Fay Weldon explores our enduring fascination with Shakespeare's young lovers and why we like to pay homage to the possibility of love, the reality of romance and the dream of being swept away by passion.

This article first appeared in the show programme for our 2008 Romeo and Juliet.


Romeo in a tuxedo talks to Juliet as she stands on a bed in her pink pyjamas
Romeo and Juliet (2008) directed by Neil Bartlett. Romeo (David Dawson) tries to swear his love after Juliet (Anneika Rose) asks her if he loves her.
Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC Browse and license our images

You are in Verona. You are doing the sights. You have seen the Roman Arena and with any luck been to the opera: you have visited the art collection in the Castelvecchio and seen the medieval sculptures and Renaissance paintings. And now at last you are going to the famous Romeo and Juliet balcony just off the Piazza della Erbe. You need directions. Can it really be down this narrow alleyway? But then the old stone walls open out into a courtyard and there it is. The famous balcony.

Here, by common consensus, and in one short scene by Shakespeare, Romeo wooed Juliet and won her love. And here are the milling crowds to prove it, mostly young people, noisy, sweaty, lacking gravitas, texting and phoning, embracing and canoodling, cameras clicking, and everyone happy, worshipping at the shrine of fictional young love. They leave their debris and graffiti behind, scrawled messages, seemingly layered inches thick on the walls, love letters to Juliet, love hearts moulded out of chewing gum, trinkets, fluffy toys, dying flowers, fading wreaths of remembrance.

If these visiting tourists know well enough that Romeo and Juliet the young lovers are fictional characters, that Shakespeare's Verona existed in the writer's imagination only, it does not stop them turning up. If there is no reason at all to believe that this particular house was one of the 'Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene', it doesn't worry them. They have seen the film, and fallen in love with Leonardo DiCaprio, or beautiful Claire Danes. Tell them that Shakespeare wrote all the words of the movie and they'll shrug. Their guide books will tell them flatly that the balcony was added in 1936 and declared 'Romeo and Juliet's balcony' by its owner, for the sake of the tourist trade, but they're not interested. They'll look away, humming 'I've just found a girl called Maria', from Bernstein's West Side Story.

It is not that they are deluded, but that they too have creative imaginations and believe what it is convenient to believe. They need their shrine, and why should they not have it? All through the summer months, love-sick teenagers come to photograph each other on the balcony. You can save half the entrance fee if only one of you goes in and up, the other stays below to take the picture. You can take the evidence home and show your friends. 'He loves me! Here's proof!' 'She fancies me. Now I know.' They come to pay homage to the possibility of love, the reality of romance, the dream of being swept away by passion.

It was love at first, that night long ago in a fictional Verona, for Romeo and Juliet. A rather impetuous teenage love. One moment Romeo was obsessed by Rosaline - and writing poems to her - the next he has switched his attention to Juliet. Rosaline gets dumped once Juliet is on the scene - an all too familiar scenario. And it's possible to see Juliet as just another wilful, silly girl, who's fallen for the leader of the pack and will be out of love again before the month is out. Only death intervened.

In the 1750s David Garrick the actor wrote Rosaline right out of the play, since her very existence made Romeo look frivolous and immoral, and he, Garrick, was playing Romeo as a grown man, and had added four years on to Juliet's age. For some 150 years Garrick's version was all an audience knew of the story, until scholars unearthed the original quarto, and 'What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet' made proper sense. And since we were all teenagers once, and many in their hearts still are, it now affects audiences greatly.

Romeo But, soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

And before you know it, in the space of one short scene, Romeo has Juliet, pliant and adoring, suffused with longing - her heart breaking because now, once met, they have to part. What teenager could resist such wishful thinking? Or what alleged adult?

Juliet 'Tis almost morning, I would have thee gone:
And yet no farther than a wanton's bird,
That lets it hop a little from his hand,
Like a poor prisoner in his twisted gyves,
And with a silken thread plucks it back again,
So loving-jealous of his liberty. 
Romeo I would I were thy bird. 
Juliet Sweet, so would I:
Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing.
Goodnight, goodnight! Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say goodnight till it be morrow. 
Romeo Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast!

And reality like the dawn creeps up on them to shatter the magic.

A doomed love, of course, which is what seals the story into eternity. Who would have taken any notice if the story had ended with the young lovers walking hand in hand into the sunset, all problems solved? It is the tragedy, the pathos, that gets to us. In the eighteenth century, a few writers and actors tried their hand at getting the story to end happily but it never caught on. Why would it?

See in the tourists of real Verona how the concept of the doomed lovers has become part of our cultural landscape, twin archetypes lodged in our group unconscious, delivered to us in handy form by Shakespeare and taken on board, as so many of our archetypes are - Lear the old man, Prospero the sage, Hamlet the troubled prince, Shylock the miser, Iago the villain, Romeo and Juliet the lovers - these two last representing the classic revolt of the young against parental control, the extremes of young passion, and the adolescent need to dice with death. This time round, alas, they lost.

The scene traditionally known as 'the balcony scene', by the way, was another notion of Garrick's. In the original quarto there is no mention of a balcony, just of an orchard, when Romeo sees the light appear in Juliet's window. He climbs the orchard wall to get to her. Perhaps Garrick didn't want Romeo and Juliet in too close physical contact: he was to be looking up at her, she to be looking down at him, so virtue could reasonably be maintained. Being a thoroughly romantic idea - and a good one - it has lasted.

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