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Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

3. Books and Bookishness

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In this module, we think about the themes of books and bookishness, reading and being read, including how the different versions of the play published in the 1590s might affect our interpretation of it. In particular, we think about: (i) the idea of one’s lover as a book to be read, as seen in Lady Capulet’s urging of Juliet to “read o’er the volume of young Paris’ face” (1.3.82) or Juliet’s description of Romeo as a “book … fairly bound” (3.2.83-4); (ii) the title of the play in its first quarto edition (1597) – The Excellent, Conceited Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet – and the sense in which the play might be considered “conceited”; (iii) the title of the play in its second quarto edition (1599) – The Excellent and Lamentable of Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet – and what it means for something to be both “excellent” and “lamentable”; (iv) the textual differences between the first and second quartos, how these differences might have arisen, and the extent to which they accurately represent the play as written by Shakespeare; (v) the importance of the decorative features that appear in the second half of the first quarto; and (vi) Mercutio’s “a _____ a’ both your houses!” line, where the word “pox” appears in the first quarto and “plague” in the second quarto, and what we might read into this difference.


In this course, Professor Helen Smith (University of York) explores Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In the first module, we imagine a trip to the theatre in the late 16th century, thinking about the literary, historical and theatrical context of the play. After that, we think about the presentation of love in the play, before turning in the third module to the themes of books and bookishness, reading and being read, and the extent to which Romeo and Juliet’s unique publication history might impact our interpretation of the play. In the fourth module, we think about Romeo and Juliet as a play to be acted and seen – the physicality of the actors, the importance of posture and gesture, etc. in interpreting the play – before turning in the fifth module to the critical history of the play from its earliest viewers such as Francis Meres and Samuel Pepys (“the worst [play] I have ever seen in my life”) to the direction of scholarship in the twenty-first century.

Note: We used the Arden edition of the play (Third Series, ed. René Weis). Students using a different version of the play may encounter slight differences in both the text and line numbers.


A graduate of Glasgow and York, Helen taught at St Andrews and Hertfordshire before returning to York in 2004. Her wide-ranging interests embrace Renaissance poetry, drama, and prose; history of the book; feminist literary history and theory; religion and conversion; the history of reading; and materiality.

Helen has published more than thirty articles and chapters on topics ranging from the printing of Shakespeare’s early plays to the links between reading and digestion, the cultural and domestic presence of animals, the imaginative connections between physical illness and spiritual trial, and the many uses of early modern paper.

Her first monograph, Grossly Material Things: Women and Book Production in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 2012) was awarded the Roland H. Bainton Literature Prize and the DeLong Book History Prize. Helen is co-editor of Renaissance Paratexts (Cambridge University Press, 2011; paperback 2014), The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in Early Modern England, c. 1530-1700 (Oxford University Press, 2015; awarded the Roland H. Bainton Reference Prize), and Conversions: Gender and Religious Change in Early Modern Europe (Manchester University Press, 2017).

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APA style

Smith, H. (2020, January 21). Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet - Books and Bookishness [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Smith, H. "Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet – Books and Bookishness." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 21 Jan 2020,

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