Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

This guide surveys the truly essential criticism of the play over the last four centuries, from 16th-century responses to the present day. Discussing key areas of debate, and a wide range of scholarship, Gillian Woods provides an invaluable introduction to the vast array of criticism surrounding one of Shakespeare's most popular plays.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
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).
Gillian Woods, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter One. Patient Ears: Early Texts and Responses

Abstract
Romeo and Juliet opens with the description of ‘Two households both alike in dignity’ (Prologue 1); however, the play’s lengthy publication history begins with two texts (within two years) long seen as unlike in value: the First/‘Bad’ Quarto of 1597 and the Second/‘Good’ Quarto of 1599. The word ‘quarto’ refers to the material form of the texts: quartos were pamphlets made by folding sheets of paper twice so that each page was a quarter of the size of the original sheet. The two Romeo and Juliet quartos have different titles: An Excellent conceited Tragedie Of Romeo and Iuliet (15 97) and The Most Excellent and lamentable Tragedie, of Romeo and Iuliet (1599). Quarto 1 is shorter by ‘more than one-fifth’ — at the reckoning of Oxford editor Jill Levenson – than Quarto 2.1 Levenson also details that Quarto 2 ‘contains over 800 lines which are in some ways variants of corresponding lines; and it includes passages which differ completely from their equivalents (for example, 2.5, 3.2.57–60, 5.3.12–21)’.2 To generalize quite broadly, in the early twentieth century, the differences between the two quartos were rationalized as the difference between Good and Bad quartos (a distinction first made by the early twentieth-century bibliographer Alfred W. Pollard).
Gillian Woods, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Two. Well-Seeming Forms: Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Abstract
Though Samuel Pepys unequivocally condemned the play as ‘the worst that ever I heard in my life’, the critical and theatrical reception of Romeo and Juliet in the period after the Restoration was more generally ambivalent: at once highly praised and pointedly censured (even ‘corrected’).1 Responses to the play (and to Shakespeare more generally) take quite different forms: the theatre staged freely adapted versions of Romeo and Juliet, while in the study new scholarly editions appeared that reflected on the particulars of the ‘original’. Neoclassical tastes dominated literary appreciation, insisting on adherence to prescriptions about generic form. Against this background the editors Nicholas Rowe and Samuel Johnson explained and defended Shakespeare’s lack of concern for such technicalities as the unities of time and place. Johnson celebrated instead what he understood as Shakespeare’s instructive natural humanity, but criticized him for moments when ‘conceit’ damaged this vision. David Garrick’s theatrical ‘alteration’ of Romeo and Juliet removed much of such wordplay from the Elizabethan text. But the period begins with a more thoroughly adapted staging of the play.
Gillian Woods, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Three. Righteous Kisses and Dateless Bargains: Romantics and Victorians

Abstract
The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were a time of tremendous upheaval. Political revolutions in America and France, together with rapid colonial expansion, changed the international balance of power, while industrial revolution in Britain reconfigured the lives of ordinary people. The literary world was equally dynamic, as writers came to rethink and reject the rules so important to intellectuals a generation before. Enthusiasm for Shakespeare reached religious heights in some quarters, and the criticisms of the Restoration commentators are more or less shaken off. Nevertheless, this period also sees the bowdlerizing of editions of Romeo and Juliet, its explicit sexuality being deemed distasteful by some moralists. Commentators, including one of the earliest feminist critics of Shakespeare, Anna Jameson, dismiss such prudery, and appropriate the play for an alternative political agenda. But the Romantic age starts with a less explicitly contentious commentary, with the lectures of August Wilhelm von Schlegel.
Gillian Woods, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Four. Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy? Genre Criticism

Abstract
The professionalization of literary criticism in the twentieth century transformed the discipline. No longer just the leisure activity of well-informed amateurs, English Literature acquired a new status as an academic discipline that could be studied at university and researched by trained academics. The more specialized attention of a wider group of professionals made possible the methodological, political and philosophical diversification of literary criticism that is particularly evident from the later twentieth century onwards. In order to keep track of this variegation, this Guide now switches from a chronological to a thematic organization. We begin with genre Criticism, since this directed the approach of the first major professional critic, A. C. Bradley.
Gillian Woods, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Five. What’s in a Word? Language and Deconstruction

Abstract
Juliet’s famous question, ‘What’s in a name?’ (2.1.86), articulates the linguistic self-consciousness of Romeo and Juliet. This chapter surveys readings that pay close attention to the play’s language, and also its investigation of language. Critics of the early and mid-twentieth century usefully identified recurrent images and patterns in the text; later, more theoretical criticism looks at how language functions. In recent years Romeo and Juliet has been seen to pose the question, ‘do we shape language or does language shape us?’, prompting debates of far-reaching linguistic and philosophical importance which have shown the play to be of much greater significance than ‘early’ context for the ‘mature’ tragedies that followed.
Gillian Woods, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Six. Kissing by the Book: Reading Petrarchism

Abstract
In a bid to tease his friend back to sociability, Mercutio labels Romeo a stereotypically Petrarchan lover: ‘Now is he for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in’ (2.3.37–8). Some of the most invigorating criticism of Romeo and Juliet has examined the play’s place in a Petrarchan tradition and paid attention to the very conceits that earlier criticism had condemned. Francesco Petrarca, or ‘Petrarch’, was a fourteenth-century Italian poet whose work was profoundly influential in early modern England. Petrarchan discourse was the dominant Renaissance idiom of love (and even had a political application in Elizabeth’s court), so fluency in the Petrarchan poetic is essential to an understanding of both Romeo and Juliet and its cultural context. Inaugurating a new strand of critical investigation, Leonard Forster pointed out that the play is predicated on a Petrarchan situation: ‘The enmity of Montague and Capulet makes the cliché of “dear enemy” into a concrete predicament.’1 Although he did not explore the implications of this insight, this chapter shows how a range of critics have debated whether the play adheres to or explodes a strictly Petrarchan design. ‘Traditional’ attention to details such as metre and rhyme can serve, as these critics demonstrate, a variety of ideological and cultural perspectives.
Gillian Woods, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Seven. Death-Marked Love: Psychoanalytical Criticism

Abstract
Where the critics featured in the previous chapter explored love as a literary effect, the commentators in Chapter 7 look at literature as a trace of psychological drives. Underpinning these interpretations is an interest in the unconscious impulses motivating Shakespeare and his characters. This branch of criticism thus pushes beyond the surface level of the text to reveal deeper structures. The combination of passionate love and a tragic end proves especially interesting in psychoanalytical approaches, because it bears the hallmarks of the ‘death-drive’, a deep-seated and supposedly universal human ambivalence in which the will to love is (paradoxically) collapsed into an urge for self-destruction. However, psychoanalytical criticism, like other modes of interpretation, changes over time, and by the end of the twentieth century, this approach is put in unexpected (and fruitful) conversation with seemingly incompatible historicist methods. In the twenty-first century, psychoanalytical theory underpins an ‘aesthetic’ reading of the play that separates love and death once more.
Gillian Woods, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Eight. Juliet and Her Romeo: Feminism, Gender Studies and Queer Theory

Abstract
As one of only three women in the Shakespeare dramatic canon to be named in the title of her play, Juliet has usefully inspired a range of insightful feminist readings. Following in the footsteps of researchers such as Charlotte Lennox and proto-feminists like Anna Jameson, critics of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries pay particular attention to the innovations of Juliet’s tragic status. However, earlier (relatively straightforward) attempts to proclaim the critical interest of female characters are replaced by more complex questions about the nature of sexual identities and the historical specificity of gender roles. The diversification of feminist criticism means that such questions are approached from different methodological perspectives. Related but significantly different concerns motivate Queer Theorists, who expose some of the hetero-normative assumptions of criticism that eulogize the play’s supposed celebration of an ideal romantic love. By the end of the twentieth century gender studies recognize masculinity as a gendered category, so that Romeo becomes as ideologically interesting as Juliet. In the 1970s, Coppélia Kahn puts such questions in a broadly psychoanalytical framework.
Gillian Woods, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Nine. From fair Verona to Verona Beach: Shakespeare on Film

Abstract
The majority of people experience Romeo and Juliet extra-textually, that is, they recognize those names as symbolic of tragic love without ever having read Shakespeare’s play. But then, as Chapter 1’s discussion of Quarto 1 and Quarto 2 shows, ‘Shakespeare’s play’ is a deceptively straightforward term for a slippery concept. The innumerable and varied adaptations of Romeo and Juliet in different forms of media (ballet, opera, puppet show, manga, and so on) are evidence both for and against the universality of the Shakespearean text: it is a story that keeps being retold across time and cultures, but it needs to be reshaped to fit new contexts. This chapter considers two of the most famous adaptations of the play in our time: the films of Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann. These adaptations offer valuable interpretations of Shakespeare’s drama (much like the plays of Otway and Garrick discussed in Chapter 2), and function as works of art in their own right (just as Shakespeare’s text is itself an adaptation of a famous story).
Gillian Woods, Nicolas Tredell

Conclusion

Abstract
In the very last words of the play, the Prince asserts the superlative status of Romeo and Juliet: ‘For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo’ (5.3.309–10). Popular opinion seems to concur: Romeo and Juliet remains one of Western culture’s most iconic love stories. It continues to be adapted in wildly various forms: in 2004 the Icelandic company Verstuport performed the play on trapeze; Sonia Leong illustrated a manga version in 2007; Tom Morris directed octogenarian lovers in Juliet and her Romeo for the Bristol Old Vic in 2010; the same year saw a collaboration between Mudlark and the Royal Shakespeare Company that performed the play (Such Tweet Sorrow) across five weeks on Twitter and other online social platforms; and garden gnomes replaced teenagers and found a happy ending in the 2011 animation, Gnomeo and Juliet (perhaps proving Garrick’s point about the dangers of puns). The cultural appetite for this tale seems to be insatiable. However, we have seen that over the last four centuries some critics have been rather less confident than the Prince in the play’s tragic value (or, at least, find weakness rather than wonder in its ‘woe’). Even so, the range and depth of critical insights into Romeo and Juliet are testament to its intellectual (as well as its emotional) profundity. Scholarship has repeatedly recorded Shakespeare’s formal, poetic and social innovations in this work. In her appropriation of the sonnet, epithalamium and tragedy, one of literature’s most famous heroines is generically experimental; organizing her own wedding and funeral, she is also socially bold. Romeo and Juliet’s linguistic, Petrarchan, psychoanalytical, gendered and sexual aspects continue to provoke new debate. As is shown by Grady’s methodological fusions between aesthetic theory and psychoanalysis, and Watson and Dickey’s contentious exposure of sinister threats in seductive poetry, criticism keeps moving. The relatively new willingness to engage with the tragedy in its multiple texts (Quarto 1 and Quarto 2) also means that returning to the play itself demands flexibility.
Gillian Woods, Nicolas Tredell
Additional information