The notes were prepared for use with an edition of Romeo and Juliet bound together with the book for West Side Story and in conjunction with a showing of Franco Zeffirelli's film version of the play, but they will be useful with any edition or production.
The introduction focuses primarily on comparisons with West Side Story, so it has relatively little to say about the play as such. As noted, this is often regarded as a lesser Shakespeare tragedy by scholars, but what should also be kept in mind is that audiences have made it one of the most beloved plays of all time from the Elizabethan Age to the present. Romeo and Juliet are often considered the archetypal lovers, and at one time "a romeo"--meaning a lover--was a common noun. Several operas and ballets have been based on the story. The play also contains some of Shakespeare's most-quoted lines, and some of the most beautiful.
Although Shakespeare's dialogue often reads beautifully enough on the page, please keep in mind that he never intended his words to be read. This is a script for performance, and our study of it will prepare us for a version of the real thing: the film version directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Like all productions, it is an interpretation, leaving some things out, putting others in, placing emphases differently than other productions. Your goal in this assignment should be to familiarize （or refamiliarize） yourself with exactly what Shakespeare wrote so that you can observe what it is Zeffirelli has done with it.
Shakespeare wrote almost no original plots. He used an English poetic retelling of an old Italian tale: Arthur Brooke's The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet. Despite its Italian setting, the language, attitudes, and customs are generally English. In one respect, Shakespeare altered the story in a way which is shocking to modern audiences: he lowered Juliet's age from sixteen to just under fourteen. There are several reasons he might have done so. Boys played the female roles in Shakespeare's theater, and they might have been more convincing as young girls than as more mature women （though audiences presumably found a boy playing Cleopatra or Lady Macbeth satisfactory）。 Shakespeare emphasizes the over-hastiness and premature nature of this love affair and probably felt he was underlining this theme at a time when marriage at fifteen was considered by no means shocking, though marriage at eighteen or twenty was in fact much more common. Shakespeare was notoriously inept at depicting children in his plays and he may not have had a really clear idea of what a fourteen-year-old girl would be like. Finally, the fact that the story is Italian may have fitted in with Northern European prejudices about hot-blooded early-maturing Southerners. However we imagine her, Juliet is given some of the most brilliant and memorable lines in the play, and is notable for her courage and wit.
Italian cities were infamous for their long-lasting, deadly feuds between prominent families. Elizabeth, like most absolute monarchs, abhorred dueling and feuding and tried to suppress it. Shakespeare's play is in part his contribution to her "just say no" campaign against such conflicts.