“Romeo and Juliet,” perhaps the best-loved and most-performed of Shakespeare’s oeuvre—and certainly one of the most frequently taught in schools—has over the years exerted an enormous influence on literature, art, and music. Just this season, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced the launch of a project to translate 39 of William Shakespeare’s plays into modern English with the goal of making the plays more accessible to today’s audiences.
This creates a perfect opportunity for us to reconsider a work such as “Romeo and Juliet” and the value of Shakespeare in 21st-century America.
Dating to the very end of the 16th century, Romeo and Juliet draws on a long tradition of romantic tragedies. It can be traced most directly to a poem published in the 1560s by Arthur Brooke called “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet,” which itself may have been a translation of an Italian work.
While the storyline did not originate with the Bard of Avon, he certainly put his own spin on it. It would be difficult to find an English speaker unfamiliar with, if not the play’s entire plot, at least its status as the epitome of a love story. The tale of the rival Montague and Capulet clans and their teenage offspring appeals to the core of our human sensibilities, with family feuds, duels, love triangles, forbidden romance, loyalty, and peace emerging from tragedy. It dramatizes the devastating consequences of inter-family feuds as it follows the intrigue of the lovelorn Montague Romeo, called out of his despondency over an old heartache by the young Capulet Juliet, who is promised in marriage to an older man.
The first blossoms of love seem to hold promise, but forebodings and paradoxes foreshadow the end of the romance in double suicide. In spite of the inevitable tragedy of the play’s conclusion, Shakespeare masterfully weaves in elements of comedy (most notably in the character of Juliet’s nurse) and suspense (for instance, at the end, when there seems to be hope for the lovers if only Friar Lawrence can reach Romeo in time to save Juliet).
Why, one might question, are we still interested in a 400-year-old play written thousands of miles away? Certainly the story itself draws us in, and if the chief value of Shakespeare’s plays lay in their plots, then modernizing the language would be an ideal way to retain popular interest in them. But one must then ask why this particular play has outlasted and overshadowed so many other love stories and even other versions of the same story.
Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the language itself. After all, the writing of William Shakespeare has long been considered foundational to the development of the English language and culture. Most people know they are quoting this play with lines like “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” and “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/by any other name would smell as sweet.” However, fewer realize their debt to the Bard when using expressions such as “star-crossed lovers” and “wild goose chase,” much less the numerous words and word forms adapted and popularized by Shakespeare from existing English and foreign words.
Furthermore, plays like “Romeo and Juliet” bring the reader into contact with something larger than himself precisely by their use of a higher form of our language. The language takes us to Renaissance Italy in a way that a mere description of that time and place could never do, and the sheer beauty of the writing cultivates in us an appreciation for something intrinsically good. Besides all this, the very act of navigating Shakespeare’s ingenious literary devices is a discipline for the mind and a stimulant for the imagination. Notwithstanding the dose of Shakespearean double entendre, there is much to be gained from the exercise of puzzling through Shakespeare’s unparalleled wit and style.
Given that we are not looking to “Romeo and Juliet” for our model of teenage romance, we need not take pains to make the story more relevant to today’s Americans. Rather, modern students would be better served by training their intellect and developing their imagination to appreciate the play as it was penned. As difficult as it is, it’s worth the time and effort, and a good teacher plus a good annotated edition (like this one or this one) can help a great deal. The plethora of resettings, movie adaptions, and artistic and musical depictions leaves us in no doubt that the tale of Romeo and Juliet will forever capture the hearts and minds of Enlglish speakers, but nothing can—or should—replace the timeless beauty of Shakespeare’s original work.
Image copyright Ignatius Press.
Katrina King is a freelance writer and classical musician in Virginia.