlain's Men were certainly the first to perform it. Besides their strong connections with Shakespeare, the Second Quarto actually names one of its actors, Will Kemp, instead of Peter in a line in Act five. Richard Burbage was probably the first Romeo, being the company's leading actor, and Master Robert Goffe (a male) the first Juliet. The premiere is likely to have been at "The Theatre", with other early productions at "The Curtain".
Romeo and Juliet is one of the first Shakespearean plays to have been performed outside England: a shortened and simplified version was performed in Nördlingen in 1604.
Sir William Davenant of the Duke's Company staged a 1662 adaptation in which Henry Harris played Romeo, Thomas Betterton was Mercutio, and Betterton's wife Mary Saunderson played Juliet: she was probably the first woman to play the role professionally. Another version closely followed Davenant's adaptation and was also regularly performed by the Duke's Company. This was a tragicomedy by James Howard, in which the two lovers survive.
Thomas Otway's The History and Fall of Caius Marius, one of the more extreme of the Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare, debuted in 1680. The scene is shifted from Renaissance Verona to ancient Rome; Romeo is Marius, Juliet is Lavinia, the feud is between patricians and plebeians; Juliet/Lavinia wakes from her potion before Romeo/Marius dies. Otway's version was a hit, and was acted for the next seventy years. His innovation in the closing scene was even more enduring, and was used in adaptations throughout the next 200 years: Theophilus Cibber's adaptation of 1744, and David Garrick's of 1748 both used variations on it. These versions also eliminated elements deemed inappropriate at the time. For example, Garrick's version transferred all language describing Rosaline to Juliet, in order to heighten the idea of faithfulness and downplay the love-at-first-sight theme. In 1750 a "Battle of the Romeos" began, with Spranger Barry and Susannah Maria Arne (Mrs. Theophilus Cibber) at Covent Garden versus David Garrick and George Anne Bellamy at Drury Lane.
The earliest known production in North America was an amateur one: on 23 March 1730, a physician named Joachimus Bertrand placed an advertisement in the Gazette newspaper in New York, promoting a production in which he would play the apothecary. The first professional performances of the play in North America were those of the Hallam Company.
Garrick's altered version of the play was very popular, and ran for nearly a century. Not until 1845 did Shakespeare's original return to the stage in the United States with the sisters Susan and Charlotte Cushman as Juliet and Romeo, respectively, and then in 1847 in Britain with Samuel Phelps at Sadler's Wells Theatre. Cushman adhered to Shakespeare's version, beginning a string of eighty-four performances. Her portrayal of Romeo was considered genius by many. The Times wrote: "For a long time Romeo has been a convention. Miss Cushman's Romeo is a creative, a living, breathing, animated, ardent human being. Queen Victoria wrote in her journal that "no-one would ever have imagined she was a woman". Cushman's success broke the Garrick tradition and paved the way for later performances to return to the original storyline.
Professional performances of Shakespeare in the mid-nineteenth century had two particlular features: firstly, they were generally star vehicles, with supporting roles cut or marginalised to give greater prominence to the central characters. Secondly, they were "pictorial", placing the action on spectacular and elaborate sets (requiring lengthy pauses for scene changes) and with the frequent use of tableaux. Henry Irving's 1882 production at the Lyceum Theatre (with himself as Romeo and Ellen Terry as Juliet) is considered an archetype of the pictorial style. In 1895, Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson took over from Irving, and laid the groundwork for a more natural portrayal of Shakespeare that remains popular today. Forbes-Robertson avoided the showiness of Irving and instead portrayed a down-to-earth Romeo, expressing the poetic dialogue as realistic prose and avoiding melodramatic flourish.
American actors began to rival their British counterparts. Edwin Booth (brother to John Wilkes Booth) and Mary McVicker (soon to be Edwin's wife) opened as Romeo and Juliet at the sumptuous Booth's Theatre (with its European-style stage machinery, and an air conditioning system unique in New York) on 3 February 1869. Some reports said it was one of the most elaborate productions of Romeo and Juliet ever seen in America; it was certainly the most popular, running for over six weeks and earning over $60,000. The programme noted that: "The tragedy will be produced in strict accordance with historical propriety, in every respect, following closely the text of Shakespeare.
The play found popularity throughout continental Europe, as well. The first professional performance of the play in Japan may have been George Crichton Miln's company's production which toured to Yokohama in 1890. Throughout the nineteenth century, Romeo and Juliet had been Shakespeare's most popular play, measured by the number of professional performances. In the twentieth century it would become the second most popular, behind Hamlet.
John Gielgud's New Theatre production in 1935 featured Gielgud and Laurence Olivier as Romeo and Mercutio, exchanging roles six weeks into the run, with Peggy Ashcroft as Juliet. Gielgud used a scholarly combination of Q1 and Q2 texts, and organised the set and costumes to match as closely as possible to the Elizabethan period. His efforts were a huge success at the box office, and set the stage for increased historical realism in later productions. Olivier later compared his performance and Gielgud's: "John, all spiritual, all spirituality, all beauty, all abstract things; and myself as all earth, blood, humanity ... I've always felt that John missed the lower half and that made me go for the other ... But whatever it was, when I was playing Romeo I was carrying a torch, I was trying to sell realism in Shakespeare.
Peter Brook's 1947 version was the beginning of a different style of Romeo and Juliet performances. Brook was less concerned with realism, and more concerned with translating the play into a form that could communicate with the modern world. He argued, "A production is only correct at the moment of its correctness, and only good at the moment of its success." Brook excluded the final reconciliation of the families from his performance text.
Throughout the century, audiences, influenced by the cinema, became less willing to accept actors distinctly older than the teenage characters they were playing. A significant example of more youthful casting was in Franco Zeffirelli's Old Vic production in 1960, with John Stride and Judi Dench, which would serve as the basis for his 1968 film. Zeffirelli borrowed from Brook's ideas, altogether removing around a third of the play's text in order to make it more accessible. In an interview with The Times, he stated that the play's "twin themes of love and the total breakdown of understanding between two generations" had contemporary relevance.
Recent performances often set the play in the contemporary world. For example, in 1986 the Royal Shakespeare Company set the play in contemporary Verona. Switchblades replaced swords, feasts and balls became drug-laden rock parties, and Romeo committed suicide by hypodermic needle. In 1997, the Folger Shakespeare Theatre produced a version set in a typical suburban world. Romeo sneaks into the Capulet barbecue to meet Juliet, and Juliet discovers Tybalt's death while in class at school.
The play is sometimes given an historical setting, enabling audiences to reflect on the underlying conflicts. For example, adaptations have been set in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the apartheid era in South Africa, and in the aftermath of the Pueblo Revolt. Similarly, Peter Ustinov's 1956 comic adaptation, Romanoff and Juliet, is set in a fictional mid-European country in the depths of the Cold War. A mock-Victorian revisionist version of Romeo and Juliet 's final scene (with a happy ending, Romeo, Juliet, Mercutio and Paris restored to life, and Benvolio revealing that he is Paris's love, Benvolia, in disguise) forms part of the 1980 stage-play The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.Shakespeare’s R&J, by Joe Calarco, spins the classic in a modern tale of gay teenage awakening.
At least 24 operas have been based on Romeo and Juliet. The earliest, Romeo und Julie in 1776, a Singspiel by Georg Benda, omits much of the action of the play and most its characters, and has a happy ending. It is occasionally revived. The best-known is Gounod's 1867 Roméo et Juliette (libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré), a critical triumph when first performed and frequently revived today. Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi is also revived from time to time, but has sometimes been judged unfavourably because of its perceived liberties with Shakespeare; however, Bellini and his librettist, Felice Romani, worked from Italian sources—principally Romani's libretto for an opera by Nicola Vaccai—rather than directly adapting Shakespeare's play.
Roméo et Juliette by Berlioz is a "symphonie dramatique", a large scale work in three parts for mixed voices, chorus and orchestra, premiered in 1839. The Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture (1869, revised 1870 and 1880), by Tchaikovsky is a long symphonic poem, containing the famous melody known as the "love theme". Tchaikovsky's device of repeating the same musical theme at the ball, in the balcony scene, in Juliet's bedroom and in the tomb has been used by subsequent directors: for example Nino Rota's love theme is used in a similar way in the 1968 film of the play, as is Des'ree's Kissing You in the 1996 film.
The best-known ballet version is Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Originally commissioned by the Kirov Ballet, it was rejected by them when Prokofiev attempted a happy ending, and was rejected again for the experimental nature of its music. It has subsequently attained an "immense" reputation, and has been choreographed by John Cranko (1962) and Kenneth MacMillan (1965) among others.
The play influenced several jazz works, including Peggy Lee's Fever. Duke Ellington's Such Sweet Thunder contains a piece entitled "The Star-Crossed Lovers in which the pair are represented by blended alto saxophones: critics noted that Juliet's sax dominates the piece, rather than offering an image of equality. The play has frequently influenced popular music, including works by The Supremes, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Lou Reed. The most famous such track is Dire Straits' Romeo and Juliet.
The most famous musical theatre adaptation is West Side Story with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It débuted on Broadway in 1957 and in the West End in 1958, and became a popular film in 1961. This version updated the setting to mid-20th century New York City, and the warring families to ethnic gangs. Other musical adaptations include Terrence Mann's 1999 rock musical William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, co-written with Jerome Korman, Gérard Presgurvic's 2001 Roméo et Juliette, de la Haine à l'Amour and Riccardo Cocciante's 2007 Giulietta & Romeo.
Romeo and Juliet was parodied in Shakespeare's own lifetime: Henry Porter's Two Angry Women of Abingdon (1598) and Thomas Dekker's Blurt, Master Constable (1607) both contain balcony scenes in which a virginal heroine engages in bawdy wordplay. The play directly influenced later literary works. For example the preparations for a performance form a major plot arc in Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby.
Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare's most-illustrated works. The first known illustration was a woodcut of the tomb scene, thought to be by Elisha Kirkall, which appeared in Nicholas Rowe's 1709 edition of Shakespeare's plays. Five paintings of the play were commissioned for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in the late 18th century, one representing each of the five acts of the play. The nineteenth century fashion for "pictorial" performances led to directors drawing on paintings for their inspiration, which in turn influenced painters to depict actors and scenes from the theatre. In the twentieth century, the play's most iconic visual images have derived from its popular film versions.
Romeo and Juliet may be the most-screened play of all time. The most notable theatrical releases were George Cukor's multi-Oscar-nominated 1936 production, Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version, and Baz Luhrmann's 1996 MTV-inspired Romeo + Juliet. The latter two were both, in their time, the highest-grossing Shakespeare film ever. Romeo and Juliet was first filmed in the silent era, by Georges Méliès, although his film is now lost. The play was first heard on film in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, in which John Gilbert recited the balcony scene opposite Norma Shearer.
Shearer and Leslie Howard, with a combined age over 75, played the teenage lovers in George Cukor's MGM 1936 film version. Neither critics nor the public responded enthusiastically. Cinemagoers considered the film too "arty", staying away as they had from Warner's A Midsummer Night Dream a year before: leading to Hollywood abandoning the Bard for over a decade. Renato Castellani won the Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival for his 1954 film of Romeo and Juliet. his Romeo, Laurence Harvey, was already an experienced screen actor. By contrast, Susan Shentall, as Juliet, was a secretarial student who was discovered by the director in a London pub, and was cast for her "pale sweet skin and honey-blonde hair".
Stephen Orgel describes Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 Romeo and Juliet as being "full of beautiful young people, and the camera, and the lush technicolour, make the most of their sexual energy and good looks. Zeffirelli's teenage leads, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, were already experienced actors. Zeffirelli has been particularly praised, for his presentation of the duel scene as bravado getting out-of-control. The film courted controversy by including a nude wedding-night scene while Olivia Hussey was only fifteen.
Baz Luhrmann's 1996 Romeo + Juliet and its accompanying soundtrack successfully targeted the "MTV Generation": a young audience of similar age to the story's characters. Far darker than Zeffirelli's version, the film is set in the "crass, violent and superficial society" of Verona Beach and Sycamore Grove. Leonardo DiCaprio was Romeo. Claire Danes, as Juliet, was praised for portraying a poise and wisdom beyond her years, and as the first screen Juliet whose speech sounded spontaneous.
The play has been widely adapted for TV and film. In 1960, Peter Ustinov's cold-war stage parody, Romanoff and Juliet was filmed. The 1961 film of West Side Story—set among New York gangs–featured the Jets as white youths, equivalent to Shakespeare's Montagues, while the Sharks, equivalent to the Capulets, are Puerto Rican. Film-makers have frequently featured characters performing scenes from Romeo and Juliet. The conceit of dramatising Shakespeare writing Romeo and Juliet has been used several times, including John Madden's 1998 Shakespeare in Love, in which Shakespeare writes the play against the backdrop of his own doomed love affair. In 2006, Disney's High School Musical made use of Romeo and Juliet's plot, placing the two young lovers in rival high school cliques instead of feuding families.