Romeo and Juliet is one of the best-known and most famous plays by William Shakespeare, who himself is probably still Britain’s best-known producer of literature, seem from a world point of view. It is one of what I suppose that I would call his Italian Plays. These are a group which are set, more or less, as far as I can see, in what we now call Italy, but which then I think was a group of little city-states or tiny little nations, each centred on a town or city – such as Venice (the Merchant of Venice is an example.)
It describes the climate of fear, custom and emotion surrounding a bitter battle or feud between two warring families in the City of Verona, about the time that Shakespeare would have been writing it – say in about the early 1590s. The play is centred on the sudden and eep love of one young member of one family for one of the other.
Shakespeare used a variety of scources for his dramas. The story of Romeo & Juliet was by all accounts taken from the poem, The trajical history of Romeus & Juliet written by Aurther Brooke (1562). The story has earlier origins. Brooke drew on the novella Rhomeo & Julietta by Boesteau, who, in turn had borrowed the main incidents from a story by Luigi da Porto, of vicenza (1535), called ‘La Guillietta’.
The main diffrences beetween Shakespeare’s version of the story and that Brooke is in their purposes. Brooke’s poem warns young people of the dangers of physical attraction, whilst, I thinkn that Shakespeare was more interested in considering the nature of true love. Since the basic story was doubtless familiar to his audience, Shakespeare’s achievement lay in producing an interesting variation on the theme with fresh characters and a new slant which promoted the legitimy of forbidden love.
The play was published from Quarto in 1597 so it is safe to assume it may have been written a couple of years or so earlier, during the first stage of his carrer. Shakespeare and his company were provoked into publioshing their own genuine versions of the play, known of the good Quartos (1599). Even so, these were quite imperfect copies and the defenitive version of the texts was not produced until after Shakespeare’s death, the First Folio in 1623.
If the dating is correct, this play, with its range of characters and poetry, must be reckoned his first great one. It is however, unusual in that it is a trajedy, for the bulk of his writing in the early years was comedies and histories. At this time in his life, it may be, though, that he was deeply affected by the death of his son at the age of 11, and that his writings at this time and afterwards were never as humorous or comical as they had been before. As this is also a lter play, he shows more skill in dramatisation which would of course come with age and practice.
Them term tragedy derives from the Greek term meaning ‘goat-song’. This unlikely form of a choral offering is rather obscure. It may be that a goat was the prize of a winning play. Whaqtever the truth of that, the main influence on European ideas of a tragedy was Aristotle’s Poetics, a critique of Greek drama of the 5th century BC; which identified these following ingredients:
* The tragic hero should be of high, but not perfect, worth or standing. Romeo, of course, is just that. He’s basically honset and forthright, even though driven to extremes of emotion and action by his love for Juliet.
* A tragic flaw, weakness or exessive of arrogant ambition leads to downfall. This is of course evident in the character of Romeo, who falls in love and persists in his attentions to Juleit in spite of the dangers and risks that mgiht put off someone less obsessive.
* The effect of this, the catastrophe, on the spectators is the cleansing of the emotions of pity and terror through what they have witnessed.This was supposed to be an important part of going to watch a tragic play, in a psychological sense, and was regarded by the ancient Greeks as a good reason in itself for being a spectator of a theatrical tragedy.
In a wider sense, the play may be veiwed asn a dramatic reprisentation of the perpetual conflict beetween love and hatred which enmeshes a pair of unfortunate lovers. There is, however, another reason that makes the choice of Italy as the setting for the play even more likely. The so-called University wits, among whom Marlowe, Greene, Nashe and Peele were the most prominent, made significant contributions to the English stage in the 1580’s and the 1590’s. They Drew on popular cultures and on European theatres, often using plays that were translations from Dutch or French. Shakespeare too looked to the continent for inspiration. Sixteenth century comedies were high-spirited. They nenjoyed the intruige, particularry in the context of city life. In such respects, Romeo and Juliet is a typical example of the European comic tradition.