Romeo and Juliet was first published in quarto in 1597, and republished in a new edition only two years later. The second copy was used to created yet a third quarto in 1609, from which both the 1623 Quarto and First Folio are derived. The first quarto is generally considered a bad quarto, or an illicit copy created from the recollections of several actors. The second quarto seems to be taken from Shakespeare’s rough draft, and thus has some inconsistent speech and preserved lines which Shakespeare apparently meant to cross out.
Romeo and Juliet derives its story from several sources available during the sixteenth century. Shakespeare’s primary source for the play is Arthur Brooke’s Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562), which is a long, dense poem. This poem in turn was based on a French prose version written by Pierre Boiastuau (1559), who had used an Italian version by Bandello written in 1554. Bandello’s poem was further derived from Luigi da Porto’s version in 1525 of a story by Masuccio Salernitano (1476).
Shakespeare’s plot remains true to the Brooke version in most details, with theatrical license taken in some instances. For example, as he often does, Shakespeare telescopes the events in the poem which take ninety days into only a few days. He also depicts Juliet as a much younger thirteen rather than sixteen, thus presenting a young girl who is suddenly awakened to love. One of the most powerful aspects of Romeo and Juliet is the language. The characters curse, vow oaths, banish each other, and generally play with the language through overuse of action verbs.
In addition, the play is saturated with the use of oxymorons, puns, paradoxes, and double entendres. Even the use of names is called into question, with Juliet asking what is in the name Romeo that denies her the right to love him. Shakespeare uses the poetic form of sonnet to open the first and second acts. The sonnet usually is defined as being written from a lover to his beloved. Thus, Shakespeare’s “misuse” of the prose ties into the actual tension of the play. The sonnet struggles to cover up the disorder and chaos which is immediately apparent in the first act.
When the first sonnet ends, the stage is overrun with quarreling men. However, the sonnet is also used by Romeo and Juliet in their first love scene, again in an unusual manner. It is spoken by both characters rather than only one of them. This strange form of sonnet is, however, successful, and even ends with a kiss. It is worthwhile to note the rather strong shift in language used by both Romeo and Juliet once they fall in love. Whereas Romeo is hopelessly normal in his courtship before meeting Juliet, afterwards his language becomes infinitely richer and stronger.
He is changed so much that the Mercutio remarks, “Now art thou sociable” (2. 3. 77). The play also deals with the issue of authoritarian law and order. Many of Shakespeare’s plays have characters who represent the unalterable force of the law, such as the Duke in The Comedy of Errors and Prince Escalus in Romeo and Juliet. In this play, the law attempts to stop the civil disorder, and even banishes Romeo at the midpoint. However, as in The Comedy of Errors, the law again seems to be a side issue, one which cannot compete with the much stronger emotions of love and hate.