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Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet, Charles Kemble


The illustrations are taken from the H. R. Forrest Collection; 76 folio volumes of illustrations to Shakespeare up to 1890. Criticism, texts, production history and film versions of the play on video and DVD are all available in Birmingham Libraries, many can be borrowed for use at home.

Prologue to the play:
'Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene
From Ancient grudge break to new mutiny...'

This 'penny plain tuppence coloured' print shows Charles Kemble (1775-1854) as Romeo. Coming from a celebrated family of actors, he first played Romeo in 1803 at Covent Garden Theatre, London. He also toured to Paris and America.

Shakespeare probably wrote Romeo and Juliet around around 1595. Arranged marriages were usual at that time, and audiences would have identified with the tragic tale of the 'star-crossed lovers' from warring families who fell in love. The story it is based on was a popular one, adapted by the Italian writer Bandello and by Arthur Brook, who adapted the story as The Tragical History of Romeo and Juliet in 1562. Brook's tale was one of the consequences of disobedience, but in Shakespeare's play sympathy is with the unhappy lovers. Juliet is not quite fourteen, but at the time early marriage was common, particularly for girls.

Biting the thumb as an insult

The Capulet and Montague servants quarrel

'Nay, as they dare. I will bite my thumb at them, which is disgrace to them if the bear it.
Do you bite your thumb at us, Sir?'

Act 1 scene 1

The play opens on a hot day in Verona. Montague and Capulet serving men pick a quarrel, and the two families brawl through the streets till stopped by the Duke, who swears that the next to begin a brawl shall pay with his life.

Romeo and Juliet Gielgud at Capulet ball

Romeo and Juliet meet and fall in love

Juliet:...'saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,and palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.'
Act 1 scene 5

The Capulets are arranging a marriage for their only daughter Juliet to Paris, a nobleman of Verona. Romeo, only son and heir of the Montague family, sworn enemies of the Capulets, has gone with his friends in disguise to the ball. There he and Juliet meet and fall in love. Juliet's cousin, Tybalt, recognises him, and swears revenge for his trespass.

John Gielgud played Romeo in the Birmingham Repertory Theatre production at the Regent Theatre, London, in 1924. Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies was a beautiful Juliet with red-gold hair and Botticelli dresses. This was one of Gielgud's first leading roles. The Birmingham Repertory Theatre Archives are held in Birmingham Central Library with the Birmingham Shakespeare Collection.

Romeo and Juliet Cushman sisters in balcony scene

The Cushman sisters in the Balcony scene

'This bud of love, by summer's ripening breath,
May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.
Good night, good night! as sweet repose and rest
Come to thy heart as that within my breast.'

Act II scene 2.

Romeo has stolen into the Capulet garden after the ball, and overhears Juliet, on her balcony, declare her love for him. Impetuously, they swear their love and decide on a secret marriage, without the permission of their families.

Charlotte Cushman (1816-76) was a well known American actress also performed in England, Charlotte's tall and mannish appearance allowed her to cross gender barriers and made her a celebrated Romeo. Her sister Susan played Juliet. The illustration shows Charlotte and Susan Cushman in the balcony scene.

Romeo and Juliet

The Nurse seeking Romeo

'I saw no man use you at his pleasure; if I had, my weapon should quickly have been out, I warrant you...'
Act 2 scene 3.

Juliet's Nurse has agreed to help her meet her lover. The Nurse goes to find Romeo, and is insulted by his boisterous, bawdy friends.
Some might think that the Nurse and Friar Lawrence were very irresponsible in helping Juliet to make a secret marriage.

Romeo and Juliet Juliet

Juliet's father commands her to marry Paris

'Hang thee, young baggage, disobedient wretch!
I tell thee what: get thee to church a' Thursday,
Or never after look me in the face..
And you be mine I'll give you to my friend...'

Act III scene 5

Juliet's father has decided to set the date for her marriage to Paris. He is astounded and extremely angry when she refuses.

Romeo and Juliet -It is the lark

Romeo leaves Juliet after their wedding night

'Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale and not the lark
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings in yon pomegranate tree.
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.'
Act 3 scene 5

Friar Lawrence hoped to heal the feud between the Capulets and Montagues through the marriage of Romeo and Juliet. After Tybalt's death they are in despair and he agrees to secretly marry them. They have one night together before Romeo leaves Verona.


Juliet is found 'dead' on her wedding day

Juliet's father, Capulet:...Death lies on her like an untimely frost
Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.'
Act 4 scene 5.

Juliet, in despair at her father's decision that she should marry Paris, went to Friar Lawrence. He gave her a potion to take which would make her appear to be dead, planning to send to Romeo, who would rescue her from the Capulet vault. Juliet, found apparently dead, on her wedding day, is placed in the Capulet family vault.

Romeo and Juliet

At the Capulet Tomb

'Where be these enemies? Capulet, Montague?
See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love!
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punished.'

Act 5 scene 3.

Romeo has returned. He fights and kills Paris, who has also come to the tomb to mourn Juliet. Romeo takes poison, believing Juliet to be dead. As he dies, Juliet wakes. The Friar tries to persuade her to come away with him, she refuses, and he goes to fetch help. Juliet kisses Romeo one last time, and stabs herself with Romeo's dagger. They are found by the Prince and their parents, who are reconciled in their grief.

The Tempest
Introduction to William Shakespeare
The Birmingham Shakespeare Library
Sir Barry Jackson and Birmingham Repertory Theatre Archive 1913 - 1970
Shakespeare Websites