Study Guide

Romeo and Juliet

By William Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet Introduction

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Want more deets? We've also got a complete Online Course about Romeo and Juliet, with three weeks worth of readings and activities to make sure you know your stuff.

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Before young William Shakespeare wrote his play about two poetry speaking, hormone-driven teenagers who defy their families' long-standing feud and risk everything to be together, love wasn't even considered a suitable subject for a "tragedy."

Not anymore. Written at the beginning of Shakespeare's career as a playwright, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595) is now considered to be the greatest love story of all time. It wasn't a sleeper hit, either: the play was so popular in its own time that it was published twice during Shakespeare's life (1597 and 1599). Considering the state of printing press technology at the time, that's kind of a big deal.

Shakespeare adapted the storyline from Arthur Brookes' popular Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet (1562), a long English poem based on a story that dates back to a novella by Masuccio Salernitano called "Mariotto and Giannozza" (1476). But it's not just a remake. Ever heard of the Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet? Yeah, we thought not. Shakespeare made the story immortal—or, at least extremely long-lived. The balcony scene alone (Act 2, Scene 2 in most editions of the play) is one of the most memorable and recognizable moments in all of Western literature.

Despite its fancy pedigree, Romeo and Juliet is also considered to be one of Shakespeare's most accessible works. Along with Julius Caesar, it's typically one of the first Shakespeare plays studied by Western students, who get a dose of Elizabethan theater, Shakespearean language, and, of course, love poetry. And it's not just a school favorite; it's an audience favorite, too. Romeo and Juliet has been performed countless times by world-renowned theater companies and remains an audience favorite.

It's also one of the most adapted plays of all time—Franco Zeffirelli made it into an Oscar winning film in 1968 and the play was also adapted into a Tony Award winning musical, West Side Story (1957). Romeo and Juliet has inspired countless pop lyrics, like Taylor Swift's "Love Story," Dire Straits' "Romeo and Juliet," and The Reflections' doo-wop style "(Just Like ) Romeo and Juliet." Almost any "forbidden love" stories can trace their genealogy back to Romeo and Juliet, from Wuthering Heights to Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga.

But is it really nothing more than a silly blockbuster? Is reading Romeo and Juliet the equivalent of students 400 years from now studying Love Actually? Famous seventeenth-century journaler Samuel Pepys dismissed the plays as "the worst that ever [he] heard in [his] life" (source). And even we have to admit that Romeo seems a lot more like an emo teenager than a man in the grips of immortal passion.

Well, you're not going to wait around for us to tell you, are you?


What is Romeo and Juliet About and Why Should I Care?

A lot of people think the balcony scene is about as deep as a twelve-year-old interpretation of true love. Boy meets girl, they stare into each other's eyes and say a lot of poetic things. Cue sappy music. Anybody who makes it past the age of fourteen, of course, realizes that's not what love is about. Swearing undying commitment to each other fifteen minutes after they've met isn't love—it's infatuation.

But Romeo and Juliet is not just about what happens when two hormonal teenagers collide. It's clear to anyone who's watched Engaged and Underaged that getting what you want out of young love isn't always all it's cracked up to be. The real moral of the story here is that sometimes love is doomed to fail, and that applies no matter how old you are and what time you're living in.

Why? Because no one loves in a vacuum. In the first few weeks of a love affair, you might feel like you and your lovah are in a world of your own—but pretty soon, reality comes crashing back. You've got homework to do, or jobs to go to; parents breathing down your neck, or employers wondering why you keep calling in sick. And that's not even to mention your friends, who've stopped inviting you to hang out.

But let's say that you do stay together. You marry your teenage sweetheart and set up house together. Pretty soon, you've got bills to pay, maybe kids to feed, or you're the one who's waking up at 6AM to take the dog for a walk again.

Our point? Romeo and Juliet is at least partly a tragedy about the clash between private love (you and your honey) and public interest (convenient marriages, or paying bills, or raising a family). We may not have quite the same roadblocks that Romeo and Juliet have, but intense, passionate love can be just as antisocial in the 21st century as it was in the 16th century. How do you negotiate the minefield? Well, hopefully better than Romeo and Juliet did.

Romeo and Juliet Resources

Movie or TV Productions

West Side Story, 1961
West Side Story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet as a musical centered around two warring New York City gangs. The classic film was directed by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

Tromeo and Juliet, 1996
Tromeo and Juliet is a campy, street punk version of Romeo and Juliet that high school teachers are highly unlikely to show in class. It also happens to feature a whole lot of raw meat (we're not kidding).

Shakespeare in Love, 1999
Shakespeare in Love is a fictionalized account of how Shakespeare overcame writer's block and penned Romeo and Juliet, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes. Anyone who hearts Shakespeare should see this film. (Psst. It's co-written by Tom Stoppard, the guy responsible for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.)

Romeo Must Die, 2000
Romeo Must Die, a modern re-telling of the classic play, directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak and starring Jet Li.

Gnomeo and Juliet, 2008
Gnomeo and Juliet, an animated film featuring Emily Blunt as Juliet and James McAvoy as Gnomeo.

Tonight, Tonight
West Side Story (1961) is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet as a musical centered around two warring New York City gangs. The people behind this movie are a who's who of awesome mid-century Broadway (Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins). There's literally no way you'll regret watching this, except if you run out of tissues.

Teenage Dreams
Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 adaptation is a classic—and it raised eyebrows for casting 15-year-old Olivia Hussey and then giving her a nude scene.

Wherefore Art Thou, Tromeo?
Tromeo and Juliet (1996)is a campy, street punk version of Romeo and Juliet that high school teachers are highly unlikely to show in class. (You might have better luck in college.) It also—we're not kidding—happens to feature a whole lot of raw meat.

Star-Studded
Romeo Must Die, a modern re-telling of the classic play, directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak and starring Jet Li, Aaliyah, and Isaiah Washington.

Eternal Love
Stephenie Meyer thought of New Moon as an updated Romeo and Juliet. Do you agree?

Videos

"Rome-old and Juli-eh"
An 18th season episode of The Simpsons is called "Rome-old and Juli-eh" – it's about old Grandpa Simpson's "forbidden" love affair with Marge's sister Selma, who is much younger but equally unattrractive. You can watch the full episode here.

Historical Documents

"The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet"
Shakespeare's play is based on Arthur Brooke's popular English poem "The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet" (first published 1562, two years before Shakespeare was born). You can read online or download a (modernized) copy of Brooke's poem that was republished in 1908.

"The Story of Pyramus and Thisbe"
Book 4 of Ovid's Metamorphoses (Ovid started the project around 2 A.D.) contains "The Story of Pyramus and Thisbe," another source for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. You can read and download an English translation here.

Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream
Act 5, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (written around the same time as Romeo and Juliet) features a performance of "Pyramus and Thisbe," a play-within-the-play that explores the same themes as Romeo and Juliet. You can read it here (and check out Shmoop's learning guide for Midsummer while you're at it). This is a link to Act 5, Scene 1 but you can follow the links to read the entire play.

It's So Tragicall
Shakespeare's play is based on Arthur Brooke's popular English poem "The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet" (first published 1562, two years before Shakespeare was born). You can read online or download a (modernized) copy of Brooke's poem that was republished in 1908.

Through the Wall
Book 4 of Ovid's Metamorphoses (Ovid started the project around 2 A.D.) contains "The Story of Pyramus and Thisbe," another source for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. You can read and download an English translation here.

Sourced
Act 5, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (written around the same time as Romeo and Juliet) features a performance of "Pyramus and Thisbe," a play-within-the-play that explores the same themes as Romeo and Juliet. You can read it here (and check out Shmoop's learning guide for Midsummer while you're at it). This is a link to Act 5, Scene 1 but you can follow the links to read the entire play.

Other

"60 Second Shakespeare"
Think Romeo and Juliet would make a great tabloid cover story? You're not the only one. Check out the BBC's hilarious "60 Second Shakespeare."

Cartoon Strip Romeo and Juliet
Check out this modern and super-condensed adaptation of Shakespeare's play, compliments of the BBC's "60-Second Shakespeare."

'Speare
Galaga meets Romeo and Juliet? Play 'Speare, an arcade-style video game that helps users learn about Shakespeare's language and plays. Compliments of the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project.

"I'll Take 'Love Poetry' for 1000, Alex."
Play Romeo and Juliet Jeopardy! (PowerPoint)

Interactive Folio
Check out the "Interactive Folio" of Romeo and Juliet, where you can click on the lines of the play for access to definitions, fun facts, images, dramatic readings, and cool video clips.

Websites

Checkout Stand
Think Romeo and Juliet would make a great tabloid cover story? You're not the only one. Check out the BBC's hilarious "60 Second Shakespeare."

Game Theory
Galaga meets Romeo and Juliet? Play 'Speare, an arcade-style video game that helps users learn about Shakespeare's language and plays. Compliments of the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project.

The Future is Here
Check out the "Interactive Folio" of Romeo and Juliet, where you can click on the lines of the play for access to definitions, fun facts, images, dramatic readings, and cool video clips.

The Best Part of Waking Up
… is checking out the website of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Shakespeare in Love with Tom
Shakespeare in Love is a fictionalized account of how Shakespeare overcame writer's block and penned Romeo and Juliet, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes. Anyone who hearts Shakespeare should see this film. (Psst. It's co-written by Tom Stoppard, the guy responsible for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Dude knows his Shakespeare.)

Video

Dance Like They're All Watching
We defy you to watch this dancer perform the death of Juliet in Prokofiev's ballet without feeling a little emotional.

Young Love
Here's the trailer from Zeffirelli's 1968 adaptation, complete with a teenage Juliet.

Be Still Our Hearts
Shmoop totally had a crush on Leo and Claire in 1996. Check out the trailer from Baz Luhrmann's 1996 version here.

Audio

We Love the '80s
Classic 80s band Dire Straits does a version of Romeo and Juliet. Still good after all these years.

Polish Off the Earbuds
Here's a 100% free version of Romeo and Juliet.

Wordless
NPR recommends a recording of Sergei Prokofiev's hit scoring of Romeo and Juliet. You can't go wrong with "one of the most beautiful scores of the 20th centuries."

Images

Ye Olde Times
Check out a bunch of awesome images from the first edition of Romeo and Juliet.

Classic and Youthful
Here are a bunch of stills from the 1968 Zeffirelli adaptation. Do you buy Juliet as a 13-year-old?

Hip and Modern
Now compare a bunch of images of Baz Luhrmann's 1996 update—do they convey the story?