Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

It is amazing to me how the story of Romeo and Juliet has so much history and has been adapted in so many ways over the span of almost 500 years. Almost everyone knows this classic story, it’s themes and morals, and archetypal characters. 

I finished reading Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597) a few weeks ago and it is really such a beautiful work. I remember reading it in English class in junior high and not really fully understanding it with all the iambic pentameter and old English style. I do remember the gorgeous pictures in the textbook though, of Zeffirelli’s 1968 film. (Which I’ll be posting about soon!) This time reading Shakespeare’s play I was really drawn in by the poetic style as well as the intricacies of the story itself. 

I was unaware that Shakespeare based his work on a poem by Arthur Brooke, The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562), which was translated from an Italian story by Matteo Bandello. The edition I read gave a lot of information about how Shakespeare adapted Brooke’s work for his play. I won’t go into too much detail on the differences between Brooke’s work and Shakespeare’s in this post, but one of the major differences is that Brooke’s play occurs over a span of about nine months, where Shakespeare compressed the drama into about four days. This compression of time definitely accelerates and intensifies the story. 

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was written between 1591 and 1595 and was first performed in London in 1597. I’d have to do a whole different post to explore the artistry of the play itself, the poetry, and the details of the story, but for the purpose of this post I will be focusing on how the play differs from the opera. 

There are quite a few changes that the librettists made for Gounod’s opera. Here are just a few that really stood out to me: 

  1. Juliette’s mother is completely omitted in the opera. This leaves the nurse with a larger role than in the play. In the play, the nurse and the mother have a balance with caring for Juliet, but in the opera it is only the nurse who plays this maternal role. 
  2. Juliet’s relationship with her father is much more fleshed out in the Shakespeare. There is more dialogue and interaction between them that sheds light on their relationship. At one point in the play, Lord Capulet calls Juliet horrible and brutal names when she says she won’t marry Paris. This brings a lot more context to their relationship and why Juliet is so fearful and concerned with her father’s approval. 
  3. Romeo’s history, family, and love life is much more expanded upon in the Shakespeare as well. We meet both his parents in the play, but not in the opera. Both in the opera and the play, we learn that Romeo is originally in love with Juliet’s cousin, Rosaline. In the play, Romeo is super heartbroken and believes he will never love another, but to his surprise Juliet stirs love in his heart again. The context of Romeo’s family and love life makes me wonder about his intentions and maturity level. Did he really love Juliet? Or was this just a rebound… that went horribly wrong?
  4. Wedding Scenes: This is another MAJOR difference between the play and opera. 
    1. In the Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet are secretly married, offstage. I was kind of baffled when I got to this part of the play and realized that you don’t get to see the special wedding between the main characters. This makes me believe that the librettists and composer wanted to include it for a very specific reason to show Romeo and Juliette’s love for each other and their sacred union.
    2. The wedding scene to Paris is also not present in the play, but present in the opera. In the play, Juliet takes the sleeping potion and the nurse finds her, believing her to be dead. In the opera, there is a whole wedding procession and Juliet collapses at the altar. I think this is such a dramatic moment for Juliet where she shows real fear (calling out for her father). 
  5. Last Act/Scenes: In the play, Count Paris actually goes to the Capulet tomb to pay his respects to Juliet. Romeo and Paris run into each other and Romeo ends up killing Paris. (None of this happens in the opera.) At the very end, three bodies are found in the tomb and I think this accentuates the tragedy of the work. Also, at the end of the Shakespeare, there is a whole scene where the Prince comes and interviews Friar Laurence and the page who witnessed everything. It seemed odd to me that the final scenes included basically everyone except the title characters. Also in the play, there is an important moment of reconciliation between Lord Capulet and Lord Montague where they vow to end their fatal quarrels. In the opera, Romeo and Juliet die, and that’s the end. 
  6. Humor: There is a decent amount of humor, jokes, and innuendos in the Shakespeare play. There really isn’t much humor in the opera at all, with the exception of a couple fleeting moments.

Top focus: Compare Shakespeare’s play to the libretto/opera. 

Challenges: There is SO much in the Shakespeare to consider, but I didn’t want to pull too much focus away from the opera libretto itself. Finding some key differences and changes is a good way to focus here. 

Topics to explore: Librettists Barbier and Carre – their history, style, other works they set, Familial relationships in the Renaissance, Wedding traditions?, Is there sensuality in the libretto and/or music that matches the sexual innuendos/humor of the play? 

Characterization of Juliette:  I think more exploration of Juliette’s relationship with her father will bring a lot of insight on how to portray not only scenes with him, but also generally how Juliette’s life and thoughts are impacted by the pressure from her father. The wedding scenes are included in the opera, so I must consider these as moments where Juliet changes in some way. Her marriage to Romeo is a sacred ceremony and this is where Juliet shows her devotion and love for Romeo. The later wedding scene, where Juliette collapses is a very dramatic moment in the opera. There is a real sense of fear when she calls out for her father. I mentioned in an earlier post that this is the last glimpse of the innocent and pure Juliette and the librettists created this scene to show this moment.

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