Romeo and Juliet Through the Ages
By Elizabeth Williamson, Associate Artistic Director
The origins of the story of Romeo and Juliet go back many centuries. In 1298, Dante mentioned the ongoing feud between the Veronese Montecchi and the Cappelletti in his Purgatorio; the story of their children was popularized in the sixteenth century in Italy by Luigi da Porto (in 1530), and Matteo Bandello (in 1554). While Shakespeare probably didn’t know either of their works, he did draw heavily on Arthur Brooke’s Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, written in 1562, when he wrote his play Romeo and Juliet.
Shakespeare kept most elements of the story as Brooke wrote them, with some key changes. While in Brooke’s poem Juliet is 16, Shakespeare makes her 13, about to turn 14. If, as many scholars conclude, the play was written in the summer of 1596, Shakespeare’s daughter Susannah would have been 13 years old when he wrote the play. His younger son Hamnet would have just died, at 11 years old. Hamnet and his twin sister Judith were born in 1585, a year also marked by a major earthquake in Mottingham, Kent, in the summer. Juliet’s nurse explains that she weaned Juliet 11 years previously, on the very day of an earthquake, which is why she remembers the day. At the same time, the nurse laments the death of her own daughter Susan, who would have been the same age as Juliet, had she lived. Juliet’s age, the invoked presence of a dead child with a family name, perhaps even the memory of an earthquake linked to a family event 11 years earlier, might well have all been highly charged with loss in Shakespeare’s family.
Romeo and Juliet has one of the most constricted time-schemes of any of Shakespeare’s plays. The play begins on a Sunday in mid-July, two weeks and a few days before Lammastide, a harvest festival that began August 1st (the Mottingham earthquake would have occurred on about this date.) The days are long, the nights short, and the weather hot. We’re reminded more regularly than in any other play of the date, as we move through the five days the action takes. Time is much more loosely used in most of Shakespeare’s other work – there’s something inexorable about his insistence on it here, as we mark the days leading up to the lovers’ deaths.
The same appeal in the basic story which led to the popularity of its many early versions (da Porto, Bandello, Brooke, et cie) has shown in the play’s long and vibrant production history. The early Elizabethan productions, done in daylight with boys playing the women and actors making much use of direct address to the audience, gave way to Restoration adaptations with a happy ending. In 1748, David Garrick added a scene between Romeo and Juliet in the tomb, which was used by most productions for the next hundred years. In Victorian England, as theaters began to be built larger, with less of a stage apron, and a growing emphasis on the stage picture within the proscenium arch, direct address became more generalized, with the actors playing such lines out but not directly to audience members — and genders were switched again. A number of actresses (most notably the American Charlotte Cushman) took on the role of Romeo. In the twentieth century, the focus shifted to a degree from the young couple themselves to the environment they found themselves in, and what this feuding society could tell us about contemporary life. It’s been played innumerable ways, in various adaptations, settings, and styles, but Romeo and Juliet has never been long off the stage.