Romeo and Juliet is arguably Shakespeare’s most beloved play. It is often the first Shakespeare play to be assigned in schools. But even before they read the play, children are familiar with the story of Shakespeare’s doomed young lovers since it is the stuff of common knowledge as well as the material for a popular rock’n’roll ballad, the plot for Bernstein’s brilliant West Side Story , or the cinematic vehicle for a Leonardo di Caprio star turn. It has been a theatrical staple virtually ever since it was first staged in the mid-1590s, though for a time in the eighteenth century the ending of Shakespeare’s play was replaced by an “improvement”— which featured a last, anguished conversation between the lovers as Romeo lay dying.
The key to the play’s appeal, it seems to me, comes from Shakespeare’s insistence that we identify strongly with the lovers against all that confronts them—offering the young a lyrical language to embody their own romantic aspirations, offering older people the memory of a moment (before careers, mortgages, children) when thwarted passion crowded out all other concerns. The brilliance of Shakespeare’s plot, however, lies in its combination of a comic beginning (the secret romance of young lovers abetted in their desires by a wily nurse and an ingenious friar) followed swiftly by an irrevocably tragic turn.
The greatest obstacle to the lovers’ success comes not from the feuding parental generation (which seems ready to call a truce) but from the hot-headed Tybalt and the equally volatile Mercutio. The latter is neither Capulet nor Montague but his hostility to Romeo’s absorption by love, his fear that love will incapacitate Romeo for manly friendship, causes him fatally to step in for Romeo against Tybalt’s challenge. It is his death—not Tybalt’s, not the feud—which changes the play’s momentum from comic to tragic and brings about their desperate countermeasures (most spectacularly Juliet’s counterfeited death). No wonder that the play is so beloved, for it delivers on every front—with memorable major and minor characters, with language alive with lyricism and passion, and a melodramatic plot full of heartstopping action.
Gail Kern Paster
Director, Folger Shakepseare Library