The Evolution of a Shakespeare Text

By Gina Pisasale


Back in June 2017, visiting scholar and dramaturg Geoff Proehl and People’s Light’s Resident Director Samantha Reading quarantined themselves in People’s Light’s conference room/library to wrestle Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet down to 90 minutes for six “older” actors who would be playing the Lord and Lady Capulet, Lord and Lady Montague, the Nurse, and the Friar. They began with cutting the text in order, and then began thinking about how the text could function within various scenarios proposed to answer the question “Why have these individuals gathered to re-inhabit this story?”


Throughout this week, these kinds of questions were in the air:


Should the story be remembered in the order it is written in Shakespeare’s text?

What if the story is told in a non-linear way? How does memory work?

What if characters get stuck in certain moments? Is there a lot of repetition?

Can characters only access their own memories based on when and where they were present within Shakespeare’s text?

What happens if all of the text is always available to anyone?

Who drives the memory? When? And – most importantly – why?


Now, almost 10 months, 3 workshops, and countless drafts and framing ideas later, about half of the words of Shakespeare’s play have hit the cutting room floor to create a swift 21-scene 90 minute tale of enmity, loss, culpability, love, and new beginnings. And still, the heart of Shakespeare’s story beats soundly.


It is certainly a bold handling of Shakespeare’s text, but this kind of tinkering was at play even during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Depending on the popularity of the play, actors, managers, or even scribes in the audience would rush to a printing press – a machine in its heyday during the Elizabethan era – and compile their version of the play for a cheap quarto printing (on paper folded twice to create 4 printed surfaces). This happened 3 times with Romeo and Juliet before Shakespeare’s death in 1616. The first Quarto (or Q1 in academic speak), published in 1597, has 800 fewer lines than Q2 of 1599 and Benvolio, not Mercutio delivers that Queen Mab speech. Q2 is the foundation for almost all recent publications, but it still has significant discrepancies with Q3 (1609), Q4 (1623), Q5 (1637), and 4 Folio versions that would follow. Departures from Shakespeare’s “original” texts include 18th century actor/manager David Garrick’s adaptation where Juliet wakes up in the tomb before Romeo dies. Instead of “thus with a kiss I die,” Romeo’s last words are “She speaks, she lives! And we shall still be blessed!” In Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film version, Juliet wakes to actually see Romeo take the poison. Also, none of the versions contain the word “balcony.”


After a reading of one of the initial drafts, an actor very familiar with Shakespeare’s play remarked how much of the text he had never really heard before and that relationships became reinvigorated and renewed. May you also discover renewed vigor in this telling of Romeo and Juliet.