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Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

5. Critical Reception

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About this Lecture


In this module, we think about the critical reception of Romeo and Juliet over the centuries, focusing in particular on: (i) the earliest reception of the play, as recorded in Francis Meres’ Palladis Tamia and Samuel Pepys’ Diary (“the worst [play] I have ever seen in my life”); (ii) the publication and production history of the play and what it can tell us about the play’s early popualarity; (iii) the adapation of the play for the Restoration stage, including James Howard’s tragi-comic version of the play, Thomas Otway’s ancient Roman version, and the adapations produced by Theophilius Cibber and David Garrick; (iv) the increasing importance of ‘star’ actors from the early 18th century onwards, beginning with David Garrick; (v) the increasing concern from the mid-18th century onwards with the morality of the play, and – in the 19th century – the production of expurgated (i.e. ‘clean’) versions of Shakespeare by Thomas and Henrietta Bowdler and Charles and Mary Lamb; (vi) William Hazlitt and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s criticism of the play through the lens of Romanticism; (vii) the changing tastes of 20th-century critics, who were concerned less with aesthetic effects and more with where the play had come from and how it was rooted in its historical moment; (viii) impact of psychoanalysis on Shakespearan criticism, including the work of Norman Holland (Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare); (ix) the interest in what makes Romeo and Juliet’s relationship ‘tick’ and what the play is ultimately about, including the work of Julia Kristeva and Northrup Frye; (x) the resurgence of feminist criticism in the 1960s and 70s, including the work of Coppélia Khan, Marjorie Garber and Dympna Callaghan; (xi) Susan Synder’s work on the comic elements in Romeo and Juliet (The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare’s Tragedies); (xii) Jonathan Goldberg’s work on the latent homoeroticism of the play, especially between Romeo and Mercutio; and (xiii) the strands of criticism that have become popular in the last ten years, including interest in the adapation and/or translation of Shakespeare and the idea of Shakespeare as a global author.


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).

Cite this Lecture

APA style

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

MLA style

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