Why we still love to do Romeo and Juliet


While you’re reading this article you might want to listen to an excerpt from the Fantasia-Overture of Romeo and Juliet (1880) by Peter Tchaikowsky: https://youtu.be/izfAH-edobk. The performance speaks to the global presence of Romeo and Juliet. The composer was Russian, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is from Amsterdam, and the conductor, Elim Chan, is from Hong Kong. There is a beautiful intensity in the performers’ faces, and the rhapsodic music clearly brings pleasure to the conductor.

And I want to begin this article with a story. In 1997 I was on a train from London to Edinburgh when a trio of teenage girls got on and took the bench seats across the aisle from me. Their conversation was frank, personal and intense in the way of teenage girls, and it became more intense as they started discussing the film Titanic, which had just opened in UK cinemas with the 22 year old Kate Winslet (whose hand on the rear window of the car has become an erotic trope) and Leonardo de Caprio, who was 23.

“Have you seen it?” one of the girls asked.

“Of course,” said the second girl.

The third was silent, and the silence continued for a while until the first girl thrust her head forward and said, “You really haven’t seen it?”

The girl shook her head. “And I’m not going to see it, either.” 

There was a pause. “Why not?”

“Because I couldn’t bear to see him die twice.”

She was of course referring to Leonardo diCaprio, who dies as Romeo in  Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, which had come out a year earlier, and as Jack Dawson in Titanic. In R&J he dies together with the 17 year old Claire Danes in a tragedy that the world understands as a testament to passionate and rebellious young love. In Titanic, Leo (as the girls called him) plays a young Irishman who wins a seat on the doomed ship in a poker game and falls in love with a woman miles above his station, only to die in an extended feat of Arctic drowning when the ship hits an iceberg and sinks.

The two films share several themes that were key to the popular success of both: young love, desire and death, alienation from the society in which they live, and rebellion. As I listened to the conversation between the three girls I was interested that they did not differentiate between fiction and reality. It did not matter that Leo died twice in two separate movies with just a year between them. I also found it interesting that the girls talked about Romeo and Jack as though they were  a single character who was a real and legitimate object of their  attention and desire. Later, in the buffet car, I had a conversation with one of the girls. She talked about Romeo as the kind of boy (she said “boy”) they dreamed about but never encountered. When I suggested that Romeo’s character emerged from his responses to the more intentional and active Juliet, she sighed and said, “Yeah, girls gotta do all the work these days.” 

I asked her if she and her friends considered the two actresses, Clare Danes and Kate Winslet, as rivals for Leo’s love. 

“Oh god, no,” she said, laughing. “Those chicks are really cool.” 

Of course, I thought. “What makes them cool?” I asked.

She said, “They’re so bright, and they know what they want. And, you know, you just have to listen to them talk.”

They know what they want. They’re articulate. That girl in the buffet car didn’t know it, and nor did I at the time, but she was giving me a clue to the reason for the enduring popularity of Shakespeare’s play, to its constant attraction to artists and audiences throughout the world.

There are countless poems, plays, novels, movies and cartoons, songs and musicals, ballets and operas about young love, first desire, rebellion, dying young, romantic hope and romantic despair, sexual longing and sexual ecstasy. But the one that has them all and always stands out, that has generated countless productions and variations, is Romeo and Juliet. And I mean Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Even when we have the best variations in mind – like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet or West Side Story, the Shakespeare play is always there as a reference point.

Why? What does Shakespeare’s play have that keeps it in the mind of global audiences, even of people who have never seen the play.

One thing we all know about the play, almost as surely as we know what’s going on around us, is that it is located in conflict. That’s one of the rules of dramatic writing: you have to establish and delineate the conflict, give personality to the combatants, and show how your characters find their path through it to resolution. In London around the time Shakespeare was working on R&J, there were outbreaks of violence and civil unrest. In part they might have been caused by the residual effect of the plague, which killed around 20,000 Londoners in 1593 (that was 15-20% of the population). But there was also an ongoing protest against  poverty and social conditions. In June of 1595 around 1,000 apprentices – which might realistically have included men like Samson and Gregory from the Capulet household, and Abraham and others from the Montagues – rioted in protest against living conditions in the city.

In Romeo and Juliet the conflict is longstanding, parochial and familial, and although it’s set in Verona, in Italy, it reflects the constant battle for influence and position in the court of Elizabeth I.  The Verona of Romeo and Juliet (there is a separate blog on the subject of Shakespeare and Italy) is a complacent world in which family rivalry and egocentric carelessness are evident everywhere. As the Director for this year’s Curtain performance says in his introduction to the Program, “Verona is on the verge of anarchy”. But at the beginning of the play it’s a laid-back anarchy. The boys representing each family are a bit like gang members, but not completely. Sword-fighting and verbal baiting are regular, but people let it go. No one really enforces the city’s laws. The Prince has taken a back seat and the Watch (Elizabethan England’s minimal police force, the object of ridicule in some Shakespeare plays like Much Ado) does not appear until the tragic events of the final act. The moral role of the Church is embodied in the ego of the friar, who is obsessively distracted by unsaintly pursuits and the desire to be liked. He is long on words and short on common sense. He speaks with a tone of rationality yet the logic has often lost touch with the premise.

The job of policing the moral, social and political lives of the people of Verona falls to the families themselves. Their actions tend to be passive, responsive rather than proactive, and when the situation is made urgent by the death of family members, they intervene to secure their own interests. A major responsibility of the pater familias, in this case Capulet, is to deliver their daughters into marriages advantageous to the family. One much-used book  that sets out the socially desirable conduct of women was written by Juan Luis Vives for Princess Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.  It was translated from Latin in 1557 by Richard Hyrde under the title The Instruction of a christen woman, and made the point succinctly: “it becometh not a maid to talk, where her father and mother be in communication about her marriage.” 

Into this sleepy hurricane come our young lovers, with hope and expectation and a certain amount of wonder. Romeo is a young man who is in love with the idea of love. Based on the sexual subcurrents of his banter with Mercutio he is probably bisexual, as were many men in Renaissance England, including, if we read the evidence correctly, Shakespeare himself. He has fixed his lover’s gaze on Rosaline. He speaks of her iambic hyperbole and romantic sonnets, not unlike Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona. Rosaline is an ethereal mannequin on which Romeo drapes his illusions, and as a character she never materializes.

Romeo, at this point more agape than eros, notices the beautiful Juliet and falls in love with the thought of falling in love with her. His modus is the Petrarchan sonnet, a form which represents the hyperbolic titillation of the duel between ice and fire rejection and desire. It is not until he discovers that Juliet is real and that she talks back that his experience of love changes.

As the play opens Juliet is a young woman with a beauty that attracts attention and an intellect that is already sharp and self-aware. She has not yet challenged her parents, so they can talk about arranging a match between her and her kinsman Paris without considering the possibility that she might resist. Her main relationship is with her nurse – who started as her wetnurse, breast-feeding her physically as well as being her main counsel. In her opening scene in the play Juliet has just seven lines. The nurse, a gem of a character, so characteristic of the mature Shakespeare, does all the talking, until Juliet’s mother introduces the idea of marriage. “Tell me, daughter Juliet” she says, “How stands your dispositions to be married?” To which Juliet replies, in a line that introduces the young woman who is becoming – in the parlance of Gen Z – her own agent, “It is an honour that I dream not of.” I love the wit and the ironic precision that we hear in that line: of course she has thought about marriage, but she does not dream of it; it is not in the wheelhouse of her desire.

Romeo is attracted by her beauty and by something in her character that is different: he has met his match. In describing to Friar Laurence the difference between Rosaline and Juliet he says: “Her I love now / Doth grace for grace and love for love allow.” (R&J 2,3, 81-2). He does not fully understand the difference, but he knows it’s there.

To go back to when he first encounters Juliet. He thinks and speaks in the mode of a Petrarchan courtier. When he says of her “… “she doth teach the torches to burn bright, / It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night / As a rich jewel in Ethiop’s ear.” (1,5,43-4) we are reminded of Sonnet 27, which is worth quoting in full because it so closely matches the themes of light and dark, love and consciousness, that pervade Romeo and Juliet:


Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,

The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;

But then begins a journey in my head,

To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:

For then my thoughts (from far where I abide)

Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,

And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,

Looking on darkness which the blind do see:

Save that my soul’s imaginary sight

Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,

Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,

Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.

   Lo, thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,

   For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.


When Romeo first approaches Juliet after seeing her at the Capulet ball, he does so in courtly mode. He speaks first of the context, then goes straight to the pont: “My lips, two blushing pilgrims,” he tells her, are ready for a kiss. This is where we begin to see what makes this play so different from all others. In most Elizabethan literature, at least to this point, men are the ones who initiate contact and behavior, women are passive, and both social and literary convention would have required Juliet to be coy and blushing in response to Romeo’s advances (as Julia is in Two Gentlemen of Verona). Instead, she responds with a firm and resolute command, and between the two of them they create a sonnet:


If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.


Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,

Which mannerly devotion shows in this;

For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,

And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.


Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?


Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.


O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;

They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.


Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.


Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.


Remove the characters names and we have the perfect sonnet: it’s fourteen lines, it rhymes as a Shakespearean sonnet should: abab, cdcd, efef, gg. It has the dialectical structure of a sonnet (four line thesis, four line antithesis, volta – turning point – and six line synthesis). In this way, their declaration of attraction to each other – more sexual than emotional at this point – is equal. And one of the things it tells us is that Juliet ups the ante for Romeo, who has until now been the sole player in his poetic output. Now he is matched word for word, and Juliet’s command of the poetic structure of language shows her to have a mind that is already experienced in working through the complex territory of emotion and desire.

That most famous scene in Shakespeare, possibly in the whole of theater, is the balcony scene (R&J, 2,1). It is interesting to speculate on how the first audience must have taken it. Not only does Juliet refuse to be coy and innocent of desire, but she argues eloquently to herself the complex philosophical case of naming and identity:

’Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,

Nor arm nor face nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O be some other name!

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet. (2,2, 38-44)

This tells us that Juliet is not caught up in the romantic impetus of her love for Romeo. She understands perfectly well, in a way the audience is not yet sure of, that her whole life will be upended by how she acts tonight; his too. As Romeo asks her how he can swear his love she warns him against poetic cliché: “O, swear not by the moon.” And then she goes on:

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

Too like the lightning which doth cease to be

Ere one can say it lightens … (2.2, 116-110)

It is Juliet who makes the running in this exchange between her and Romeo. She understands and knows more than anyone. As a young woman she has absorbed the reality of social and familial expectation. She knows that as a young woman she must deal with the plans other people have for her.

Following the deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio and the banishment of Romeo – whom Juliet’s father previously described as “a virtuous and well-governed youth” (R&J 1,5,66) – the mechanisms of social control begin to stiffen. Juliet seeks a solution, and knowing that her family and the society around her are not her allies, she goes elsewhere. She also decides to go ahead with her marriage night. She feels the full and compelling power of sexual desire, while recognizing that instead of allowing events to drive a wedge between her and Romeo, she should seek to be with him. The defining moment of the play is the extraordinary scene in which Juliet sets out the reality of her love and desire for Romeo while grappling with the additional reality that he killed a dear family member. “Gallop apace”, she says, asking the universe to speed her journey into womanhood. And then she goes on to explore the changes she is about to witness:

Come, night, come, Romeo, come, thou day in night,

For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night

Whiter than new snow upon a raven’s back.

Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,

Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die

Take him and cut him out in little stars,

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night

And pay no worship to the garish sun.

O, I have bought the mansion of a love,

But not possess’d it, and, though I am sold,

Not yet enjoy’d: so tedious is this day

As is the night before some festival

To an impatient child that hath new robes

And may not wear them. ( R&J, 3, 2, 17-25)

This speech is full of explicit physical and sexual imagery – she may be young but is not innocent or naïve – and the accelerating (“galloping”) fuel of secrecy. It shows us the transformation of Juliet from a child into a woman who has the mind and the desire to act for herself in awareness of the bigger world. Later in the scene she speaks to the nurse about the complex world in which circumstance has thrown her: “Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?”  And later still she engages in debate with her mother over Tybalt’s death and the proposed hasty marriage with Paris. Capulet is aware, albeit without much understanding, that events have unleashed a burgeoning power in his daughter and he wants to use marriage immediately as a way of containing it. She resists him, and his response is swift and clinical:

How now, how now, chop-logic! What is this?

‘Proud,’ and ‘I thank you,’ and ‘I thank you not;’

And yet ‘not proud,’ mistress minion, you,

Thank me no thankings, nor, proud me no prouds,

But fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday next,

To go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church,

Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither. (R&J 3, 5, 149-155)

Once he has calmed down a little from his anger he becomes cold and mean and sets out, succinctly and chillingly, his claim to fatherly ownership and his refusal to accept her independence:

An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;

An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets,

For by my soul I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee

Not what is mine shall never do thee good. (R&J 3,5,192-195)

And it is partly with this stern reminder of patriarchal power that Juliet muses on her situation as she takes the potion the Friar has given her to simulate death. She is fully aware that this moment in her life, this departure from the familial convention her father wants her to perform, is a lonely one. She trusts none of the men who have authority over her, neither her father nor the friar:

I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins,

That almost freezes up the heat of life….

… My dismal scene I needs must act alone.

Come vial.

What if this mixture does not work at all? (R&J 4,3, 15-21)

But she knows her own mind. She knows that there is no room for equivocation, that having known the ecstasy of love she would die if forced into marriage with someone she does not want or love in the way she wants and loves Romeo. So she goes ahead and drinks the Friar’s drug and says: “Romeo, Romeo, Romeo! Here’s drink. I drink to thee.’ (4.3.58)

One of the things that makes Juliet such a powerful character is her resolution. She lives in doubt and duality when she doesn’t understand a situation or does not see a path for herself, but when she knows what she wants she is clear and determined. When she explains to the Friar that she cannot marry Paris she talks about the way she has found certainty in the frightening world she has been thrust into:

O bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,

From off the battlements of any tower,

Or walk in thievish ways, or bid me lurk

Where serpents are …

And hide me with a dead man in his shroud,

Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble,

And I will do it without fear or doubt,

To live an unstained wife to my sweet love. (R&J 4,1, 77-88)

Without fear or doubt. That’s the Juliet who emerges from this play. And in the end, when she thrusts the dagger into her belly, she makes a choice about the kind of life she will or will not live. In doing so, she also takes the plunge that will force the people of fair Verona to step out of their complacency.

 I asked Dale Leonheart,  the wonderful young actress who is playing Juliet in this production, which of the lines she speaks are her favorites. She smiled at me, and said she would think about it. Later, I revised the question slightly: which of her lines does she think most significant, most important? She did not hesitate. “Her last lines,” she said. “In the tomb. She is a woman with agency. She makes her mind up and does it.” Without fear or doubt.

…Then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger!

This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die. (R&J 5,3,169-70)

And Shakespeare must have thought so too. For when the servant leads the watchman to the tomb with the dead and bleeding Juliet, he says “This is the place, there where the torch doth burn.” And so we are taken back to Romeo’s first vision of Juliet:

Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright.




All quotes from Romeo and Juliet are from the third series Arden edition edited in 2012 by René Weis from University College, London.

Sonnet 27 is quoted from the third series Arden edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets edited in 1997 by Katherine Duncan-Jones from the University of Oxford.

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