British Library Treasures in full: Shakespeare in quarto
Main The Basics Background The Afterlife The Texts Expert views References Links Glossary Partners
Print Shakespeare quartos

Romeo and Juliet

Creation of the play

Romeo and Juliet can be plausibly dated to 1595. Shakespeare must have written the play between 1591 and 1596. The earliest date is considered to be too early, because of Shakespeare’s writing style in the play. The later date allows the necessary time for the compilation of the manuscript used to print the first ‘bad’ quarto in early 1597. Romeo and Juliet relates most closely to a group of plays usually dated to the period 1594-1595, Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Richard II.

Early performances

Romeo and Juliet had certainly been performed by 1597, when the first quarto was published. There are no surviving records for any performances before the Restoration in 1660, but it is likely that Romeo and Juliet was first acted by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the Theatre and then at the Curtain. It has been suggested that Richard Burbage may have played Romeo, with the boy actor Robert Goffe as Juliet.

Publication in quarto and folio

Romeo and Juliet appeared in seven editions before 1642.

  • First quarto, 1597. A ‘bad’ quarto, based on a text reconstructed from memory by a group who knew the play on stage. The text may have been one cut and adapted for performance. The title-page refers to ‘L. Hunsdon his seruants’, the name of Shakespeare’s company only until 16 March 1597.
  • Second quarto, 1599. A ‘good’ quarto, probably printed from Shakespeare’s foul papers, described on the title-page as ‘Newly corrected, augmented, and amended’. The first quarto was probably also used, perhaps to help interpret the manuscript. The text is nearly half as long again as that in the first quarto.
  • Third quarto, 1609. Printed from the second quarto.
  • Fourth quarto, [1622]. Printed from the third quarto, but the first quarto was also used. The titlepage is undated, but modern scholarship suggests the publication date of 1622. (Additional copy of a variant, with ‘Written by W. Shake-speare’ on the title-page, from the Folger Shakespeare Library.)
  • First folio, 1623. Printed from the third quarto, although a number of passages follow the fourth quarto.
  • Second folio, 1632. Printed from the first folio.
  • Fifth quarto, 1637. Printed from the fourth quarto.

The first ‘bad’ quarto was probably printed between late 1596 and March 1597, by the printers John Danter and Edward Allde. Danter was raided by the Stationers’ Company and his presses destroyed in February or March 1597, for printing books without their authority. The second ‘good’ quarto was printed by Thomas Creede for Cuthbert Burby in 1599. Burby transferred his copyright in Romeo and Juliet to Nicholas Ling on 22 January 1607. Ling in his turn transferred the copyright to John Smethwick on 19 November 1607. The third quarto did not appear until 1609, when it was printed by John Windet for John Smethwick. The fourth quarto, printed for Smethwick by William Stansby, appeared in 1622. John Smethwick also published the fifth quarto of 1637, printed by R. Young.

British Library copies of Romeo and Juliet contains detailed bibliographic descriptions of all the quarto copies of the play.

Shakespeare’s sources

Shakespeare may have known the story of Romeo and Juliet in several versions for some years before he wrote his play. Two sources were particularly important for its creation.

  • Arthur Brooke, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet, written first in Italian by Bandell (1562)

    Titlepage. Arthur Brooke, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet
    Titlepage. Arthur Brooke, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, 1562. British Library, Huth.34. Larger image

  • Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘Troilus and Criseyde’, in The Workes of Geffrey Chaucer (1561)

Story of the play

Note: the links below will take you to the page in the quarto where each act begins, according to standard modern editions. (The quartos themselves have no act divisions.) The quarto shown for each play is always the earliest in the Library's collection - unless it is a 'bad' quarto in which case it is the earliest 'good' quarto.

Romeo and Juliet is set in Verona, where a feud between the Montague and Capulet families often leads to violence.

(Prologue) The Chorus tells, briefly, the story of the play.

Romeo and Juliet, the story. Arthur Brooke, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet
Romeo and Juliet, the story. Arthur Brooke, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet, 1562. British Library, Huth.34, Sig. Para.4v. Larger image

(Act 1) Young men belonging to the feuding families fight in the streets, but are stopped by the Prince of Verona. Lord and Lady Capulet consider a possible marriage between their only daughter Juliet and the County Paris. They hold a banquet at their house at which the two are to be introduced. Romeo, the only son of Lord and Lady Montague, attends the banquet with his friends in disguise. Romeo and Juliet meet and immediately fall in love. Lady Capulet’s nephew, Tybalt, recognises Romeo and forces him to leave.

(Act 2) Romeo secretely enters the Capulets’ garden and sees Juliet on her balcony. They reveal their mutual love and decide to marry. The next day they meet at the cell of Friar Laurence, and he marries them.

(Act 3) Tybalt meets Romeo in the street and picks a quarrel with him. A fight begins, and as Romeo tries to stop it Tybalt fatally stabs his friend Mercutio. Romeo avenges Mercutio’s death by killing Tybalt. The Prince banishes Romeo from Verona. Romeo and Juliet meet in secret for their wedding night, before Romeo must leave for Mantua. Lord and Lady Capulet order Juliet to marry Paris.

(Act 4) Juliet visits Friar Laurence for help, and is given a sleeping potion which will make her appear as if dead. The Friar sends to Romeo to rescue Juliet. She takes the potion the day before she must marry Paris.

(Act 5) Friar Laurence’s message to Romeo does not reach him. Romeo learns instead of Juliet’s death, and immediately returns to Verona. As he enters Juliet’s tomb, he meets Paris and kills him. He finds Juliet, apparently dead, takes poison and dies. She awakes and, finding Romeo dead beside her, kills herself with a dagger. The Friar explains the story to the assembled Montagues and Capulets, who end their feud and join in mourning their dead children.


 The basics Background The afterlife The texts 
Expert views References Links Glossary Partners