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Shakespeare & Beyond

These Violent Delights: Retelling Romeo and Juliet

Debut author Chloe Gong writes about adapting Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for her new YA novel, These Violent Delights, published November 17 by Simon & Schuster.

These Violent Delights and book cover and author photograph
Author photograph © JON STUDIO

The title of These Violent Delights came to me so early that I had it before I had most of the plot. Before there was a synopsis, before I even knew that it would be a Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai, about two teen heirs of rival gangs forced to work together to combat a mysterious monster that has risen in their city, I had that one line from Shakespeare running through my head: These violent delights have violent ends.

Shakespeare’s use of violent refers to the quickness, the rashness, the speed that teenagers move at when they don’t care to think something through. I got the idea for this book when I was 18; the teenage experience is all about fast pace and whiplash, when everything is so new and every mistake feels like it might never be recovered. These violent delights have violent ends—duh, right? (I mean, I’m 21 now but it still feels that way sometimes.) But then I started to think about it more literally. Shakespeare chose the word violent for a reason, after all; the Bard knew what he was doing, and he planted that double meaning in there deliberately for a story about a blood feud. And so These Violent Delights, the novel, was born. I wanted it to get bloody. I wanted it to get violent. And it would be delightful.

I decided to retell Romeo and Juliet, but I had no interest in simply rehashing what Shakespeare had covered in the play. If someone wanted to read that exact plot, they could pick up the script, or watch a production. There have also been numerous adaptations over the years, my favorite being Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, with Leonardo DiCaprio acting his heart out when he drops to his knees and curses the stars. Luhrmann’s adaptation kept the script and the characters, though he utterly transformed the setting with the most beautiful aesthetic. I wanted to go further; I wanted almost everything gone. Everything… but the very heart of what Shakespeare was trying to say.

A powerful adaptation isn’t always about sticking to the source material, because that can only be done so many times. When I set out to do a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, I saw a blood feud, tearing apart star-crossed lovers born to rival families at war. It was that which felt like the very heart of Shakespeare’s text: where hate comes from, the cost of love, and the bravery of daring to love even when it would be so much easier to hate. Again and again, you hear of Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet slandered in pop culture as dumb kids who would have survived if Romeo had just waited a little longer before taking poison. But that wasn’t the point! The point was that the city was so hateful it forced their hand. The point was that they chose each other—chose death—instead of going a second longer in a blood feud keeping them apart.

Romeo and Juliet has so many iconic scenes, and I knew there were many that I wanted to keep. The balcony scene. The masquerade scene. Confrontations between the Capulets and Montagues, except refigured as street fights between the Scarlet Gang—the native Shanghainese faction that 18-year old Juliette Cai belongs to—and the White Flowers—the newcomer Russian faction in which 19-year-old Roma Montagov is heir. However, while I kept some original scenes and symbols, the context all changed. Instead of two young lovers meeting across a crowded room, Roma and Juliette are bitter exes, forced to put aside their grudges against each other and work together when another danger arises in their city. Instead of fair Verona, with citizens biting their thumb at one another, this is 1920s China, rife with domestic politics and foreign conflict. When I was imagining my 21st-century audience, I saw my own generation, concerned with social equality and justice. I saw my own generation who wanted to see themselves represented on the page, diverse in race and gender and sexuality, which the original Shakespearean text did not explicitly provide.

In the end, I decided that was what made it a retelling. I stuck my hand right into the center of Romeo and Juliet and I pulled out its heart, still freshly red and beating. That heart asked: How do you fight hatred when hatred has no cause? What does it take to choose love when it is so much harder? How far will you go for family, for loyalty? And from that heart’s blood, I started to draw. I needed a cast of characters that reflected different perspectives, who would provide different answers to those questions by virtue of their identities. It would be a cast of characters that reflected the world we live in, that reflected the people I wanted to pick up my book. I needed a story that grappled with ideas of colonialism and imperialism, which felt inseparable when I was staging this adaptation in 1920s Shanghai, a time when Western powers were pulling China apart piece by piece.

By moving away from the Shakespearean context, I could suddenly bring new insights to his base ideas, could use the heart of his text to pick and tear at new questions that I found more relevant to a modern audience. Shakespeare’s timeless ideas, just wrapped up in a different shape: Romeo and Juliet—with the same heart, but a new face.