Romeo and Juliet

October 31

December 22, 2019

CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by Barbara Gaines

Playgoer's Guide

The Story
In Verona, the Montagues and Capulets are mortal enemies, and have been for longer than anyone can remember. And so it is decreed: any further violence between these two proud households will be answered by a sentence of death. Still, life in Verona goes on. For sport, the young Montagues decide to crash the Capulets’ party. Romeo, Montague’s son, sees Capulet’s daughter Juliet there, and the two fall in love. Early the next morning, the Friar agrees to wed the young couple, hoping that this marriage might at last put an end to their families’ discord.

Their vows just made, Romeo is confronted in the street by Capulet’s nephew Tybalt, enraged by the Montague’s bold intrusion of the night before. But it is Mercutio who takes up Tybalt’s challenge and, as Romeo attempts to break the two apart, Mercutio is slain. In blind fury, Romeo turns on his new kinsman, murdering him. The Capulets demand the young Montague’s death; but instead Romeo is banished from Verona.

After a wedding night cloaked in secrecy, Romeo parts from Juliet at daybreak. Moments later, Mrs. Capulet seeks out her daughter with news of Juliet’s impending wedding day, arranged between her father and Paris. After the Nurse advises Juliet to forget all about her first husband, Juliet seeks the Friar’s counsel. The Friar’s plan is a desperate one: he instructs Juliet to drink a potion that will induce a deathlike trance; once she is buried in the Capulet tomb, the Friar will send work to Romeo to rescue her there and return with her to Mantua until their two families can be reconciled. But time and the undercurrents of history are unrelenting, and as Montague and Capulet vow to end the killing, it is a peace purchased with their treasures.

Its Origins
To Shakespeare and his audiences, the story of Romeo and Juliet was already a familiar one. The playwright’s most direct source was like the English narrative poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, composed by Arthur Brooke. The popular work was first published approximately thirty years earlier and subsequently reprinted a few years prior to Shakespeare’s play first appearing on stage. Stories of love, death, and resurrection followed by death are more ancient than the myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and Ovid’s own Pyramus and Thisbe (innocently parodied by Shakespeare’s amateur actors in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written in the same period as Romeo and Juliet).

In Print
Romeo and Juliet was Shakespeare’s first major tragedy, likely first staged ca. 1595. Along with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Richard II, also from this period, Romeo and Juliet helped establish Shakespeare as one of London’s most successful playwrights. Its immediate popularity contributed no doubt to the rapid publication of a First Quarto in 1597, referenced by scholars as a “bad” quarto, “piratical and dependent on an especially unreliable means of transmission of the text” (Arden edition, 2000), which was subsequently corrected by a Second (“good”) Quarto, just two years later, which, according to its own editors, was “newly augmented and corrected.” So popular was this play that, by the time Shakespeare’s plays were compiled posthumously by the two members of his acting company, a Third Quarto had already been published—significant within a canon of which only half had ever been printed prior to Heminge and Condell’s publication of the First Folio in 1623.

In Performance
The title page of the First Quarto, printed in 1597, proclaims that the play was performed frequently “with great applause.” However, no written record remains of any production prior to 1662—following the Restoration of the English monarchy and the reopening of London’s theaters. Just a few years later, Shakespeare’s story was adapted to suit contemporary tastes, ending happily—and staged on alternating nights with Shakespeare’s tragic version. It was subsequently David Garrick’s adaptation that held the stage throughout the eighteenth century. Used as a star vehicle, the play not uncommonly featured a Juliet well into her thirties or forties. It was not, in fact, until the 1960s that Shakespeare’s bawdy comic language was generally restored—notably by Italian director Franco Zefferelli, whose stage version at the Royal Shakespeare Company preceded his classic film released in 1964. In 1996 Australian director of opera, dance, and film Baz Lurhmann set his contemporary production in Verona Beach—a violent, multi-cultural, amphetamine-driven city, where guns and switchblades of deadly street gangs replaced rapiers and daggers. Chicago Shakespeare Theater has staged full-length productions of Romeo and Juliet first in 2005, directed by Mark Lamos, and again in 2010, directed by Gale Edwards.

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