Romeo and Juliet | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Things You Didn't Know

Every book has a story—check out these 10 unusual facts about Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.

Romeo and Juliet | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Without a doubt the most famous love story ever written, Romeo and Juliet has left a legacy that cannot be overstated. Shakespeare's play about the star-crossed teenaged lovers remains one of the most frequently performed plays of all time. Adaptations have taken Shakespeare's timeless theme of young, doomed love and applied it to modern settings, including street gangs of New York City (West Side Story), apartheid-era South Africa (uGugu no Andile), and Cold War–era Europe (Romanoff and Juliet).

The word Romeo has even entered the English language—and several other languages—as a synonym for a passionate, young male lover.

1. Juliet's house in Verona is covered with love notes from tourists.

Although Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet never existed in the real world, a 13th-century home in Verona, Italy, has been designated as Juliet's house, or Casa di Giulietta. The house is thought to have belonged to the Cappello family, whose similar name may have been the inspiration for the Capulets. Thousands of tourists flock to Juliet's house every year, many sticking letters they wrote to Juliet on the wall below her famous balcony.

Juliet's balcony in Verona, Italy

Juliet's balcony in Verona, Italy Iain Cameron CC BY 2.0

2. Romeo and Juliet's origins date back more than 2,000 years.

The story of Romeo and Juliet can actually be traced back to a long line of poems and stories with a familiar theme, plot, and cast of characters. But Shakespeare's play was most directly influenced by Arthur Brooke's 1562 narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet. His story was inspired by Luigi da Porto's Giulietta e Romeo (1524), which bared a lot of similarities to Ovid's Metamorphoses, which was published in the year 8 CE!

The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet

A page from Arthur Brooke's The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet British Library

3. Shakespeare's penchant for astrology is evident in the play.

Shakespeare's works are replete with people's fates being determined by the stars. Romeo and Juliet are famously described as "star-crossed lovers," and in one monologue, Romeo predicts that "some consequence yet hanging in the stars" will result in terrible events. The Elizabethans believed strongly in the influence of the stars and the planets, and many consulted with astrologers to help them make important decisions.

4. It's believed Shakespeare introduced some 3,000 new words to the English language.

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare is said to have coined the words bump, inauspicious, ladybird, and uncomfortable. Estimates of the number of new words coined by Shakespeare range from 1,700 to nearly 3,000. Shakespeare was also responsible for a number of common phrases, including "It's Greek to me" (Julius Caesar) and "my salad days" (Antony and Cleopatra).

5. Shakespeare probably never visited Verona, the play's setting.

Even though Shakespeare wrote numerous plays with an Italian background, most Shakespeare scholars believe that he never actually traveled to Italy. In fact, it is believed that he never left England at all! Italian literature was, however, widely read in Shakespeare's society, so it is likely that he could have gained a good understanding of the culture just from his readings.

Verona, Italy

Verona, Italy Paul Arps CC BY-SA 2.0

6. A man played Juliet in early performances.

Since women were not allowed to act on stage in Shakespeare's day, an all-male cast would have performed Romeo and Juliet. It's believed Lord Chamberlain's Men, a traveling theatre group, performed Romeo and Juliet around 1597, with a young actor named Robert Goughe playing the role of Juliet.

7. "Wherefore art thou Romeo" probably doesn't mean what you think it does.

Most people interpret the famous line from the balcony scene to mean "Where are you Romeo?" But according to Merriam-Webster, the phrase actually means "Why are you Romeo" as in, why is your name Romeo? This explains Juliet's later lines "Oh, what's in a name" and "Deny thy father and thy mother" as she tries to justify her love for the star-crossed hero.

8. Spoiler alert! The ending of the play is revealed in the prologue.

Were you shocked by the ending of Romeo and Juliet when you heard it? You shouldn't be. As with most plays of the era, Shakespeare reveals the ending at the onset of the play. The Chorus sings the line ""From forth the fatal loins of these two foes / A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life." This clearly conveys to the whole audience what they can expect to see in the play.

9. The musical West Side Story was based on Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet has also been adapted many times for musical theater. The most famous musical theater adaptation is West Side Story, first performed on Broadway in 1957. In this version, the setting is updated from Renaissance Verona to 1950s New York City, and the rivalry between the Montagues and Capulets becomes a rivalry between two teenage gangs of different ethnic backgrounds.

A scene from West Side Story

A scene from West Side Story Tess Watson CC BY 2.0

10. A critic once called Romeo and Juliet the worst play he'd ever heard.

Famous diarist Samuel Pepys, one of the earliest known critics of Romeo and Juliet, wrote in 1662 that "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." Other reviews, however, were much more positive. The great 18th-century critic, essayist, and lexicographer Samuel Johnson wrote about a century later that "this play is one of the most pleasing of our author's performances."

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