Romeo and Juliet was most probably written by Shakespeare around 1594–1596. Shakespeare took inspiration from two main sources – Brooke and Bandello.
Shakespeare’s main source was The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, a narrative poem, first published in 1562 by Arthur Brooke, who is reported to have translated it from an Italian poem by Bandello. It was a very popular poem and was re-printed in 1582 and 1587. It had also been adapted at least once for the English stage, and made into a ballad. So Shakespeare was being very bold as a young writer selecting this very popular story as the basis for his play.
Shakespeare’s major changes to the original text are:
- Shakespeare telescopes the action from taking place over several months to three and a half days. In Brooke’s version, Romeo and Juliet’s courtship is very long. They meet at Juliet’s balcony, but even when it’s snowing, her modesty doesn’t allow her to let the freezing Romeo come inside.
- Shakespeare reduces Juliet’s age to 13. In Bandello’s version, Juliet is 18 years old. In Brooke’s version she is 16. In both there is an emphasis that she is considered too young for marriage.
- Shakespeare creates a central structure to the play. The opening, closing and central scenes of the play all have the same form: both families on stage, with Prince Escalus adjudicating between them.
- Shakespeare replaces the moralistic and didactic tone with one far more sympathetic to the young lovers. As we might expect from Shakespeare, he is interested in the humanity of the characters. Arthur Brooke censures the children for ignoring parental advice, whereas Shakespeare is much more sympathetic to them. He is exploring this very modern notion of ‘romantic love’, which was only just displacing ideas of ‘courtly love’ at the time of writing.
Answer the following questions:
- For each change that Shakespeare made, what effect does this have on the story? What is the effect on the audience?
- Why do you think Shakespeare made these changes?
- What do the changes tell us about the way Shakespeare crafts a story?
- Do you think Shakespeare made the right decision in making these changes? Why/why not?
- How do you think the Elizabethans at the time Shakespeare was writing would have viewed his changes?
Extension task – Once you have formed your own opinions, hold a classroom discussion to share all viewpoints. Are there opposing ideas and opinions in the classroom? Are there similarities of opinion?