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Romeo and Juliet without words

How the story of Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers has the power to live on in other forms.

By René Weis (Professor of English, University College London)

8 October 2013 at 10.17am | Comment on this article

In his article for The Royal Ballet's programme book, Professor René Weis delves into the history of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and discusses its remarkable success as a story that transcends translation.

From very early on Romeo and Juliet was a highly prized work. Proof comes from the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays in the Bodleian in Oxford. For 40 years after its publication in 1623 the volume remained chained to the shelves of the library for use by students and eventually, in 1664, the university traded it in for a Third Folio of the poet’s works. Between 1623 and its sale Oxford’s First Folio was browsed extensively. The edges were worn away, without a trace of tear. It was evidently the favourite play of bright young things.

Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s best-known story but scholars rarely rank it alongside the mature tragedies. They think it is a terrific tale, but not his greatest work. Then again, that may well be a somewhat jaded, middle-aged perspective. The young of course adore the play, presumably because it is first and foremost a teenage love story, a tale of lightning love and bliss turning to tragedy. What renders the play special as literature is its daring and dazzling use of metaphor, nowhere more so perhaps than those rich conceits about Juliet’s eyes trading places with the stars for a break in heaven where, streaming through the firmament, they will illuminate all creation. The play is full of such arresting rhetorical moments, with Shakespeare pulling out all the stops to make us experience – and not just witness – the sheer beauty of this pair of innocent and star-crossed lovers.

It would seem that such a play could only succeed through the medium of its original words from the mid-1590s, but the success of its countless translations and adaptations indicates otherwise. Not much of the elixir of Shakespeare’s poetry survives in Franco Zeffirelli’s cult film or Baz Luhrmann’s dystopian version of the play, more West Side Story than Shakespeare. Nevertheless, these two very different films succeed on their own terms even without the lyrical score of Shakespeare’s language – which will be tested again in Julian Fellowes's new adaptation, released this Friday. These films are carried by plot and types: Leonardo DiCaprio looks like everyone’s preconceived idea of Romeo while Olivia Hussey is Juliet just as Darcey Bussell was in the production of Prokofiev’s ballet (choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan), in my view the greatest, because most magical, adaptation of Shakespeare’s play to date.

When he dramatized the story of Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare pared it down to its bare essentials, to make it fit two hours of playing time. Reshaping his sources he created a contrapuntal structure through a series of artful oppositions between youth and age, light and dark, night and dawn, life and death, that have inspired successive generations every bit as much as the play’s language. The plot of the play is simple and stark and its stylized storyline moves us even without words. It celebrates the power of love and the essential innocence and idealism of children, Shakespeare’s included, which may just be why he lowered Juliet’s age from his source to exactly that of his own daughter Susanna, who was 13 when her father was writing Romeo and Juliet.

The full article by René Weis is in the programme book that accompanies Romeo and Juliet. It is available in the theatre at performance times and from the ROH Shop.

The Royal Ballet’s production of Romeo and Juliet runs from 19 October–7 December 2013. Tickets are still available.
The production is generously supported by The Paul Ferguson Memorial Fund and staged with generous philanthropic support from Peter Lloyd and the Artists' Circle.

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