Think You Know Romeo and Juliet?James Hartley, author of Cold Fire, which is based on Romeo and Juliet, says we might not know
the play as well as we think.
Valentine´s Day is upon us and, like it or not, everyone´s going to be talking about love. Someone,
somewhere – everywhere! - will mention cupid and someone, somewhere will mention Romeo
and Juliet. Everyone seems to think they know the play, but do they?
I write a series of books about teenagers at a magical school who get mixed up in the plots of
Shakespeare´s plays and the last book in the series, Cold Fire, was based on Romeo and Juliet.
During my research for the book, I found out some really interesting facts about the play. Not for
the first time, what everyone thinks they know about the play is not exactly the truth.
First things first, a few facts. Romeo and Juliet was written between 1591 and 1595. It was
published in 1597 and was a hit during Shakespeare´s time and has been popular ever since. Like
most of Shakespeare´s plays, it´s based on older stories and poems.
The story is about two teenagers in Verona, Italy, who fall in love but are not able to be together
because their families are great enemies. They run away together and get married anyway but the
tragedy really begins when Romeo is exiled from Verona for killing Juliet´s cousin (who isn´t happy
with the relationship, obviously).
Juliet´s family want her to marry another man so she gets a holy man to give her a potion that will
make her appear dead so she doesn´t have to marry the man – but she won´t be dead and Romeo
can come and wake her up and rescue her and they can live happily ever after. She takes the
potion and is laid in the family crypt. But Romeo doesn´t get the message that her death is fake
and when he gets back to Verona and sees her, he thinks she´s dead and kills himself.
When Juliet wakes up, she sees Romeo is dead and kills herself, so they ultimately commit suicide
after believing each other to be dead. Lovely!
So what about a few interesting facts?
Firstly, I guess you imagine Juliet as a girl when you think of the play. Well, yes, she is. But in
Shakespeare´s time women were not allowed to act on stage, so the part would have been taken
by a young man. That must have taken some strong acting for the play to be convincing!
Then there´s the famous line, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” which everyone
seems to think means, “Romeo, Romeo, where are you?” In fact, it doesn´t. It means, “Romeo,
Romeo, why are you called Romeo?” Which makes it all really clear, doesn´t it? It probably means,
‘Oh, why did you have to be called Romeo Montague’, which makes him a big enemy of Juliet´s
family, the Capulets, but scholars are arguing about it.
Another big scene in the play is the balcony scene. There´s even a balcony in Verona where people
go and hold hands and coo and take photos to this day. But all the evidence points to the fact that
there was never a balcony scene in the play at all. In the play, Juliet appears “at a window”, and
English theatres in Shakespeare´s day didn’t have balconies. The whole balcony scene thing comes
from a much later staging of the play in which there was a balcony scene which everyone loved!
Finally, there´s the whole timescale of the play. The action takes place over a week. All that – fall in
love, get married, kill someone, run away, pretend to die, really die – takes place in a week. And
Juliet is thirteen years old. And at the start of the play, Romeo is actually in love with someone
else. Imagine trying to cram all that into a film or even a series these days – and make it believable
and make it so good that four hundred years later people are still reading it, still watching it and
can remember lines from it (even if they think the lines mean something else?)!
But that, in the end, is why the play is so popular. Why we still talk about it. Why everyone, even if
they don´t know the whole story, has heard of Romeo and Juliet. Because the story captures our
imagination and because the words, as difficult as they are sometimes, sing to us as they describe
the lovers´ incredible journey. It´s also why this Valentine´s Day you won´t be able to avoid hearing
To find out more about James Hartley, and his books, head to www.jameshartleybooks.com