[I went to] the Opera, and there saw Romeo and Juliet, the first time it was ever acted, but it is a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life.
– Samuel Pepys, 1662
Shakespear [sic] show'd the best of his skill in his Mercutio, and he said himself, that he was forc'd to kill him in the third Act, to prevent being kill'd by him. But, for my part, I cannot find he was so dangerous a person: I see nothing in him but what was so exceeding harmless, that he might have liv'd to the end of the Play, and dy'd in his bed, without offence to any man.
– John Dryden, 1672
Henry William Bunbury's illustration
of Friar Laurence from the 1790s
Mercutio's wit, gaiety and courage, will always procure him friends [among critical scholars] that wish him a longer life but his death is not precipitated, he has lived out the time allotted him in the construction of the play; nor do I doubt the ability of Shakespeare to have continued his existence, though some of his sallies are perhaps out of the reach of Dryden [see quote above]; whose genius was not very fertile of merriment, nor ductile to humour, but acute, argumentative, comprehensive, and sublime.
– Samuel Johnson, 1765
[The Nurse] is possessed of cunning which is counteracted by her ignorance, thus she insinuates herself into the secrets of her young lady to gain over an insolent ascendancy, and thus, a stranger to the gratitude due to her benefactors, she abuses that indulgence, and betrays that confidence of which they themselves ought to have known her unworthy. There cannot be a properer lesson to parents and children than this. Half, perhaps nine-tenths of the various instances of family misery happen through the improper confidence placed in servants.
– Charles Dibdin, 1800
The sweetest and the bitterest love and hatred, festive rejoicings and dark forebodings, tender embraces and sepulchral horrors, the fullness of life and self-annihilation, are here all brought close to each other; and yet these contrasts are so blended into a unity of impression, that the echo which the whole leaves behind in the mind resembles a single but endless sigh.
– August Wilhelm Schlegel, 1811
He has founded the passion of the two lovers not on the pleasures they had experienced, but on all the pleasures they had not experienced. All that was to come of life was theirs ... Their hopes were of air, their desires of fire.
– William Hazlitt, 1817
All Shakspeare's [sic] women, being essentially women, either love or have loved, or are capable of loving; but Juliet is love itself. The passion is her state of being, and out of it she has to existence. It is the soul within her soul.
– Anna Brownell Jameson, 1833
The necessity of loving creates an object for itself in man and woman; and yet there is a difference in this respect between the sexes, though only to be known by a perception of it. It would have displeased us if Juliet had been represented as already in love, or as fancying herself so—but no one, I believe, ever experiences any shock at Romeo's forgetting his Rosaline, who had been a mere name for the yearning of his youthful imagination, and rushing into his passion for Juliet.
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, c. 1836
This reckless passion, this fatal vehemence of love is contrasted by a hate quite as passionate and as fatal. Hate is, as it were, but the reverse of love, the same passion in its negative force ... Their love has to overcome this hate and to assert itself in opposition to it; whether, and in what way their love conquers it, will be the test of their power and their right.
– Hermann Ulrici, 1847
Philip H. Calderon's
1888 painting, Juliet
[Friar Laurence] represents, as it were, the part of the chorus in this tragedy, and expresses the leading idea of the piece in all its fullness, namely, that excess in any enjoyment, however pure in itself, transforms its sweet into bitterness; that devotion to any single feeling, however noble, bespeaks its ascendancy; that this ascendancy moves the man and woman out of their natural spheres; that love can only be an accompaniment to life, and that it cannot completely fill out the life and business of the man especially ... These ideas are placed by the poet in the lips of the wise Lawrence in almost a moralizing manner with gradually increasing emphasis.
– G.G. Gervinus, 1849
It is impossible to agree with those critics, among others Gervinus, who represent the friar as a kind of chorus expressing Shakspere's [sic] own ethical ideas, and his opinions respecting the characters and action. It is not Shakspere's practice to expound the moralities of his artistic creations; nor does he ever, by means of a chorus, stand above and outside the men and women of his plays, who are bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh. No! Friar Lawrence ... is moving in the cloud, and misled by error as well as the rest. Shakspere has never made the moderate, self-possessed, sedate person a final or absolute judge of the impulsive and the passionate. The one sees a side of truth which is unseen by the other; but to neither is the whole truth visible ... Shakspere did not believe that the highest wisdom of human life was acquirable by mild, monastic meditation ... Friar Lawrence too, old man, had his lesson to learn.
– Edward Dowden, 1881
It should never be forgotten in judging an attempt to play Romeo and Juliet that the parts are made almost impossible, except to actors of positive genius, skilled to the last degree in metrical declamation, by the way in which the poetry, magnificent as it is, is interlarded by the miserable rhetoric and silly logical conceits which were the foible of the Elizabethans.
– George Bernard Shaw, 1895
Few other plays, even by Shakespeare, engage the audience so intimately. The hearts of the hearers, surrendered early, are handled with the greatest care until the end, and with the greatest human respect. No distinction of Shakespeare is so hard to define as this distinction of his which consists of knowing the spectator through and through, and of valuing what is there. The author of Romeo and Juliet watches us as affectionately as he watches his hero and heroine; no sooner has he hurt our feelings than he has saved them, no sooner are we outraged than we are healed.
– Mark Van Doren, 1939
In tragedy the individual is not reconcilable with the universe, and the symbol for their opposition is death. In comedy the individual is reconcilable with the universe, and the symbol for their harmony is marriage. In ancient tragedy the universe refuses reconciliation, in modern tragedy the failure is the result of the individual's choice. Comedy includes both fate and choice…Romeo and Juliet are not right to commit suicide ... Romeo and Juliet confuse romance and love. The ancient tragic character is one with whom fate is passionately offended. The modern tragic character is passionately related to an untruth. It is the passion that makes the aesthetic interest, it is the untruth that makes the tragedy.
– W.H. Auden, 1946
Whatever literal epidemic there may have been in the region, it is plain that fear is the real pestilence that pervades the play. It is fear of the code of honor, not fate, that drives Romeo to seek vengeance on Tybalt. It is fear of the plague, not accident, that leads to the miscarriage of Friar Lawrence's message to Romeo. It is fear of poverty, not the chance of his being at hand at the moment, that lets the apothecary sell the poison. It is fear of the part he is playing, not age, that makes Friar Lawrence's old feet stumble and brings him to the tomb just a few seconds too late to prevent Romeo's death. It is fear of being found at such a spot at such a time, not coincidence, that lets him desert Juliet at last just when he does. Fear, fear, fear, fear, fear. Fear is the evil 'star' that crosses the lovers. And fear resides not in the skies but in the human heart.
– Harold C. Goddard, 1951
[Romeo and Juliet] was his first successful experiment in tragedy. Because of that very success, it is hard for us to realize the full extent of its novelty, though scholarship has lately been reminding us of how it must have struck contemporaries. They would have been surprised, and possibly shocked, at seeing lovers taken so seriously.
– Harry Levin, 1960
The image that remains most strongly in our minds is not of the lovers as a couple, but of each as a separate individual grappling with internal energies that both threaten and express the self, energies for which language is inadequate but that lie at the root of language, that both overturn and enrich society. Touched by adult desire, the unsounded self burst out with the explosive, subversive, dangerous energy of the sword, gunpowder, the plague; and every aspect of our experience of Romeo and Juliet in the theater engages us in this phenomenon.
– Michael Goldman, 1972
The feud in a realistic social sense is the primary tragic force in the play—not the feud as agent of fate, but the feud as an extreme and peculiar expression of patriarchal society, which Shakespeare shows us to be tragically self-destructive.
– Coppelia Kahn, 1977-78
In Mercutio's sudden, violent death, Shakespeare makes the birth of tragedy coincide exactly with the symbolic death of comedy. The alternative view, the element of freedom and play, dies with Mercutio. Where many courses were open before, now there seems only one.
– Susan Snyder, 1979
Their kind of passion would soon burn up the world of heavy fathers and snarling Tybalts and gabby Nurses if it stayed there. Our perception of this helps us to accept the play as a whole, instead of feeling only that a great love went wrong. It didn't go wrong: it went only where it could, out. It always was, as we say, out of this world.
– Northrop Frye, 1986
William Hatherell's 1912 painting
Wherefore Art Thou Romeo
depicts Juliet on her balcony
Juliet is, I think, consistently positive about the relationship. From the beginning right up to the moment when she discovers Romeo dead, she is hopeful, willing their love to work. Her foreboding remarks—'my grave is like to prove my wedding bed,' 'I have no joy in this contract tonight,' etc.—come from a kind of sixth sense, below conscious thought. They are remarks for the audience to absorb ... but they have no effect on the positive attitude they both take to the relationship ... To play Juliet as if she is conscious of the inevitability of tragedy is the same thing as to play her wisely aware of all the faults of the society she lives in.
– Niamh Cusack, 1988 (Juliet in the RSC's 1986 production)
Is Romeo and Juliet a tragedy of fate or a tragedy of character? In Shakespeare's other tragedies, the fault lies within the hero's nature, and he dies with the knowledge of his fatal flaw. But Romeo and Juliet are victims of a universe not of their making. They are "star-crossed," born in a fateful hour; Shakespeare's only romantic tragedy is a dram of missed chances, poor timing, accidents, and mistakes. The teenaged lovers are also victims of the older generation who, failing to understand them, contribute to their deaths.
– Norrie Epstein, 1993
The permanent popularity, now of mythic intensity, of Romeo and Juliet is more than justified, since the play is the largest and most pervasive celebration of romantic love in Western literature.
– Harold Bloom, 1998
We are encouraged to read their death through an image of their life and love and to feel some redemption. If we take the bait we may be resounding to our own wishful desire that passionate love and marriage are compatible … Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries acknowledged the madness in love; but for many modern interpreters not even self-destruction can dampen our relentless glorification of love madness. Love, it seems, remains one of the last bastions of modern life that we are unwilling to demystify.
– Irv Kamps, 2000
The play was in its way experimental; the usual source of tragedy was an ancient hero or some comparably great figure. Here the story comes from a modern novella and is set in modern Verona. This innovation called for new thinking about tragic experience, now less remote from ordinary life. The play is sometimes said not to be truly tragic, that Romeo's late arrival is simply accident. But that may be an aspect of its modernity. We use the word 'tragic' differently nowadays, and a change of sentiment in regard to tragedy may be sensed in Romeo and Juliet.
-Frank Kermode, 2000
There may have been little hope for Hamlet's survival in the rotten state of Denmark, or even for the adulterous love of Antony and Cleopatra caught up in the snares of Roman politics, but for these great lovers of Verona, things could so easily have been otherwise ... It is, in a sense, a problem of genre that there is no such thing as a romantic narrative after marriage: somehow or other the story seems to end. In the major tragedies, the prognosis for more fully developed love relationships, especially marriages, is not very promising.
– Dympna C. Callaghan, 2002
While Romeo and Juliet has rarely been off the stage since Shakespeare's time, it has rarely—if ever—been there as Shakespeare wrote it. Wide discrepancies between the two quarto texts suggest a degree of instability in the play even in Shakespeare's day, and since the theaters reopened after the Restoration the play has undergone radical transformations. It has always been popular, but it has also always been edited, adapted, and rewritten. In spite, or perhaps because, of its enduring appeal as the definitive love story, Romeo and Juliet has been a dynamic and unstable performance text, endlessly reinvented to suit differing cultural needs.
– James N. Loehlin, 2002
In the great legends of medieval romance, the obstacle to love can sometimes appear more or less manufactured ... These old stories were not aiming for verisimilitude: instead they set up laboratory conditions under which this peculiar thing that is romantic love could be ratcheted up to ever more exquisite and refined degrees. Shakespeare's mimetic drama, by contrast, moves in the opposite direction. By producing a simulation of real life it works to maintain our collective faith in this passion we so passionately want to believe in. The illusion that things might have been otherwise—if only circumstances had been different ... is, of course, no less artful than any other literary form, but it is a different kind of art: the art that conceals art, the collective illusion of the stage-play world.
– Catherine Bates, 2004
Romeo's urgency is sketched rather cursorily; it is Juliet's that is given much fuller scope and intensity. Similarly, it is eminently likely that Anne [Hathaway], three months pregnant, rather than the young Will, was the prime source of the impatience that led to the bond. To be sure, this was Elizabethan and not Victorian England: an unmarried mother in the 1580s did not, as she would in the 1880s, routinely face fierce, unrelenting social stigmatization. But the shame and social disgrace in Shakespeare's time were real enough.
– Stephen Greenblatt, 2004
It's sort of the quintessential play where you want to stand up and say "No! No! No! No! Don't do that, don't do that!"—the way you do in children's theater. And I think that's also part of its appeal: we know often in Shakespeare what mistake the character is making; we've been given the information, and we know what the problem is. It's what makes Cymbeline (or A Midsummer Night's Dream ) so funny so much of the time, because you're in this godlike position and know who's who. We are given information ahead of all the characters, and that serves to give the play both its tragic and comic edge.
– Mark Lamos, 2004
– Contributed by the CST Education Department