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From the eighteenth century to the present Romeo and Juliet has ranked among the most frequently illustrated of all Shakespeare’s plays. The sheer number and diversity of the pictures it has generated explains why Henry Irving believed that ‘Hamlet could be played anywhere on its acting merits. It marches from situation to situation. But Romeo and Juliet proceeds from picture to picture. Every line suggests a picture. It is a dramatic poem rather than a drama, and I mean to treat it from that point of view.’ So rich is the subject that one could write at length about the illustration of Romeo and Juliet in books, acting, stage designs, photographs or film and video. In the space provided here the focus will be mainly on paintings and prints of the play and their relationship to the theatre.
The earliest illustrations are in editions of Shakespeare dating from the first half of the eighteenth century when Thomas Otway's adaptation Caius Marius (1679) still held the stage. Shakespeare's text had been performed soon after the Restoration in competition with James Howard's tragicomic version where the lovers survived. Both were ousted by Otway who cut Shakespeare heavily and set the story of the couple — renamed Marius and Lavinia - in classical Rome. They met a tragic end after bidding each other farewell in the tomb. In 1744 Theophilus Cibber rescued the original title in an amalgamation of Shakespeare and Otway that included the lovers' farewell.
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