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The Life and Afterlives of Shakespeare's First Tragic Heroine
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The enduring cultural legacy of Shakespeare’s Juliet Capulet — a history "as vital and provocative as the character herself" (Literary Review).
Romeo and Juliet may be the greatest love story ever told, but who is Juliet? Demure ingénue? Or dangerous Mediterranean madwoman? From tearstained copies of the First Folio to Civil War-era fanfiction, Shakespeare’s star-crossed heroine has long captured our collective imagination.
Wry and inventive, Juliet is a tribute to fiction’s most famous teenage girl who died young, but who lives forever.
A thirteen-year-old girl is at a party. A man wants to marry her. Her father thinks she’s too young, that married life will damage her – but after all, the man has a title.
Gatecrashers arrive. They’re young men from the city’s other powerful clan, her family’s opponents in a deadly feud. She doesn’t recognise them. Perhaps she’s too young to go out much in public. Perhaps she’s never been to a party before. But one of the gatecrashers likes what he sees. This boy, slightly older than she is, has been dragged to the party by friends. On the way, he’d felt a premonition that something terrible would happen. He’d only come in the hope of seeing a different young woman.
Instead he sees her. Juliet.
Within a week, the boy and girl are dead. Suicides. Their bodies discovered together inside a family grave. In the interim come marriage, murder, sex and drugs, creating the violent, unstoppable plot of Shakespeare’s first great tragedy, and the definitive romance of Western literature.
The star of the play is Juliet. This sheltered, Veronese child-bride becomes her play’s living heartbeat. William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet in 1595, two centuries after Dante mentioned the feuding Montagues and Capulets in his poetry, and a century after the earliest Italian versions of her love story. This makes Juliet a child of the Italian Renaissance: the era of da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo; of Petrarch’s sonnets for the unattainable Laura; of international expansion and the birth of capitalism in the city-states of Florence and Venice. Juliet is locked away from all these revolutions in art and culture. So cloistered is her life that she can only leave her parents’ home to visit her priest. And yet, such is Juliet’s courage and resourcefulness that she orchestrates her clandestine marriage to Romeo, forgives him for murdering her cousin, defies her parents, fakes her own death and ultimately takes her own life rather than be coerced into bigamy or deprived of her love. She never sees her fourteenth birthday, but has endured as a romantic and sexual icon for over 400 years. This book is about that girl.
Why not Juliet and her Romeo? It seems perverse to focus only on one half of literature’s most famous lovers. I separate them because, despite being indivisible in death and in the popular imagination, they spend most of their lives divided. Shakespeare’s most famous couple appear onstage together in just five scenes: her father’s party; the iconic balcony scene, in which they cannot touch; the moments before their marriage; their parting before banishment; and their death scene, in which one or both are always insensible.
The lovers have also been remembered in radically different ways. In the final moments of Shakespeare’s play, Juliet’s father-in-law Lord Montague vows that she will be commemorated as ‘true and faithful Juliet’ (5.3.201).1 Romeo has not been so lucky, with his name entering the English language as an insult, the dictionary definition not just of ‘a lover or sweetheart’ but, more ominously, of a ‘seducer or habitual pursuer of women […] c.f. lothario’.2 Romeo and Juliet may be history’s greatest lovers, but their respective afterlives are very different. If Romeo and Juliet is the story we tell ourselves about what it means to be young, passionate, and doomed, Juliet’s is the story we tell about what it means to be a young woman in love.
It is Juliet who the world has most loved to remember: as a talisman, a tourist trap, a sexual icon, a paragon of innocence, and a romantic ideal. You can buy a keyring of her right breast in Verona, and attach a ‘Juliet balcony’ to your newly built home. On her wedding day in 1930, my great-grandmother Muriel, an English teacher, wore a ‘Juliet cap’, a closely-worked, embellished cloche attached to a long veil. Inspired by Edwardian performances of the play, the Juliet cap was popular throughout the twentieth century, including with Jacqueline Bouvier and Grace Kelly – although Muriel Kirlew got there first.
Even a full generation before Shakespeare’s play, one of the earliest Italian-language versions of the Romeo and Juliet story circulated exclusively under the name of its heroine – La Giulietta. It is Juliet around whom the Veronese tourist industry has, for centuries, revolved.3 For actors, there is no comparison: Juliet is an epoch-making part, the definitive young Shakespearean heroine, a role that actresses love to recall fifty, even eighty years later. Romeo, frankly, doesn’t come close in the canon of male Shakespeare roles. Even watching John Gielgud – the most successful Romeo of the early twentieth century – the great Shakespearean critic Ivor Brown confessed that although ‘[i]t may be heresy to say’ it, ‘Romeo is a great name, but not a great part’.4
We tell ourselves that Romeo and Juliet were the greatest lovers who ever lived. Crucial to this is the idea that the ‘star-crossed lovers’ (1.0.6) are the paragons of romance precisely because of their tragedy. To be ‘star-crossed’ for the Elizabethans meant being ill-fated twice over: both by the circumstances of your natal astrology – the negative alignment of planets and constellations at the moment of your birth – and ‘crossed’ in the sense of being defrauded or cheated. The lovers’ death is thus as inevitable as it is unfair. The Chorus that begins the play reiterates that Romeo and Juliet are not only ‘star-crossed’ but also share a ‘death-marked love’ (1.0.9). Their love is not merely defined by the violence and death all round them but marked for death. Doomed.
What is the appeal of a ‘death-marked love’, surrounded by life-threatening parental disapproval? Who would want to be ‘star-crossed’? I spend much of my academic life trying to answer these – and other – questions about Shakespeare at the University of Oxford. In 2019, during our summer ‘long vacation’, I headed to Verona as part of a research fellowship. Having been born and brought up in Stratford-upon-Avon – the playwright’s real-life birthplace – I was curious to see this other hive of Shakespearean tourism: the fictional birthplace of his most famous heroine. In Verona, thronging tourists sighed over sites marketed as the originals of Juliet’s house and balcony. How many of these travellers, I wondered, would really approve if their children or friends chose partners from families they despised? How many of the study-abroad students who haunt Verona, earnestly journalling and soulfully captioning Instagram posts, could defend their current love affair against decades of familial sniping or insurmountable opposition? What proportion of the relationships between the jet-setting retirees in tour groups actually began in the face of parental ire but thrived nonetheless? One evening in Verona, I attended an interactive, promenade performance of Romeo and Juliet, in which the actors invited the audience’s longest-married couple (fifty-three years) to stand in for the teenage lovers during the ball scene. They were American; the bilingual narrator asked them where they met. The man explained that he saw his wife at a drive-in cinema, eating pizza with girlfriends. He didn’t add, ‘And our parents had a blood feud’.
Today, most couples who marry still meet each other through mutual friends or in the workplace, sharing overlapping interests and concerns. Newspaper advice columns coax widows and divorcees to join hobby clubs to discover ‘like-minded people’. Dating apps match people beyond their immediate circles, but few users would deliberately seek out a partner with a wildly different background; a MAGA-hat-wearing rifle enthusiast is unlikely to swipe right on an eco-warrior advocating for open borders. Yet Western culture’s template for romance is two dead teenagers whose lives and families are linked only by street brawls, opprobrium, and blood.
For decades, psychologists talked about the ‘Romeo and Juliet effect’: a one-off, hugely influential study from 1972 that misleadingly claimed familial opposition to a relationship actually strengthened lovers’ bonds.5 I say ‘misleadingly’ because no study has ever managed to replicate that single set of results. On the contrary, a much larger 2014 study proved that parental (and wider social network) disapproval made partners trust each other less and criticise each other more, leading to overall reductions in love and commitment, and a greater likelihood of break-ups.6 Beyond the laboratory, the impact of intrafamilial conflict is corroborated by everything from self-help titles like Toxic In-Laws: Loving Strategies for Protecting Your Marriage (2002) and the anguished What Do You Want From Me?: Learning to Get Along with In-Laws (2009), to Reddit’s r/JUSTNOMIL (where ‘MIL’ stands for ‘Mother-in-Law’) subforum, a seething cauldron of meddling, madness and Munchausen’s, with 1.3 million subscribers.7
To understand Juliet’s literary longevity is as much to unravel our fascination with ‘star-crossed’ lovers as it is to recognise her as the character who drives the play. Despite facing the predicaments of a fairy-tale heroine – trapped high up in the parental home, swallowing a magic potion, supposedly to be awoken by true love’s presence, if not kiss – she tries to be the architect of her own destiny. She exchanges two kisses with a nameless stranger, and within hours is initiating their marriage – despite discovering that he’s the son of her family’s enemies. She offers to elope with him. She breaks every taboo, and knows she’s doing it: in being ‘too fond’, too desperately in love with Romeo, she confesses to him that she risks being thought ‘light’ (2.1.140–41). It’s an innocent-sounding word, but one that, in the sixteenth century, implied promiscuity, licentiousness, and immorality. Shakespeare’s contemporary John Lyly used the word ‘light’ to describe the beautiful Helen of Troy, whose adultery with Paris provoked the Trojan War.8
A single day after meeting Romeo, Juliet’s clandestine marriage is not only a stunning rebellion against a society that deems her the property of her parents, but – blasphemously – it’s disguised as a trip to the confessional. We follow Juliet to the threshold of her wedding night, where she confides to us how she feels about her imminent loss of virginity, in strikingly egalitarian terms. For a girl who has come to define heterosexual romance – the epitome of girl-meets-boy – her imagery is strikingly gender-fluid. She is the ‘impatient child’ and Romeo her newest dress: the beautiful ‘new robes’ she longs to wear to the ball (3.2.29–31). Together, she and Romeo are the interchangeable ‘pair of stainless maidenhoods’ to be lost to each other (3.2.13).
Shakespeare created Juliet in an age where the women of love poetry were frequently as glittering and distant as celestial bodies, following the traditions of the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca. When Elizabeth I’s celebrated courtier and diplomat, Sir Philip Sidney, wrote a long love-sonnet-sequence, he called his unattainable heroine ‘Stella’ – Latin for ‘star’.9 And yet, when Juliet is rhapsodising over her new husband and lover, he is the one she imagines being turned into constellations:
Take him and cut him out in little stars
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night (3.2.22–4).
When confronted with forced marriage, Juliet exhorts aid from Friar Laurence by threatening her suicide, and is prepared to descend into a vault of putrefying corpses to escape with her husband, a convicted murderer. Ultimately, she kills herself rather than either rejoin her parents or resign herself to widowhood in a convent. All the while, we bear witness.
This book tracks Juliet’s lives and deaths through 400 years of reinterpretation, from Elizabethan boy-players to twenty-first-century warzones. Some of the Juliets you’ll find here are well-known, like West Side Story’s Maria. Others, including Regency child actress Jenny Cibber or nineteenth-century star Mary Anderson, are today barely remembered outside academic circles. The Juliets range from high-glamour calendar models to enslaved women, and from theatrical pioneers to the victims of war.
Each incarnation in this book embodies a moment where the Juliet myth and society’s ideas about young women were brought most vividly into relief. Juliet’s re-imaginings show us how our social and cultural perspectives on romance, on tragedy, and on the nature of teenage girls have shifted – and how they have stayed the same. In writing Juliet, I wanted to explore how the glowing aura of a literary and theatrical classic can sometimes dazzle us into ignoring the dark things which Shakespeare’s cultural prestige has been used to legitimise.
In the twenty-first century, studios, theatres, and critics all value directors and performers who promise novelty in a Shakespeare revival, vaunting the ‘new’, the ‘innovative’, that can ‘show us the play for the first time’. But the overwhelming majority of people who come to Romeo and Juliet bring to that encounter some awareness of the four-hundred-year myth surrounding it. Perhaps they’ve heard Taylor Swift’s Love Story (2008), her multi-platinum country pop single in which Juliet is a smalltown princess with an overbearing dad, or Martin Solveig’s disco house classic Juliet & Romeo (2019), which relocates the couple to Ibiza, forever on the dancefloor. My generation grew up on Baz Luhrmann’s kitsch-heavy 1996 film, starring pretty Leonardo DiCaprio and perfect Claire Danes. That film’s 90s aesthetic proved so iconic that it merited a 2021 retrospective in Vogue; today, stills from Luhrmann’s cinematography are emblazoned on ASOS t-shirts, bought by children who don’t remember the film’s release. A case in point: celebrity offspring Brooklyn and Nicola Peltz Beckham (b. 1999 and 1995, respectively) attended a 2022 Halloween party dressed as DiCaprio and Danes, reinvigorating tabloid speculation about an alleged feud with Brooklyn’s parents. Romeo and Juliet remains a phenomenally popular set text wherever English is spoken or taught, introduced to thousands of teenagers just as they’re experiencing the play’s own themes – love, desire, and adolescent anger – for the first time. It’s an extraordinarily powerful text, shaping the minds of generations of young people. Juliet’s myth is crucial to this.
In 2010, I worked as a tour guide in Shakespeare’s Birthplace, the wooden-framed, sixteenth-century house in which the playwright was almost certainly born. Our 3,000 daily visitors came from all over the world, whether on individual pilgrimages or gruelling group coach trips. They spoke dozens, if not hundreds, of different languages, and plenty had never seen or read a Shakespeare play. At the end of the tour, our visitors made it to the gardens, where a troupe of local actors performed Shakespeare scenes on-demand. Regardless of age, language, group size, or country of origin, the play people most frequently requested was Romeo and Juliet. And the character they wanted to see was Juliet on her balcony. Juliet has shaped ideas both of romance and of Shakespeare himself, and she needs to be part of the conversation whenever we talk about either.
Through four hundred years of Juliet’s lives and deaths, valorising the star-crossed suicide of a thirteen-year-old has come at a price: a price often paid by young girls, whether in Georgian London or on a sun-soaked film set in Rome. The story of Shakespeare’s Juliet unfolds not only between the pages of playtexts but during some of the most painful eras in human history: the transatlantic slave trade, the rise of fascism in Europe, and the suffering of twenty-first-century Afghanistan. Juliet’s character and story have also inspired some of our most beloved music and film, from ballet and opera to West Side Story and the cinematography of Baz Luhrmann.
Even as Juliet’s story travels in very different directions, the power of Shakespeare’s play reasserts itself. As Shakespeare’s audience and readers, we have intimate access to Juliet’s inner life that even Romeo doesn’t share. Romeo is equipped with Friar Laurence, Benvolio, and Mercutio as devoted friends, as well as a set of concerned parents and a faithful servant, Balthasar. He shares his motives and feelings with them throughout the play, then leaves a tell-all letter for his father, which is later read onstage. Juliet, meanwhile, is frequently alone – with us. Only we see her impatience as she waits for the Nurse. Only we witness her glorious rhapsody of sexual excitement as she anticipates her wedding night, her ‘love-performing night’ with Romeo. She confides in us that, ‘O, I have bought the mansion of a love/ But not possessed it, and, though I am sold,/ Not yet enjoyed’ (3.2.26–8).
The Nurse never discovers Juliet’s secret fury when she urges her charge to betray Romeo – ‘ancient damnation!’ (3.5.235). Romeo and Friar Laurence never know of the trauma Juliet experiences when left entirely alone with the potion, feeling the ‘faint cold fear’ that ‘almost freezes up the heat of life’ (4.3.15–16) as she contemplates the ‘loathsome smells’ of the tomb, which she fears will drive her mad if she isn’t ‘strangled’ by the lack of air (4.3.34–45). Nor do they know of the visceral nightmares of ‘mangled’ Tybalt’s ghost, ‘fest’ring in his shroud’ (4.3.41–51), which she has to confront in order to trust them and take the drug. Only we hear her heart-wrenching lament over Romeo’s corpse. At so many of the pivotal moments in Juliet’s life, we are alone with her – including, after the Friar’s retreat, at that life’s very end. Unlike Romeo, Juliet leaves no letter for her parents; her bitter resolution, taken against the Nurse, that ‘Thou and my bosom shall henceforth be twain’ (3.5.240) opens a rift with her entire family that persists beyond the grave. We, the audience, keep her secrets.
The intimacy and iridescence of Shakespeare’s portrayal mean that we each see our own Juliet. For the desperate and lovelorn who write to her even today at the Juliet Club in Verona, Juliet is both advisor and goddess. For those drawn to the heat of her passion, she is an object of desire. At times in history – particularly when a society’s debates over the status of women have been especially fraught – Juliet has been a problem, an exotic Mediterranean whose rebellion needed to be quashed. Whatever her reception, and whatever the incarnation, she has always been there, embodying the world’s ideas of love and desire.
In writing Juliet, Shakespeare invited us into a new kind of intimacy with a new kind of heroine. She is Shakespeare’s first tragic heroine, and the most famous lover who never lived.
Shakespeare’s First Tragic Heroine
The year 1598 was momentous for English literature. The poet and playwright George Chapman’s translation of Homer’s Iliad appeared in print, revolutionising the study of classical texts. John Florio, Elizabethan England’s greatest linguist and lexicographer, published A World of Words, an Italian–English dictionary that used quotations to illustrate words’ meanings – the first English dictionary to do so. Ben Jonson’s great comedy Every Man in His Humour appeared on both stage and page. The late Christopher Marlowe – a murdered rock star of a playwright – made his final, posthumous foray into print with the tragic love poem Hero and Leander, a romance of forbidden love helpfully completed by none other than George Chapman (who, what with the Iliad, spent 1598 overachieving). Not yet Elizabeth’s heir, James VI of Scotland published The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, which unsurprisingly argued that kings should be given their own way. Meanwhile, in Oxford, Thomas Bodley re-founded the University’s Bodleian Library, abandoned since the Reformation, to house what would become Britain’s greatest and most beautiful collection of books.1 Beyond print, sonnets were circulating in manuscript for those in the know – the young John Donne, described at this time as ‘a great visitor of Ladies, a great frequenter of Plays, a great writer of conceited Verses’, had begun producing his religiously erotic and erotically religious poems.2
Meanwhile, an obscure commonplace book called Palladis Tamia was published. It appeared without fanfare in the autumn of 1598, its author an aspirant scribbler named Francis Meres.
At thirty-three, Meres was a failed poet, a little-known translator and an absolutely disregarded writer of sermons. His benevolent kinsman, the high sheriff of Lincolnshire, had been unable to help Francis into politics. Francis was also a failed academic, despite – as he liked to remind people – being a ‘Master of Arts of Both Universities’.
Palladis Tamia isn’t much good. Most of the material is unoriginal, cribbed from classic Latin texts in circulation at the time, and works on Elizabethan education. Even the one chapter that did make its mark on literary history – ‘A comparative discourse of our English poets, with the Greeke, Latine, and Italian poets’ – shamelessly stole from the lit-crit luminaries of the time, like Sir Philip Sidney and his An Apology for Poesy. But there are moments, amidst the recycling, where Meres finds a new voice. He fulsomely praises contemporary writers and, with equal enthusiasm, shares scandalous gossip about their lives. In doing so, he gives us our first vivid glimpse of William Shakespeare as a successful young writer.
Meres was a big fan. He called Shakespeare ‘hony-tongued’, praising the sweetness of the poet’s ‘sugred Sonnets among his private friends’ (Meres either was a ‘private friend’ or hoped we’d think so). He said that if the Muses – the nine Greek goddesses of the arts and astronomy – were alive and speaking English, they’d all speak in Shakespearean verse. He compared Shakespeare’s work to the Greek poet Horace, declaring that both would outlast ‘kings and kingdoms’. And, of course, he celebrated the best of Shakespeare’s plays so far. Among them, Meres’s review of Romeo and Juliet stands out; he doesn’t just praise the play, but showcases a moment from live performance, vividly recalling how ‘true-harted Julietta did die upon the corps of her dearest Romeo’.3 Since Meres, cultural authorities from William Wordsworth to Playboy magazine have agreed that Romeo and Juliet is the greatest love story ever told. ‘Star-crossed lovers’ recur everywhere from Verdi’s 1871 opera Aida to The Hunger Games, appearing as a ubiquitous trope in soap operas, pop songs and gossip columns. And yet, in the mid-1590s, when Shakespeare sat down and wrote the romance that would define literary love for the next four centuries, he might justifiably have seemed the last playwright to pen anything of the kind.
The most startling difference between Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare’s earlier plays is Juliet herself. As befits Shakespeare’s first eponymous heroine, she has more speeches, appears in more scenes, and speaks a greater percentage of her play than any of his previous female characters. Juliet is the second-largest role in the play, after Romeo. Revisiting Shakespeare’s back catalogue, it’s initially impossible to work out where she came from. Shakespeare had first made his name with the occasional comedy and huge chronicle histories staged by a variety of London theatre companies, including four lengthy adaptations of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587), which dramatised England’s fifteenth-century civil wars to exciting and bloody effect (Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3 and Richard III). At best, the women in these plays are brilliant cameos, enjoying a few great moments, such as the witch-conjuring Duchess of Gloucester in Henry IV Part 2, or Anne Neville, seduced over her father-in-law’s corpse into marrying his murderer, the future Richard III. Margaret of Anjou appears in all four plays, evolving from captive princess in Henry VI Part 1 to vengeful queen mother and angry relict in Richard III, but it takes the entire quartet to stitch together the equivalent of one leading role. Shakespeare may also have contributed to a range of other historical and contemporary tragedies, only one of which – Arden of Faversham (1592) – stars a strong female character. Alice Arden is an adulterous murderess who can’t scrub her husband’s blood out of the floorboards – Lady Macbeth in beta, rather than a first-draft Juliet. Overwhelmingly, Shakespeare’s early historical women are mothers and consorts, appended to plays named for – and fascinated by – men.
Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, Titus Andronicus
"Invigorating . . . Duncan is an engaging guide to Juliet's complex afterlives . . . This book is crammed with interesting nuggets . . . What makes Juliet so thrilling is the way Duncan weaves all these threads into a compelling history of a singular heroine."—Samantha Ellis, Guardian (UK)
- "Roving, animated . . . Duncan approaches her subject from all angles, turning Juliet like a gem in the light . . . [and] remains passionately alive to her subject, driven by a genuine affection for a teenager who has survived many attempts at clumsy marketing."—Sophie Elmhirst, Sunday Times (UK)
- "Witty and illuminating . . . Duncan is a genial guide and an excellent storyteller with an obvious devotion to her subject . . . Duncan's verve and curiosity, combined with her intimate knowledge of Shakespeare's play, carry the reader along. She has written a history of Juliet that is as vital and provocative as the character herself."—Literary Review (UK)
- “[A] witty and scholarly history of the heroine’s ‘afterlife.’”—Telegraph (UK)
- "Breathtaking in its range, this is far more than a deep dive into an ocean of Juliets (although it is, gloriously, that): it is a powerful, witty, and provocative exploration of sex and gender, youth and age, love and death."—Anna Beer, author of Eve Bites Back
- "An astonishing tour-de-force...Juliet has found the biographer she deserves."—Marion Turner, J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language, Oxford University
- "Original, stylish, and compelling… It’s a marvellous book, and one that delivers a powerfully inspiring message to the young Juliets of our own troubled times."—Miranda Seymour, author of I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys
- “Bursting with energy, wit, and page-turning satisfaction, Sophie Duncan's book unpacks the rich, and sometimes uncomfortable, cultural history of Shakespeare’s Juliet.” —Gilli Bush-Bailey, Professor Emerita of Women’s Performance History, University of London
- “A capacious cultural study of people and politics. Duncan takes us from Shakespeare's stage through plantation slaves to Mussolini's Italy. She writes with wit and acumen, so that the story of Juliet across the centuries is imbued with personality and compassion. This is an extraordinary achievement.” —Laurie Maguire, Emeritus Professor, Magdalen College, University of Oxford
"I love the combination of authority, research, anger, and dry wit. Sophie Duncan shows us that Juliet has created templates for young women that are both enabling and stifling - and traces that paradox unflinchingly across slave plantations, teenage mental health, and the erotics of the beautiful dead girl. Juliet offers the play and its reception a fresh kind of attention: a sort of tough love which avoids sentimentality without becoming cynical. Really eye-opening."—Emma Smith, author of This is Shakespeare
- On Sale
- Jun 6, 2023
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Seal Press