Fun facts about William Shakespeare’s timeless love story, Romeo and Juliet
1. Shakespeare makes Juliet a thirteen-year-old girl when she goes to be with Romeo.
We know that Romeo and Juliet is about young love – the ‘pair of star-cross’d lovers’, who belong to rival families in Verona – but what is odd about Shakespeare’s play is how young he makes Juliet. It’s one of the most curious facts about the character of Juliet. Shakespeare’s source for the play’s story was Arthur Brooke’s The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562), an English verse translation of an Italian tale. (The Italian story was first printed as ‘Mariotto and Gianozza’ in 1476, and contained many of the plot elements of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.) In Brooke’s poem, Juliet is sixteen – the same as Romeo.
But when Shakespeare dramatised the story, he made Juliet several years younger (though Romeo appears to have been kept at around sixteen years of age). As Lady Capulet reveals, Juliet is ‘not [yet] fourteen’. This makes sense in so far as Juliet represents young love, but what makes it unsettling – particularly for modern audiences – is the fact that this makes Juliet a girl of thirteen when she enjoys her night of wedded bliss with Romeo.
As John Sutherland puts it in his (and Cedric Watts’) engaging Oxford World’s Classics: Henry V, War Criminal?: and Other Shakespeare Puzzles, ‘In a contemporary court of law [Romeo] would receive a longer sentence for what he does to Juliet than for what he does to Tybalt.’ There appears to be no satisfactory answer to this question.
2. The first reference to ‘Montagues and Capulets’ is in the poetry of Dante, not Shakespeare.
In Dante’s early fourteenth-century masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, he makes reference to two warring Italian families: ‘Come and see, you who are negligent, / Montagues and Capulets, Monaldi and Filippeschi / One lot already grieving, the other in fear’ (Purgatorio, canto VI). The families appear to have actually existed (albeit with different spellings of their surnames) in medieval Italy.
3. The play’s most famous line is more than a little baffling.
Perhaps the most famous line in the play is spoken by Juliet: ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ Of course, ‘wherefore’ doesn’t mean ‘where’ – it means ‘why’. But that doesn’t exactly clear up the whys and the wherefores.
The question still doesn’t appear to make any sense: Romeo’s problem isn’t his first name, but his family name, Montague. Surely, since she fancies him, Juliet is quite pleased with ‘Romeo’ as he is – it’s his family that are the problem. Solutions have been proposed to this conundrum, but none is completely satisfying, in fact.
4. The famous ‘balcony’ scene probably didn’t involve a balcony.
In the stage directions for Romeo and Juliet and the famous ‘balcony scene’ (Act 2 Scene 2), Shakespeare writes that Juliet appears at a ‘window’, but he doesn’t mention a balcony. It would have been difficult for him to do so, since Elizabethan England didn’t know what a ‘balcony’ was. As Lois Leveen noted in an article for The Atlantic in 2014, when Jacobean travel-writer Thomas Coryat described a balcony in 1611, he drew attention to how foreign and exotic such a thing was to the English at the time.
The balcony was most probably a later invention, of Thomas Otway’s in 1679. Otway took Romeo and Juliet and moved its action to ancient Rome, retitling the play The History and Fall of Caius Marius. It was hugely popular, and, although Otway’s version is largely forgotten now, it did leave one lasting legacy: the idea of the ‘balcony’ scene.
5. Thousands of Valentines are written to ‘Juliet’ each year in Verona.
In Verona, Romeo and Juliet has become a whole tourist industry; though not everyone has been impressed with the play. Although it was first performed in the 1590s, the first documented performance of the play is in fact from 1662.
The celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys was in the audience, and recorded that he ‘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, and the worst acted that ever I saw these people do.’
For more fascinating literary trivia, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
The best edition of Romeo and Juliet is, in our opinion, the Arden edition: Romeo and Juliet: Third Series (Arden Shakespeare) (The Arden Shakespeare). It contains footnotes (making it easy to read the notes as you follow the play) and an extensive introduction.
Continue your Shakespearean odyssey with our collection of facts about Shakespeare’s life, our compilation of facts about Shakespeare’s best plays, our King Lear facts, our trivia about Twelfth Night or The Merchant of Venice, our interesting facts about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and our facts about Hamlet.
Image: Romeo and Juliet by Ford Madox Brown, 1869-70; Wikimedia Commons.