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Romeo and Juliet: Play History

The best information regarding the date of Romeo and Juliet comes from the title page of the first Quarto, which tells us that the play "hath been often (with great applause) plaid publiquely, by the right Honourable the L. of Hunsdon his servants."

This reference would indicate that the play was composed no later than 1596, because Hunsdon's acting troupe went by a different name after this date. Moreover, "[m]any critics have placed it as early as 1591, on account of the Nurse's reference in I.iii.22 to the earthquake of eleven years before, identifying this with an earthquake felt in England in 1580" (Neilson, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, 36). But the earliest performance of Romeo and Juliet actually documented was in 1662, staged by William Davenant, the poet and playwright who insisted that he was Shakespeare's illegitimate son.

The play has remained extremely popular throughout the centuries, but, strangely, producers in the seventeenth century found it necessary to take great literary license with Shakespeare's original work. In some productions, Romeo and Juliet survive their ordeal to live happy, fulfilled lives. And, in 1679, Thomas Otway created a version of the play called The History and Fall of Caius Marius, set in Augustan Rome. Otway transformed the play to revolve around two opposing senators, Metellus and Marius Senior, who are fighting for political control. Metellus represents the old nobility 'fit to hold power' and he considers himself a 'worthy patron of her honor' although the followers of Marius regard him as an inglorious patrician. Marius Senior, on the other hand, is a neophyte, having held power for only six terms. He comes from a lesser stock than does Metellus, and Metellus wants to keep Marius Senior from achieving a seventh term in office. After a series of physical confrontations and a heated power struggle, Marius Senior and his men are exiled. Caught in the political struggle between their fathers are the two lovers. Note the similarities between Otway's lines and Shakespeare's famous balcony scene:
O Marius, Marius! wherefore art thou Marius?
Deny thy Family, renounce thy Name:
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my Love,
And I'll no longer call Metellus Parent. (Caius Marius. New York: Garland, 1980 [20]).
For seventy years, Otway's version trounced all productions of Shakespeare's own Romeo and Juliet. By the 1740s Shakespeare's version was again experiencing some popularity, due to revivals by several producers, including David Garrick and Theophilus Cibber. However, even they mixed other material in with Shakespeare's original text. Cibber included passages from The Two Gentlemen of Verona in his production, and Garrick opened the play with Romeo madly in love with Juliet, omitting Rosaline entirely.

In the nineteenth century, Romeo and Juliet was performed with relatively little dramatic alteration, and it became one of Shakespeare's most-produced plays and a mainstay of the English stage. With the advent of motion pictures the play reached mass audiences. More than eighteen film versions of Romeo and Juliet have been made, and by far the most popular is Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, filmed in 1968 and starring Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting. Over the last fifty years many have attempted to translate the plot of Romeo and Juliet into the modern era. The most famous of these is Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story and Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio.

How to cite this article:

Mabillard, Amanda. Sources for Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare Online. 21 Nov. 2001. < >.

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