Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy by William Shakespeare (1595-6). It portrays the brief lives of two “star crossed lovers” who come from feuding families, the Capulets and the Montagues.
In Shakespeare’s time it was one of his most popular plays, as it remains today.
Myself, I never really liked Romeo and Juliet too much. It seems small and dark. Romantic love is fine. But when it gets all messed up and doesn’t work out right, it doesn’t really capture my imagination.
I find it sort of silly and dramatically frustrating that someone would commit suicide because he thought his true love was dead. And guess what? She wasn’t even dead after all. So what happens? She wakes up and kills herself.
Maybe I just like happy endings. I realize life doesn’t always turn out that way but still, Romeo and Juliet for me is a bit of downer.
Like many of his plays, Shakespeare didn’t come up with the idea out of the blue. There were precedents, some very clear.
Romeo and Juliet borrows from a tradition of tragic love stories dating back to antiquity. One of these is Pyramus and Thisbe, from Ovid‘s Metamorphoses, which contains parallels to Shakespeare’s story: the lovers’ parents despise each other, and Pyramus falsely believes his lover Thisbe is dead. The Ephesiaca of Xenophon of Ephesus, written in the 3rd century, also contains several similarities to the play, including the separation of the lovers, and a potion that induces a deathlike sleep.
Come and see, you who are negligent,
Montagues and Capulets, Monaldi and Filippeschi
One lot already grieving, the other in fear.¹
In 1938 the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev wrote a ballet after the story. And Berlioz (1839) and Tchaikovsky (1869) also wrote classical pieces on the theme.
There have been several screen adaptations. One of my favorites is Franco Zeffirelli‘s 1968 Romeo and Juliet. I remember marveling at Olivia Hussey as a kid when I saw the film in junior high. For me, she was the epitome of womanly beauty back then.
In India, the Mahabharata epic tells of a family feud that leads to total war between the Pandavas and the Karavas. This war is also central to The Bhagavad Gita, which is a part of the Mahabharata (some believe a later addition because it differs stylistically). I don’t think the Capulets and Montagues were related but the Pandavas and Karavas were. Of course, Shakespeare most likely did not have access to Hindu myth (in this case, the Puranas) because it hadn’t been translated into European languages yet. But for thinkers like Adolf Bastien, Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung (who believe that certain psychological “patterns” or “structures” arise independently around the world) this wouldn’t have been a huge problem.