The link between West Side Story, William Shakespeare and The Apprentice’s theme tune, there’s hardly an area of our culture in which the tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet hasn’t made an appearance. Although Shakespeare can be credited with turning the plot into common knowledge of the British public, the origins of the story can be traced back to an Italian novella written over five hundred years ago. But how did Romeo’s declaration of love to Juliet ‘Did my heart love till now? forswear it sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.’ in 1597 become – in the lyrics of a song by Dire Straits in 1981 – ‘you and me babe, how about it?’
Although it’s difficult to say when exactly the story was first conceived, it’s clear that it all began it Italy. One of the earliest records is of a short story called ‘Mariotto and Ganozza’, written in 1476, set in the 1300s and reputedly based on a true case of lovers who tragically died for each other. 1530, the story ‘Giulietta e Romeo’ was written by Luigi da Porto, who named the lovers and introduced their feuding families (whose names, Montague and Capulet, can be found in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’) and, in 1554, Matteo Bardello published a version in novella form. It is probably Arthur Brooke’s 1562 translation of Bardello’s work, written as a poem called ‘The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet’, that brought the tale to Shakespeare’s attention.
Shakespeare’s play would have been first performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Although the idea of audiences and actors brings this a lot closer to the Romeo and Juliet we are all familiar with, it is worth mentioning that the first Romeo was probably Richard Burbage, aged thirty at the time. Even further away from our 21st Century idea of the character Juliet, as played by the likes of Clare Danes and Hailee Steinfield, is the fact that the first person to play her was not a woman at all, but a young boy by the name of Master Robert Goffe.
Since then, the tragedy has been translated into an opera, in 1776, and many paintings, perhaps most famously by the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. It has been made into a ballet and with that comes the famous score by Prokofiev. However, in spite of all of this, it was only in recent years that directors of the play have begun to use ‘colour-blind casting’, that is, casting with no preconceptions as to what race the actors should be. This year, British director David Leveaux cast Orlando Bloom as Romeo and Condola Rashad as Juliet – surely a historical moment in the play’s evolution.
You will have undoubtedly been aware of the latest film revival, released last year with popular actors Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfield taking the lead roles. The first film version was made in 1936, but it was in 1957 that the story was given it’s most drastic update: in Bernstein’s musical, ‘West Side Story’, the plot moves from Verona, in Italy, to New York’s Upper West Side, where the young lovers are members of rival street gangs –the Polish-American Jets and the Sharks from Puerto Rico. Following on from this radical change, the 1996 film directed by Baz Lurhmann’s was ‘MTV-inspired’, with swords and potions replaced by guns and drugs.
As the story continues to evolve, it pushes new boundaries and adapts to the demands of a 21st Century audience. In a project ingeniously titled ‘Such Tweet Sorrow,’ The Royal Shakespeare Company broadcast the tragedy to the world in 2010, with a total of six actors, five weeks and four thousand tweets. While this may seem to reduce the tragedy to a trivial level, it does prove that Romeo and Juliet is a story that will always be accessible to young people – it simply will not grow old. In fact, the growing sense of history as time goes on only adds to its impact and the lasting impression it makes on us. In Italy the ‘Club di Giulietta’ (Juliet Club) is a group of volunteers who, since the 1930s, have been answering letters about love sent in from people all over the globe. To this day, it receives more than 5000 letters a year.
Where Romeo and Juliet will be in ten or a hundred years from now is anybody’s guess. Yet what is certain is that, no matter what the media used, whether we study the Shakespeare play or simply come across the ‘star-crossed lovers’ in passing in a modern song, the story of Romeo and Juliet will always retain its power to engage, shock and, more often than not, move us to tears. Its tale is truly a timeless one.