When Juliet invites the Romeo of her fantasy to ‘doff thy name’ (2.1.90), she remains blissfully unaware of that name’s cultural significance. The Oxford English Dictionary records that ‘Romeo’ now describes a type (or even types) rather than an individual: ‘A lover, a passionate admirer; a seducer, a habitual pursuer of women’. The very problem that Juliet discusses has become a facet of her play’s existence: she ponders whether we can ever break free of our nominal, familial and social fetters, but ironically the play itself is as much bound to its (sometimes ‘inaccurate’) popular associations as it is to its textual context. Romeo and Juliet is a timeless myth (pre- and post-dating Shakespeare’s conception of the play) and a timely drama (engaging with Elizabethan literary discourse, the Renaissance obsession with language, and the tensions of the early modern marriage market). Allusions to the play operate as shorthand for ‘love across the divide’ everywhere from pop songs to broadsheet newspaper articles, so that we might feel that there is also something inevitably clichéd about this drama. Featuring three murders and two suicides, it has the potential to be melodramatic as well as sentimental. Switches between comedy and tragedy, rarefied romance and earthy (sometimes brutal) bawdiness, work with the recurring figure of the oxymoron (a conjunction of opposing terms) to produce a formidable momentum entirely appropriate to the fast pace of the plot. It survives in two early printed editions, so that its linguistic doubling and fracturing (in puns and paradoxes) also exists at a textual level (Quarto 1 and Quarto 2).
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