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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Romeo and Juliet through the Ages

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 12

Though the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet is a perennial favorite, the world around the play has changed in the four centuries since it was first performed. Shifting attitudes about taboo love and marriage, gender roles, and even guns and street violence inform the way we read or see the play today.

Rebecca Sheir, host of our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series, talks with theater scholars and artists about how Romeo and Juliet has been cut and molded to fit certain cultural expectations in different time periods.

Among those featured in this podcast episode:

  • Libby Appel is the former director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
  • Joe Calarco is the adaptor and original director of Shakespeare’s R&J.
  • Linda Charnes is professor of English at Indiana University, Bloomington.
  • Charles Forker is professor emeritus of English at Indiana University, Bloomington.
  • Michael Kahn is artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC.
  • Peggy O’Brien is director of education at Folger Shakespeare Library.
  • Lindsey Row-Heyveld is assistant professor of English at Luther College in Iowa.
  • Anne Russell is an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada.

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © October 8, 2014. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode, “Never Was a Tale of More Woe Than This,” was written and produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. Edited by Esther Ferington and Gail Kern Paster. The music was composed and arranged by Lenny Williams. We had help gathering material for this podcast series from Esther French.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. This podcast is called “Never Was a Story of More Woe Than This.”

It’s about a drama that has not changed in 400 years. The one that begins when Juliet Capulet kisses one particular boy at a party. We sometimes think that youth and love don’t change, and that’s what this podcast explores: how the world around Romeo and Juliet has shifted, and the impact those shifts have had on the words Shakespeare first wrote down somewhere between 1591 and 1595. Our narrator is Rebecca Sheir.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet:]

For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

REBECCA SHEIR: Whether or not that was true when Shakespeare wrote it, for the past 400 years or so, few tales have been as enduring, for more than three centuries on stage and then, once it was possible, over and over again on the screen.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet, montage of actors and lines:]

It is my lady…
O, that she knew she were!

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name…
What’s Montague? It is not hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face. Nor any other part
Belonging to a man…
Romeo, doff thy name,
And, for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself…
Swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable…
Parting is such sweet sorrow
That I shall say “Good night” till it be morrow.

SHEIR: Romeo and Juliet captured, and has continued to articulate, truths about young love.

LINDSEY ROW-HEYVELD: When you’re young, you are so passionate about everything. You never love anything the way you love something when you’re 14.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet:]

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

CHARLES FORKER: Exaltation and the hormones raging in their bodies, I mean that comes across very clearly in the play.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet:]

And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream on love

ANNE RUSSELL: The belief that young love ought to triumph over old parents and the patriarchal order.

ROW-HEYVELD: I think that doesn’t change.

FORKER: Speed and haste makes the relationship between the lovers very intense.

ROW-HEYVELD: Marrying someone less than 24 hours after meeting them, and then killing yourself over them two days later—not a healthy relationship.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet:]

Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end.—
O churl, drink all, and left no friendly drop
To help me after!

RUSSELL: The problem of Juliet’s age at barely 14…

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet:]

Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaways’ eyes may wink, and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalked of and unseen.

RUSSELL: The idea of masculinity and femininity that are represented in Romeo and Juliet

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet:]

As if that name,
Shot from the deadly level of a gun,
Did murder her, as that name’s cursèd hand
Murdered her kinsman.

ROW-HEYVELD: Violence, and being constantly surrounded by violence, is something that is very much a part of our world, and resonates very clearly for us when we watch Romeo and Juliet.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet:]

Peace, peace, I hate the word
As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.

ROW-HEYVELD: And I think it captures that beautifully.

SHEIR: A 1922 feature article about Romeo and Juliet in the New York Times spoke of “Shakespeare’s ageless lines.” And the best we can tell, Romeo and Juliet has been performed, at least for the past 100 years, much as Shakespeare intended. It’s impossible to know, of course, how much of the original play made it into the First Folio or the various quarto editions of Shakespeare’s works. But simply because they were written down, the best-known, most quotable lines, the major plot points, and the story of Romeo and Juliet have not changed.

The world around them, however, has. And those changes have, in turn, changed perceptions of Romeo and Juliet. Attitudes about its language, ideas about its expressions of passion and sexuality, beliefs about whether what happens in the play is morally right or wrong. Those things have changed. Sometimes they’ve changed a lot, so much so that they have drastically altered the play, taking it far from anything Shakespeare ever wrote.

[CLIP of raucous theater crowd from Shakespeare in Love]

SHEIR: There’s a wonderful sequence in the 1998 movie Shakespeare in Love that tries to show what the first ever performance of Romeo and Juliet might have been like. It’s easy enough to fool yourself into thinking that this is precisely what it was like to go to the theater in Shakespeare’s time. Libby Appel is the former director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

LIBBY APPEL: We do have a sense of what the Elizabethan audience was like, and what Elizabethan life was like, from many reports of the day, and clearly it was rowdy, it’s raucous, a little raunchy. I would even go so far as to say it was probably loud. It is a large audience who comes with a kind of jolly spirit, feeling, “Gosh, this is going to be a great event. I’m going to have fun.”

[CLIP of Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare in Love:]


Two households, both alike, in dignity
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene.

SHEIR: We don’t know whether Shakespeare wrote with an eye toward posterity, and of course, he had no idea whether his work would last all these years. What’s reasonable to say is that because he was writing at a particular time, the work he produced complied with that era’s customs and standards. Charles Forker is emeritus professor of English at Indiana University.

FORKER: Shakespeare doesn’t worry about sexual explicitness in language at all, and most Elizabethans didn’t.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet:]

I will cut off their heads.

The heads of the maids?

Ay, the heads of the maids.

Or their maidenheads. Take it in what sense thou wilt.

FORKER: The Elizabethan production would certainly have been more explicit in language and in bawdiness.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet:]

Though his face be better than any man’s, yet his leg excels all men’s, and for a hand and a foot and a body, though they be not to be talked on, yet are they past compare.

FORKER: The nurse talks about Juliet falling backwards, when she’s a little older.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet:]

“Thou wilt fall backward when thou comes to age,
Wilt thou not, Jule?”

FORKER: Puns on “die” and “come,” for instance, which are used several times in this play, do have sexual overtones, which Elizabethans were apparently aware of.

SHEIR: But for all the play’s dirty puns, sexual wordplay, and Renaissance celebration of physicality and physical beauty, it was being performed at a time with a strong moral code.

FORKER: The Elizabethans were not as puritanical linguistically, but they were more puritanical in terms of what people were allowed to actually do in real life. Partly it’s because of the higher valuation of virginity that Elizabethans had. You have to remember that the Elizabethan Age still had a lot of religious and moral holdovers from the Middle Ages.

SHEIR: Is that why Romeo and Juliet don’t sleep together until they’re married?

FORKER: No, you could be betrothed and have sex with your partner before the actual marriage service, because the betrothal was almost as important as the marriage service itself.

SHEIR: As time passed, as history moved further and further away from the Elizabethan era, attitudes on that and much more shifted radically back and forth. Shakespeare’s golden era was followed by grim suppression of theater by the Puritans, which was then followed by the Restoration in 1660, and a return to bawdy comedy. Anne Russell is an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada.

RUSSELL: Comedy from the 1670s and ’80s is extremely explicit, full of sexual jokes, and those plays remain very popular until around the 1720s or so, when we start to see them appearing less often in the repertoire.

SHEIR: But by the 1740s, you simply could not find those plays anymore in the English-speaking world. They either ceased being presented or they were revised or adapted.

As for Romeo and Juliet, there had been a revival of the play in the late 1600s. But not too long after that, a playwright named Thomas Otway wrote a new work, with two young lovers named Marius and Lavinia. That play borrowed liberally from Shakespeare, to the point where Lavinia on her balcony says, “O Marius, Marius! wherefore art thou Marius?” But it became so popular that it was nearly impossible to find a production of Romeo and Juliet for the next 85 years. And it’s hard to say how audiences responded to Romeo and Juliet when they did see it again, because, Professor Russell says, what they saw was quite different from what Shakespeare wrote.

RUSSELL: Not until late in the 19th century was there a real restoration of Shakespeare’s script of Romeo and Juliet.

SHEIR: What people saw instead in 1750, and, importantly, for about 100 years after, was a variation of the play, adapted by a famous actor named David Garrick. Garrick changed Romeo and Juliet in many ways. For one thing, he turned Romeo into a hero, principally because Garrick was going to be playing Romeo. You would not have heard this line in Garrick’s Romeo and Juliet:

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet:]

Art thou a man? Thy form cries out thou art.
Thy tears are womanish

SHEIR: Tybalt, who died in Shakespeare’s original play, survived in Garrick’s version. Garrick tacked on a glorious funeral procession. Garrick also made significant concessions to the moral attitude of his time.

RUSSELL: He took out much of the sexual discussion and banter and punning.

SHEIR: For the same reason, he made an important change to Juliet.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet:]

Thou knowest my daughter’s of a pretty age.

Faith, I can tell her age unto an hour.

She’s not fourteen.

RUSSELL: Juliet is very precocious for her age, and her awareness of sexuality is also seen as a problem.

SHEIR: That is something Garrick knew his audience would never stand for. As a result, Professor Russell says…

RUSSELL: He changed Juliet’s age to 18 from 14.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet:]

Tell me, daughter Juliet,
How stands your disposition to be married?

It is an honor that I dream not of.

SHEIR: Because who would have a problem with an 18-year-old falling in love?

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet:]

Art thou not Romeo, and a Montague?

SHEIR: Garrick’s adaptation was monumental, and it lasted. His characterizations were the ones audiences preferred, especially as time passed into the Victorian era.

RUSSELL: Juliet’s seen as a highly romantic, but not erotic, not a figure who is aware of eroticism. Romeo is idealized to be somewhat more heroic and less scatter-brained than he is in the play.

SHEIR: And it’s their chaste romance that takes center stage.

RUSSELL: Impresarios, and theater managers, and, indeed, actresses were really aware of how any criticism for sexual reasons could be the end of a career, and so any reference to explicit sexuality really had to be suppressed.

SHEIR: In the rare instances where Juliet’s sexual precocity was evident during this period, it was put down to her being a hot-blooded Italian. In the same way, Victorian productions downplayed the violent swordplay and the sexual wordplay.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet:]

For the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon.

FORKER: Nobody would use the word “prick” in that way in a Victorian production. Elizabethans are perfectly happy with using the word “prick” to mean what it obviously does mean.

SHEIR: Queen Victoria died in 1901. Victorian attitudes, however, appeared to have lived on afterwards, at least in the production of Romeo and Juliet. Early 20th-century audiences liked their Juliet to be a charming, simple girl. She might be cool, playful, or sad. But she was never lustful, sultry, or wanton. Audiences frowned on Nurses who dove too deeply into low comedy. They preferred the balcony scene to the sword fights, and they liked the scenery to be opulent. Setting and costumes never varied.

It is particularly significant that the play remained this way during this time.

[CLIP from Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring]

SHEIR: The 20 years that preceded the Great Depression were one of the most artistically fertile moments of the 20th century. This was a time when Stravinsky, Picasso, George Balanchine, Matisse, Nijinsky, Coco Chanel, and others were collaborating to produce works pulsing with a primitive, sexual energy that were embraced by audiences worldwide.

[CLIP from Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring]

SHEIR: Those libertine tendencies do not appear to have rubbed off on producers of Romeo and Juliet. Theaters offered fairly traditional productions of Shakespeare’s tragedy, when they performed Shakespeare at all. Audiences wanted childlike, elfish, and winsome Juliets, and heedless and romantic Romeos, who demonstrated facility of speech. Joe Calarco, a theater director whose all-male adaptation of the play is very popular today on college campuses, sums up Romeo and Juliet productions of that era this way.

JOE CALARCO: Very cold and very polite and very constipated. And with no passion.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet, 1936:]

Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face,
Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek
For that which thou hast heard me speak tonight.

SHEIR: This is the version of Romeo and Juliet captured on film in 1936, the same year that Orson Welles was producing a “voodoo Macbeth” set in the steaming Caribbean. Director George Cukor chose instead to create a Romeo and Juliet as cold and polite as they come. It’s all there. The traditional costumes, the opulent sets, and Juliet in the person of Norma Shearer, looking to be somewhere in her early 30s.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet, 1936:]

Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say “Ay,”
And I will take thy word. Yet, if thou swear’st,
Thou mayst prove false.

SHEIR: And Romeo? Well, here’s an assessment from Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC.

MICHAEL KAHN: When Leslie Howard played Romeo in the movie—too old, too pale, and about as passionate as a sieve…

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet, 1936:]

You have dancing shoes
With nimble soles. I have a soul of lead
So stakes me to the ground I cannot move.

SHEIR: In theater reviews over the next 30 years, and in allusions to Romeo and Juliet in the popular press, this is the version of the play that you find. Until the ice finally cracked in 1968.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet, 1968:]

It is my lady. O, it is my love!

SHEIR: This film version of the play, directed by Franco Zefferelli, had a profound effect on a generation. Here, for example, is Linda Charnes, a professor of English at Indiana University, Bloomington.

LINDA CHARNES: My first experience of Shakespeare was Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet, after which I wept for two days.

SHEIR: The Zefferelli film came out at the height of the 1960s sexual revolution.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet, 1968:]

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep. The more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.

SHEIR: In keeping with the times, Romeo and Juliet, who look almost age-appropriate in the film, are actually seen naked in bed, in Act 3.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet, 1968:]

Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.

SHEIR: The era of the Zefferelli film was important for another reason, too. Sexuality wasn’t the only part of life going through a radical upheaval in 1968. In the late ’60s, schools were overhauling their curricula, trying to make learning more relevant. As part of that movement, the year after the Zefferelli film came out, a man named Daniel Fader wrote a volume called Hooked on Books. Peggy O’Brien is director of the Folger’s Education program.

PEGGY O’BRIEN: The premise of the book was that students would have more energy and enthusiasm for things that they wanted to read, than things that they should read, and if you want a student to get into the habit of reading, you should start with something that’s interesting to them.

SHEIR: Based on that idea, she says Fader made a strategic choice in the way he decided to target the study of Shakespeare.

O’BRIEN: The notion that the plot of West Side Story was in fact the plot of Romeo and Juliet, and West Side Story was about gangs and it was contemporary…

SHEIR: Both plays were also about teenagers, another natural fit, if you wanted literature to seem interesting to teenagers. Fader’s book gained wide acceptance and for the next 20 years, O’Brien says…

O’BRIEN: We’re all out there teaching West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet

SHEIR: That trend ended in the early ’90s, O’Brien said, when kids started to wonder…

O’BRIEN: Who are the Jets, and who cares about them? I mean, so the fact is that they had an easier time getting to Romeo and Juliet than they did understanding West Side Story.

SHEIR: But while schools dropped West Side Story, they stuck with Romeo and Juliet. According to Lindsey Row-Heyveld, assistant professor of English at Luther College in Iowa…

ROW-HEYVELD: Romeo and Juliet today is the most taught Shakespeare play in American high schools. It’s sort of become the default ninth grade play.

SHEIR: And while she says high school teachers, in the main, are not engaging the sexual jokes or the overt descriptions of sexual desire in the play…

ROW-HEYVELD: Can you imagine what a room full of 14-year-olds would do with that?

SHEIR: Having Romeo and Juliet in nearly every high school classroom creates a convenient entree to the play, once students are in college. That process is also assisted by Hollywood, but for a different reason than an earlier generation. For Shakespeareans her age, Professor Row-Heyveld says the Zefferelli film means nothing. Instead, she says…

ROW-HEYVELD: The Baz Luhrmann movie is huge. It’s huge.

[CLIP from Romeo + Juliet, 1996:]

Let me be taken; let me be put to death.
I have more care to stay than will to go.
Come death and welcome. Juliet wills it so.
How is ‘t, my soul? Let’s talk. It is not day.

ROW-HEYVELD: For people my age, seeing that movie was just a really powerful introduction to Shakespeare, and to Romeo and Juliet specifically.

SHEIR: The 1996 film starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio was marketed heavily to young people, with an overt desire to make Romeo and Juliet new and cool and topical.

ROW-HEYVELD: They made these promotional, and I think, collectible, postcards that came out in magazines like Seventeen or YM.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet, 1996:]

Well, do not swear. Although I joy in thee,
I have no joy of this contract tonight.
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden

ROW-HEYVELD: I had this postcard that I had ripped out of Seventeen magazine that had a picture of Juliet on her balcony, and underneath in this lovely, scratchy script, it said, “My only love sprung from my only hate.” And I put it up in my locker.

SHEIR: The film now has a distinctly ’90s vibe to it. Still, there is enough about it that still resonates with the college students she teaches. Their discussions of the play reveal important changes in popular conception. Here is one example. According to Indiana University Professor Charles Forker…

FORKER: The eroticism in Romeo and Juliet, and there’s a great deal of it, has to be conveyed through the language, rather than through the physical actions. The moments of actual kissing or embracing and so forth are rather rare in the play.

SHEIR: But as Lindsey Row-Hyveld’s students might say, that totally rings true for today’s college and high school students.

ROW-HEYVELD: The idea that Romeo and Juliet is a play where much of the erotic action takes place through language, rather than through physical action, is something I think that young audiences are really comfortable with. Remember, this is a generation that sexts to convey sexual action, often without accompanying physical action. Thanks to cell phones and Snapchat and all of that, they are doing something similar themselves.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet, 1996:]

She speaks, yet she says nothing. What of that?
Her eye discourses; I will answer it.

SHEIR: Another important element for today’s young people, producers and audiences are no longer squeamish about the play’s sexual content. As a result, teens see Juliet in a light they can relate to, that is, as a young woman owning her sexuality.

ROW-HEYVELD: That speech, in Act 3, Scene 2, where Juliet is waiting for Romeo to come to her chamber that night so that they can consummate their relationship and actively voices her desire to have sex with him in pretty explicit terms.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet, 1996:]

Come, gentle night; come, loving black-browed night,
Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars
And he

ROW-HEYVELD: It resounds really well with young women today who also feel invested in their own sexual pleasure. Juliet isn’t imagining what a great time Romeo’s going to have with her, she’s imagining what a great time she is going to have.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet, 1996:]

O, I have bought the mansion of a love
But not possessed it, and though I am sold,
Not yet enjoyed

ROW-HEYVELD: That moment is part of something bigger that happens in the play with Juliet, that I think young women today really do connect with. And that is the way in which she is actively a part of that romantic relationship from the beginning. From the minute she and Romeo meet, it’s mutual.

SHEIR: That mutuality plays hand in hand with another reflection today’s young people have when they watch Romeo and Juliet, the evolving ideas of what makes someone masculine and what makes them feminine. As Charles Forker points out…

FORKER: It is Juliet who is the more manly of the two characters in some respects. She has to have more courage than Romeo does, in a way.

[CLIP from Romeo + Juliet, 1996:]

Tell me not, father, that thou hearest of this,
Unless thou tell me how I may prevent it.

It strains me past the compass of my wits.

If in thy wisdom thou canst give no help,
Do thou but call my resolution wise,
And with this I’ll help it presently.

Hold, daughter.

Be not so long to speak. I long to die.

SHEIR: Meanwhile, he says…

FORKER: Romeo rolls around on the floor and cries like a girl.

SHEIR: This disruption of traditional sex roles is one of the elements of the play that was chopped out by Garrick and stayed out for years. According to Wilfrid Laurier University’s Anne Russell…

RUSSELL: Passion and impetuousness were devalued and were seen as not appropriate for the correctly masculine man, and so a character like Romeo, who is changeable, variable, emotional, passionate, becomes less easy to idealize in a culture that wants its men strong and silent.

SHEIR: The Victorians had one fairly startling solution to this problem. For a period, beginning in the 1830s, it was not uncommon for the role of Romeo to be played by a woman.

RUSSELL: There were a few women actors who played men’s roles regularly in the 1840s to the ’70s or even the ’90s.

SHEIR: Just as there are men in Hollywood today who won’t play a gay character, she says that in the 19th century, there were actors who, when it came to playing Romeo and also Hamlet…

RUSSELL: Expressed anxiety and discomfort about having to play those roles and certain scenes in those roles in particular.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet:]

O, I am Fortune’s fool!

Romeo, away!

SHEIR: But while audiences and past generations had a problem with this level of male passion, Lindsey Row-Hyveld says…

ROW-HEYVELD: Masculinity today has more room for extreme emotion than maybe it used to.

SHEIR: She saw the Baz Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet when she was Juliet’s age, 14, and she remembers thinking…

ROW-HEYVELD: You have a young Romeo, a very, in some ways, feminine-looking Romeo, who spent the entire movie crying.

[CLIP from Romeo + Juliet, 1996:]

Then “banishèd”
Is death mistermed. Calling death “banishèd,”
Thou cutt’st my head off with a golden ax
And smilest upon the stroke that murders me.

ROW-HEYVELD: He’s crying for 75 percent of that movie, and at no point do I think, 14-year-old me, at least, thought, he’s not man enough.

[CLIP from Romeo + Juliet, 1996:]

As if that name,
Shot from the deadly level of a gun,
Did murder her, as that name’s cursèd hand
Murdered her kinsman.

SHEIR: And there’s an odd parallel here, Professor Row-Hyveld says. A parallel between the issues of sex roles, sexuality, and of suicide, another important element of the play. For many young people today, she says the suicide part of the play just seems wrong, but not for all, and that’s where the parallel comes in.

ROW-HEYVELD: There are a lot of taboo romantic relationships that are not as taboo as they used to be.

SHEIR: It’s a lot less likely for someone to be shunned by their family if they marry someone of another race, another religion, or another political affiliation.

ROW-HEYVELD: But the one taboo love in our culture that is still, or often, is very forbidden, is for gay and lesbian kids, and in the last several years, especially, there’s been a spate of very widely publicized suicides by young, gay youth. The story of thwarted love, especially tragically, when it ends in suicide, is one that is largely a gay story in the United States.

SHEIR: When young people watch Romeo and Juliet today, she says…

ROW-HEYVELD: That LGBT narrative is always echoing for us, even in the midst of that archetypally straight love story.

SHEIR: There are other unique levels of understanding that today’s young people bring to Romeo and Juliet.

ROW-HEYVELD: We’re a generation that grew up around guns.

SHEIR: The Baz Luhrmann film version of the play substituted guns for swords, with devastating impact.

ROW-HEYVELD: The presence of guns, and the potential that they suggest, especially for young people, was really powerful, upsetting, I think.

[CLIP from Romeo + Juliet, 1996:]

Turn thee, Benvolio; and look upon thy death.

I do but keep the peace. Put up thy sword,
Or manage it to part these men with me.

Peace?  Peace? I hate the word
As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.

Bang, bang!



ROW-HEYVELD: Columbine happened very shortly after the movie came out, but Columbine isn’t a single event. It’s part of a chain and a network of gun violence that has characterized the youth of this upcoming generation in America.

SHEIR: She also says, of this generation that has never seen a time without AIDS, that they bring another unique perspective to this 400-year-old story.

ROW-HEYVELD: In previous generations, it was possible to read Romeo and Juliet as this story of idyllic, innocent love that wakes up to reality, and I don’t think we read Romeo and Juliet like that, because we never had an age of innocence. That really shapes the way we see the play. We see them as young people who are always tethered by their consequences, by the consequences of their actions.

SHEIR: Over the past 400 years, our opinions have changed about what Romeo and Juliet is principally about, why and whether it’s relevant, and how we like it to be performed. What’s unlikely to change, though, is this. Our opinions will continue to change, because we will continue to watch and love this play, and there are so many reasons why.

FORKER: The language conveys the tremendous sense of adolescent excitement, of richness, of exaltation.

[CLIP from Romeo + Juliet, 1996:]

My heart’s dear love—

FORKER: That kind of excitement and impatience, anticipation, that sexual longing. That is timeless, and I don’t think teenagers in the 16th century were any different than teenagers right now.

[CLIP from Romeo + Juliet, 1996:]

Sweet, good night.
This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath,
May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.
Good night, good night.

ROW-HEYVELD: You also hear characters constantly talking about wanting to control time, and I think that’s such a human experience. You would begin your relationship on the bus to school in the morning, in junior high. By lunch, you would be “Facebook official,” and by the end of the school day, it would have burned out, like gunpowder.

SHEIR: It’s probably safe to say that for as long as there are young people, and as long as they continue to fall in love, we will continue to watch and think and talk about Romeo and Juliet.

[Clip from musical score for Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet, 1968]

KAHN: “Never Was a Story of More Woe Than This” was written and produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help gathering material for the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series from Esther French. We also had help from Claire Sponsler, chair of the English department at the University of Iowa. Our narrator was Rebecca Sheir.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.