Although stories of forbidden love have been around as long as tongues could speak, a tale involving an unwanted marriage, sleeping potion, and missed message from a friendly friar first appeared with characters called Romeo Motecchi and Giulietta Cappelletti in Luigi da Porto’s Histoira in 1530. Various authors and poets adapted and translated the tale for the next sixty years until it made its way to the eyes or ears of the up-and-coming poet/playwright William Shakespeare. In or about 1594 Shakespeare refreshed the story by shortening its time frame from nine months to less than a week, creating a new level of urgency, and highlighting the parts of some characters like Mercutio and the nurse, probably to fit them to the strengths of his own acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The play was performed at the Globe Theatre to an audience that would have been as familiar with its basics as we are today.
Over the centuries the play has been continuously performed, but altered according to the fashions of its audience. For many years it was popular for the lovers to share a brief moment of recognition together in the tomb before Romeo’s poison took effect. This tradition was carried into the present in Baz Lurhmann’s movie, Romeo + Juliet, in 1996. Another popular variation was to end the play happily with Romeo arriving just in time to rescue his beloved. It wasn’t until the mid 1800s that Shakespeare’s original text began to be commonly performed again.
Romeo and Juliet has now been performed in countless countries and dozens of languages and has been successfully shown on the big screen every thirty years since 1936. Shakespeare’s plot as been transposed into ballet and opera and was freely adapted to the hit musical West Side Story where Tony and Maria fight for their love amidst the ethnic divides of 1950s New York. Today the play is probably the most read and performed of all of Shakespeare’s works, and maybe one of the most well-known plays in the world.