Romeo and Juliet

Definition

Theater

  • Shakespeare's tragedy of two young lovers from rivalfamilies. It was probably written in 1595, when the London theaterswere closed owing to the plague, and first performed a year later.

    Shakespeare based his play upon Arthur Brooke's long narrativepoem, The Tragicall History of Romeo and Juliet (1562), whichwas derived ultimately from an earlier Italian story (1535) by Luigida Porto. Romeo, of the house of Montague, falls in love with Juliet,one of the Capulet family, who are long-standing enemies of the Montagues.On the day that Romeo and Juliet are secretly married, Romeo is banishedfrom Verona as punishment for his unintentional killing of a Capuletin an affray. Old Capulet then orders Juliet to prepare herself tomarry Count Paris. To avoid disclosing that she is already marriedto Romeo, she drugs herself into a death-like trance. Romeo, hearingthat she has died, returns, enters the tomb where Juliet lies, andkills himself. Juliet, awakening to find her husband dead, dispatchesherself with Romeo's dagger.

    The play is remembered for its famous balcony scene, whichincludes the often misinterpreted line, "O Romeo, Romeo, whereforeart thou Romeo?" (Juliet is asking why Romeo is a Montague,not where he is). The work also contributed the still popular curse,"A plague o' both your houses", uttered by Romeo's friendMercutio, when he is fatally wounded in a brawl between Montaguesand Capulets. Shaw, who was never shy of straightening outShakespeare's literary problems, complained that some of Romeo's fancifullines "make you curse Shakespeare's stage-struckness and hisyouthful inability to keep his brains quiet".

    Before actresses were accepted on the British stage, the partof Juliet was played by boy actors, one famous pairing being thatof Thomas Betterton as Romeo and Edward Kynaston as Juliet. By contrast,in an 1845 production at the Haymarket Theatre, the sisters Charlotteand Susan Cushman played the parts. Asked if he might one day playShakespeare, the ageing Noël Coward replied: "I might playthe nurse in Romeo and Juliet."

    The worst actor to play Romeo seems to have been Robert 'Romeo'Coates (1772 - 1842), who was eventually forced to abandon therole because no actress would play opposite him. Coates insisted onplaying the part in an outlandish sky-blue costume decorated withdiamonds. When, as often happened, the audience crowed at him andjeered he would halt the action to crow back. During one performancein 1807 in Bath, the audience rioted when Coates carried a crowbaron stage to prise open the Capulets' tomb.

    The most famous modern production (and, with 186 performances,the most successful) was that staged in 1935 at the New Theatre (nowthe Albery) with Olivier, Gielgud, Ashcroft, and Edith Evans in thecast. Gielgud and Olivier alternated between the roles of Romeo andMercutio. Another much admired production was Franco Zeffirelli'sboisterous interpretation with John Stride and Judi Dench (1960).Shakespeare's story has often been updated and reworked, notably inthe musical West Side Story (1957). It has also been made into half a dozen films (including an animated version in which the maincharacters are all seals), three operas, and a ballet by Prokofiev. In 1994 the ballet caused some perplexed hilarity when a London headmistress refused to allow her pupils to attend a performance at the Royal Opera House at reduced prices, on the grounds that Shakespeare's play was "blatantly heterosexual". Recentstage adaptations have included the Bristol Old Vic's Juliet andHer Romeo (2010), in which the lovers were played by Michael Byrne(66) and Siân Phillips (77).

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