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A complete guide to the history of Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet'

Learn more about the origins of Shakespeare's tragedy play Romeo and Juliet, as well as past productions and film adaptations.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

We just can’t get enough of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers. After Romeo and Juliet premiered in the late 1590s, it swiftly became one of the playwright’s most popular works, and that popularity continues through the centuries. From numerous stage revivals to fresh interpretations and adaptations in film, TV, ballet, art, musical theatre and more, it’s an endlessly fascinating source.

As Gary Owen’s new modern-day Welsh version, Romeo and Julie, comes to the National Theatre, we take a look back at Romeo and Juliet’s rich history – and some of the most famous versions of Shakespeare’s enduring play.

The origins of Romeo and Juliet

There are numerous antecedents to Shakespeare’s tale of tragic lovers, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which likewise features a pair of paramours who are doomed by their parents’ hatred for one another. Xenophon of Ephesus’s 3rd-century work also references separated lovers and a potion – like the one that Juliet takes – which mimics the signs of death.

Dante’s Divine Comedy references Montagues and Capulets, as he criticises the conflict of rival political parties, while Masuccio Salernitano’s Il Novellino of 1476 contains many recognisable elements from Romeo and Juliet – such as a secret marriage by a helpful friar, our hero, Mariotto, exiled after killing someone in a street fight, the sleeping potion, and the all-important message explaining that his female lover, Ganozza, isn’t actually dead not reaching Mariotto in time.

Luigi da Porto built on that tale in his Giulietta e Romeo, published in 1531, adding the names of the rival families, placing them in Verona, and introducing Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris and the nurse. Shakespeare likely encountered the story in William Painter’s 1567 collection Palace of Pleasure, which translated several popular Italian tales into English.

But then Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is far more than just its plot, wherever it was sourced from. It’s the exquisite poetry, the thoughtful examination of the human psyche and the grappling with free will vs fate, and of course the brimming emotion – from all-encompassing passion through to utter devastation – that we remember, and still respond to now.

Romeo and Juliet revivals

The play was published in two quarto editions, the first in 1597, placing its premiere around that date. Already, in 1597, it is stated that Romeo and Juliet “hath been often (and with great applause) plaid publiquely.” That has certainly continued over the years, albeit with the play appearing in different guises. For example, during the 17th century, James Howard turned it into a tragicomedy in which the lovers made it out alive, while Thomas Otway transferred the action to Ancient Rome.

In the mid 18th century, David Garrick took issue with Romeo’s fickleness and the “love at first sight” concept, so he swapped all of Romeo’s pining for Rosaline over to Juliet instead – making him seem more like a faithful, long-term suitor. Garrick’s version endured for a century, before Shakespeare’s original text was finally restored.

Now came a variance in performance style, from Henry Irving’s stately, showboating 1882 production, starring himself and Ellen Terry, versus the more naturalistic acting of Johnston Forbes-Robertson’s staging in 1895. It’s the latter that won out and is most popular with audiences today.

Romeo and Juliet always attracts the leading artists of their generation. In the 1930s, Katharine Cornell and Guthrie McClintic toured America with their production, starring Orson Welles, Brian Aherne and Basil Rathbone. John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft and Laurence Olivier joined forces in the West End in 1935 (with Gielgud and Olivier swapping the roles of Romeo and Mercutio), and Franco Zeffirelli’s Old Vic production, in 1960, starred John Stride and Judi Dench.

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Trevor Nunn’s 1976 version for the RSC replicated an Elizabeth playhouse, with one fixed set, and put the focus on stars Ian McKellen and Francesca Anis. In contrast, another RSC production in 1986 – led by Sean Bean and Niamh Cusack – was a thoroughly modern affair, with hypodermic needles and Armani power suits. Later, Rupert Goold’s 2010 version memorably emphasised the youthful, hot-blooded play’s sex and violence.

The play has been translated into many other art forms as well, inspiring composers, choreographers, painters and more. One of the most celebrated rebirths is Kenneth MacMillan’s magnificent ballet set to Prokofiev’s score, which premiered in 1965 with Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn leading the Royal Ballet – and was such an instant hit that there were 43 curtain calls.

Romeo and Juliet on screen

Shakespeare’s tragic romance is catnip to screenwriters and movie directors. In 1936, George Cukor directed an uneven film adaptation featuring screen actors (like Leslie Howard, Norma Shearer and John Barrymore) who were notably much older than their characters, and cutting about half the text. Still, the film scored four Oscar nominations.

Much more successful was Zeffirelli’s 1968 version, which starred teenagers (Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey – both nevertheless established theatre actors) as the lovers, so honouring the play’s youthful ardour. Filmed in Italy, it also captured both the beauty and the maddening heat of the setting, the latter fuelling scenes like the fatal duel.

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In 1996, Baz Luhrmann’s bold modern take reframed Romeo and Juliet for the MTV generation. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo, Harold Perrineau, Pete Postlethwaite, Miriam Margolyes and Paul Rudd, and featuring witty, postmodern touches and a pop soundtrack, it was a thrilling departure – and incredibly effective at bringing new audiences to Shakespeare.

Romeo and Juliet also plays a major role in the 1998 Oscar-winning movie Shakespeare in Love, scripted by Tom Stoppard. Events in the film mirror that of the drama (our lovers’ romance is doomed because of external factors; we see rival ‘houses’, in this case playhouses), and the movie also depicts the actual writing, rehearsing and premiere of the great romantic tragedy.

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More recently, the National Theatre created a superb filmed version of the play during lockdown. It starred Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor in the title roles, plus Tamsin Greig, Fisayo Akinade, Adrian Lester, Deborah Findlay, and Lucian Msamati. That’s still available to watch via NT at Home – and well worth catching if you missed it first time round.

West Side Story as Romeo and Juliet

Of course, we can’t possibly talk about great adaptations of Romeo and Juliet without mentioning Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim’s truly remarkable musical. Originally conceived by Jerome Robbins, West Side Story transports the action to 1950s Manhattan, pitting two street gangs against one another: the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Tony, a Jet, falls in love with Maria, sister of the Sharks’ leader – with devastating consequences.

West Side Story made its explosive Broadway premiere in 1957, starring Larry Kert, Carol Lawrence and Chita Rivera, and went on to run for more than 700 performances. It also won two Tony Awards. A national tour soon followed, and a West End premiere in 1958, with Rivera reprising her role, joined by George Chakiris, Don McKay, Marlys Watters and David Holliday.

Sophisticated yet gritty, politically astute yet lushly romantic, and the most enthralling combination of drama, music and dance, West Side Story has remained a favourite among musical theatre fans ever since – cemented by its 1961 film adaptation, co-directed by Robbins and Robert Wise. Led by Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno and Chakiris, it won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

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Steven Spielberg directed a remake in 2021, with Tony Kushner delivering a new screenplay that thoughtfully addressed some of the racial tensions within and surrounding the story – albeit not to everyone’s satisfaction. Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist, David Alvarez and a returning Rita Moreno led a strong cast, with DeBose winning most of the major supporting actress awards available, including an Oscar. Happily, London audiences can soon see Ariana DeBose in concert.

Romeo and Julie

The latest incarnation of Romeo and Juliet is Gary Owen’s new version for the National Theatre. Shakespeare’s Italian lovers become Welsh teenagers, who live close to one another but in very different worlds: Romeo is a single father, while Julie dreams of studying at Cambridge University.

Romeo and Julie stars Callum Scott Howells (It’s a Sin, Cabaret) and Rosie Sheehy (Oleanna, King John), alongside Catrin Aaron, Paul Brennan and Anita Reynolds. It reunites Owen with director Rachel O’Riordan following their highly praised productions, Iphigenia in Splott and Killology, and promises to reshape Romeo and Juliet once again for a 2023 audience.

Photo credit: Romeo and Julie, Ian McKellen, Romeo and Juliet 1996 film, Romeo and Juliet 2020, and West Side Story (Photos courtesy of National Theatre, Arts Council England, IMDB, National Theatre, and IMDB respectively)

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