Paintings of William Shakespeare’s Plays 1: Romeo and Juliet

Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830–1896), The Feigned Death of Juliet (1856-8), oil on canvas, 113.6 x 175.2 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the best-known tragic romances in any language, Shakespeare probably completed Romeo and Juliet in 1595, and it was first published two years later. Since then it has been widely performed, reworked, adapted, and otherwise reused for countless other plays, operas, musicals, ballets, novels and movies. Its story isn’t original, but Shakespeare’s treatment of its ill-fated lovers is unrivalled. If there’s one Shakespeare play you remember fairly well, it’s Romeo and Juliet.

Set in the Italian Renaissance city of Verona, its characters are drawn from two warring families, the Montagues and Capulets. Following a brawl, Prince Escalus, who rules the city, warns the families that any further fighting will result in the execution of their patriarchs. Romeo, son of Montague, reveals that he has fallen in love.

Juliet, Capulet’s thirteen year-old daughter, is promised to Count Paris, a relative of the Prince, provided that Paris can gain her agreement.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Juliet (The Blue Necklace) (1898), oil on canvas, 72 x 48 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

John William Waterhouse’s portrait of Juliet or The Blue Necklace from 1898 tells no story, but resembles a Renaissance painting of a young daughter of the nobility who is ready for marriage.

That night the Capulets hold a feast and masked ball, which is gatecrashed by Romeo, his cousin and best friend Benvolio, and Mercutio, a relative of the Prince. Their aim is to convince Romeo that his unrequited love for Rosaline, Capulet’s niece, can be bettered.

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), Fairy Mab (1815-20), oil on canvas, 70 × 90 cm, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Fairy Mab, painted by Henry Fuseli in 1815-20, shows a character referred to by Mercutio in Act 1 Scene 4, who is the “fairies’ midwife”, and attributed the portentous dreams that have been troubling Romeo. Here she’s more probably in the guise of her reinvention in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s (1792–1822) first large poetic work, Queen Mab, published in 1813. The name Mab is apparently pronounced as if it were Mave, to rhyme with save.

Romeo promptly falls in love with Juliet at the Capulet’s ball that night, but he’s recognised by Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin. When Romeo leaves the ball he doubles back and exchanges vows of love with Juliet, who is out on her balcony, and they decide to marry. In the morning, Friar Laurence agrees to marry the couple, and their wedding is set up for that afternoon. After that Romeo plans use a rope ladder to climb to the window of Juliet’s room so they can consummate their marriage that night.

Tybalt arrives, wanting to fight Romeo, who refuses to engage. Instead, Mercutio draws his sword and is killed by Juliet’s cousin. Romeo responds by killing Tybalt before fleeing, leading to the Prince banishing Romeo immediately. Romeo, who has been hiding in the Friar’s cell, proceeds with the arrangement to climb into Juliet’s bedroom that evening, while the Capulets are hastily arranging Juliet’s wedding to Paris.

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Sketch for the Passions: Love (1853), watercolour, black ink, and graphite on moderately thick, slightly textured, light blue wove paper, 35.9 x 25.7 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven, CT. Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

Act 3, scene 5 is the play’s famous Balcony Scene, in which Romeo ascends his rope ladder to join Juliet in her bedroom for their honeymoon night. Richard Dadd’s version, in his watercolour Sketch for the Passions: Love from 1853, shows Romeo at peak ascent and about to kiss Juliet, as her rather ugly nurse behind them looks away anxiously.

Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893), Romeo and Juliet (1869-70), oil on canvas, 135.5 x 93.9 cm, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE. Wikimedia Commons.

Ford Madox Brown’s interpretation of this scene is a vertiginous composition, with the couple alone, and squeezed rather incredibly onto a balcony smaller than a single bed.

Gaetano Previati (1852–1920), The Kiss (Romeo and Juliet) (c 1890), tempera on paperboard, dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In about 1890, Gaetano Previati painted this meticulously detailed account of The Kiss between the lovers.

Francesco Hayez (1791–1882), Romeo and Juliet (date not known), watercolour heightened with white on paper, 35 x 27.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Francesco Hayez’s undated watercolour shows the couple about to kiss, with a shadowy figure of the nurse in the right background.

Benjamin West (1738–1820) (attr) and his studio, Romeo and Juliet (date not known), oil on canvas, 112.3 x 146.1 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

This painting has been attributed to Benjamin West and his studio, and shows the lovers parting first thing in the morning, with the nurse anxiously trying to despatch Romeo before it becomes light. It’s inscribed with verses from Act 3, scene 5, at left and right, and may have been intended for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, in which case it would probably have been painted in about 1792.

After Romeo has left Juliet’s bedroom the following morning, her mother breaks the news that that she is to be married to Paris, which she refuses. Juliet seeks the Friar’s help, and he provides her with a herbal potion to simulate her death for twenty-four hours. Once under its influence, she will then be put in the family tomb, and the Friar will summon Romeo to return from his exile so that, when she awakes, he can take her back into exile with him. The following morning, as intended in the Friar’s plan, Juliet is presumed dead.

Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830–1896), The Feigned Death of Juliet (1856-8), oil on canvas, 113.6 x 175.2 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1856-58, Frederic, Lord Leighton shows Juliet apparently dead, laid out at home before being moved to the crypt. She is surrounded by her immediate family, the Capulets, who are highlighted for emphasis. Lord and Lady Capulet are closest, with Juliet’s nurse behind. Count Paris is at the right, with Friar Laurence behind him. A queue of others leads into the background. The window reveals the two prominent towers of Verona, and at the back of the house preparations are still being made for Juliet’s wedding.

News reaches Romeo of Juliet’s death, and he decides to return to Verona and join Juliet in death, taking with him a vial of poison. Unfortunately, Romeo doesn’t learn of the Friar’s plan, so Laurence hurries to the tomb.

Paris is delivering Juliet’s epitaph in her tomb when Romeo arrives, unaware that she isn’t actually dead, just under the influence of the Friar’s potion. Paris tries to arrest Romeo and is killed, asking as his final request to be laid to rest with Juliet. Romeo then opens the tomb and puts Paris inside it, bids farewell to Juliet, swallows his poison, kisses her, and dies.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Romeo and Juliet at the Tomb of the Capulets (c 1850), oil on paper on canvas, 35.2 x 26.5 cm, Musée Delacroix, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Eugène Delacroix’s Romeo and Juliet at the Tomb of the Capulets from about 1850 shows Romeo holding the apparently dead body of his lover in his arms.

Just as Juliet starts to wake from the effects of the potion, the Friar arrives, and tries to persuade her to go into a nunnery. When she discovers Romeo is dead, she stabs herself to death.

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), Romeo and Juliet. The Tomb Scene (1790), oil on canvas, 177.8 x 241.3 cm, Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, England. Wikimedia Commons.

In Romeo and Juliet. The Tomb Scene (1790), Joseph Wright of Derby shows Juliet, still white from her deep coma and dressed in funeral attire, when she has just discovered Romeo’s dead body, and before she kills herself with his dagger in the theatrical climax. However, the artist hides both their faces from view, leaving Juliet’s body language to tell us of her anguish, and the cue of the cup from which Romeo drank poison.

Finally, the Watch summons the Montagues and Capulets. The Prince attributes the deaths to the failure of the families to address their feuding, and both sides promise to end their feuds and erect statues in memory of the two lovers.

Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830–1896), The Reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet (1855), oil on canvas, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Frederic, Lord Leighton’s second painting of the story shows its final resolution, in The Reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet (1855).

Shakespeare’s inventive plot contains a succession of reversals, culminating in the final peripeteia and climax leaving the couple dead. Yet only three painters chose to depict moments from that tragic resolution, with most preferring the balcony scene instead.

Further reading

Full text at Project Gutenberg

Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.