The Oxford Romeo and Juliet:Prompt-books as Evidence of Theatre History

By Jill Levenson

Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet provides an ideal test case for an editorial approach which emphasizes the history of the play in performance. In the first place, it originates in two substantive texts (Q1 in 1597 and Q2 in 1599) and a variety of editions since the seventeenth century. In the second, it has had a remarkable career on the stage since its initial performances at the end of the sixteenth century. From the Restoration on it has been in production -- in one form or another -- almost continuously. During certain periods it has enjoyed enormous success. The second half of the eighteenth century was one of those times: 399 performances in London between 1751 and 1800 eclipsed Hamlet. The second half of the twentieth century has been another: hundreds of performances internationally have been eclipsed by Hamlet alone.(1) Any edition intended to exploit the whole theater history of Romeo and Juliet, like mine from Oxford, proceeds then through at least two phases. In one it probes the early quartos for staging clues; in the other it studies later theatrical texts and related materials for adjustments generated by performance. It is the latter phase to which this web site gives access.

Since the Restoration, the theater history of Romeo and Juliet has assumed a pattern. In the history of the play to date, five productions have held the stage or remained highly influential for at least a few decades: David Garrick's (1748), Charlotte Cushman's (1845/46), John Gielgud's (1935), Peter Brook's (1947), and Franco Zeffirelli's (1960 at the Old Vic, 1968 on film). (2) For three of the revivals there is a prompt-book or printed script, but Gielgud's pre-World War II production left few printed traces and Zeffirelli's Old Vic staging was improvised from a workbook with cuts only.

But these revivals, in their pattern and number, fail to capture the play's vitality or continuing transformations on the stage. To give that impression, even faintly, an editor needs a larger sample of productions from the many hundreds recorded. Prompt-books help to fill in the gaps, although they have almost as many idiosyncrasies as the original texts of Shakespeare's plays. Charles H. Shattuck, who compiled the indispensable guide to Shakespeare prompt-books, describes these documents as another sort of vocal book with the potential to mislead auditors:

Promptbooks are tricky, secretive, stubborn informants. They chatter and exclaim about what we hardly need to know: that certain characters are being readied by the callboy to make their entrances; that the scene is about to change or the curtain to drop; that the orchestra is about to play at the act-end. They fall blackly silent just when we hope to be told where the actor stood or how he looked or what he did.(3)

Working with prompt-books causes other difficulties. In the first place, Shattuck's catalogue is incomplete. Published in 1965, it has a terminal date of 1961. Theatre Notebook printed some additions within several years, but the descriptive list has not kept up with production.(4) Shattuck had anticipated a swelling of the records, but not the outburst which has happened.(5)As a result, his guide is the starting point for any exploration of Shakespeare prompt-books, not a complete travelogue. Some of the collections he describes have increased their holdings, at times substantially, since the 1960s: they have acquired documents for new revivals or books formerly in private hands. At the same time, foreign-language productions have increased in number and significance beyond "[t]he very few foreign-language books" Shattuck relegated to the end of each section.(6)

In the second place, an editor who plans to rely on prompt-books must decide quickly what information to collect and how to apply it most effectively. When I began to study prompt-books of Romeo and Juliet in the mid-1980s, it seemed most sensible to make profiles of them: records of their cuts and staging notes. William P. Halstead had already compiled a collation of acting editions and prompt-books through 1975, but he was concerned more with the history of individual lines than with reconstructions of any play as a whole. Taking a different approach and following Shattuck from collection to collection, I accumulated profiles of 170 prompt-books, about five dozen more than the number he listed, although I did not see all of those he described. (7) These represent just a fraction of performances since the seventeenth century; they include only one (early) production both foreign and amateur. (8) Nevertheless, they provide a respectable sample from which to analyze revisions of Romeo and Juliet on the stage. The sample is large and detailed enough to need methodized access, a challenge met by technology. With the help of a colleague, graduate students, and a grant, it was entered on a data base later transferred to the World Wide Web.(9) In this form, the data base is also open-ended: as prompt-book evidence of productions outside its chronological and geographical range becomes available, it can be also be incorporated. The Oxford edition of the play has attempted to animate the performance history of the play with information from what is now on this web site. Anyone interested can explore the text of Romeo and Juliet--speech and actions--through its permutations from the seventeenth century to the late twentieth century.


For a more detailed account of the use of prompt-books as evidence in the Oxford Romeo and Juliet see my essay, "Show Business: The Editor in the Theater," in Shakespeare: Text and Theater: Essays in Honor of Jay L. Halio, ed. Lois Potter and Arthur Kinney (Newark: University of Delaware Press; London, Associated University Presses, 1999), pp. 248-65.

1. There are a number of guides to this continuous series of revivals, among them three which offer theatre history: Peter Holding, "Romeo and Juliet": Text and Performance (Houndmills and London: Macmillan Education Ltd., 1992); Katherine L. Wright, Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" in Performance: Traditions and Departures (Lewiston, Queenston, and Lampeter: Mellen University Press, 1997); and my Shakespeare in Performance: "Romeo and Juliet" (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987). Two books give brief descriptive listings of twentieth-century productions: William Babula, Shakespeare in Production, 1935-1978: A Selective Catalogue (New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1981), 280-92, and Samuel L. Leiter, ed. Shakespeare Around the Globe: A Guide to Notable Postwar Revivals (New York, Westport, and London: Greenwood Press, 1986), 625-59. See also Charles H. Shattuck, The Shakespeare Promptbooks: A Descriptive Catalogue (Urbana and London: University of Illinois Press, 1965), 411-32; William P. Halstead, Shakespeare as Spoken: A Collation of 5000 Acting Editions and Promptbooks of Shakespeare (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1978), 9:711c-711nn; and Bryan N.S. Gooch and David Thatcher, eds., A Shakespeare Music Catalogue (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 2:1341-89. (back)

2. It remains to be seen whether Baz Luhrmann's film version (1996), which speaks so powerfully to adolescents in the late 1990s, will displace Zeffirelli's.(back)

3. The Shakespeare Promptbooks, 3. (back)

4. See Charles H. Shattuck, "The Shakespeare Promptbooks: First Supplement," Theatre Notebook 24 (1969): 5-17. (back)

5. See The Shakespeare Promptbooks, v. (back)

6. The Shakespeare Promptbooks, 5. (back)

7. As Halstead discovered when he tried to collect microfilms of all the promptbooks in Shattuck's catalogue for the University of Michigan Library, it can be difficult to gain access to some of these documents (see Shakespeare as Spoken, 1:xxxiii). (back)

8. See G. Blakemore Evans, "The Douai Manuscript -- Six Shakespearean Transcripts (1694-95)," Philological Quarterly 41 (1962): 170-71. (back)

9. I want to record thanks in particular to Professor David Galbraith, Ms. Margaret McGeachy, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (for a Research Grant). (back)