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Romeo and Juliet, edited by David Garrick (1750/1753)

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The Munich Shakespeare Research Library has recently acquired a little gem in the production history of Romeo and Juliet, adding to its collection a 1753 edition of David Garrick's 1750 production of the play. This edition is a relic of the 18th-century Shakespearean theatre scene, a period in British theatre history that was marked by a penchant for spectacle as well as fierce competition between individual theatres and actor-directors. It stands as a testament to Garrick's highly idiosyncratic – but popular – artistic vision, leaving an enduring impact on the play’s production history.

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Prior to the 1750 staging at Drury Lane, Garrick had already adapted the play two years earlier at the same theatre. While that production had become a hit, its success was also cut short as one of the lead actors fell ill. Two seasons later, the year 1750 marked a remarkable moment for Shakespeare’s tragicomedy, with London seeing two competing productions of Romeo and Juliet within two weeks: Garrick’s production at Drury Lane and, at Covent Garden, a production led by John Rich. Garrick, playing Romeo himself, engaged in a theatrical duel with Rich, with both productions vying for the favour of the audience. This period of direct competition fuelled a highly reactive “battle” between the two productions. In one instance, Garrick learned from the playbill of Rich’s play that the Covent Garden version would include a funeral procession for Juliet and so quickly arranged his production at Drury Lane to include a similar musical number to Covent Garden's planned funeral procession.

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Besides this, Garrick also made a number of modifications to the original text, including an extensive farewell scene between the lovers in order to create a psychologically intense moment for Romeo. This alteration may have been influenced by another play: Thomas Otway's The History and Fall of Caius Marius from 1679. Otway’s play was set during the era of the Roman Republic but interpolated substantial portions of Romeo and Juliet into a subplot surrounding the love story between Marius Junior and a woman called Lavinia. He modified the Shakespearean source material to include a brief dialogue between the lovers where the thought-to-be dead Lavinia wakes after Marius has already drunk poison. Similarly, in Garrick's version, Romeo forgets he has already taken poison when Juliet awakes and the lovers' rejoicing turns to horror as Romeo realises the consequences of his actions. As Garrick played Romeo himself, his modification of the tomb scene played into his own strengths as an actor while the role of Juliet saw little modification. Garrick’s performance, which contemporaries described as lively and energetic, was to be the central point of appeal of the play.

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In 1744, Theophilus Cibber revived Romeo and Juliet at the Haymarket Theatre. Cibber, playing alongside his fifteen-year-old daughter, made selective modifications to the material, eliminating the character of Rosaline to accentuate the purity of Romeo's affection for Juliet. This revision also incorporated elements from Otway's play, showcasing the ongoing reworking of Shakespearean plays to fit contemporary tastes. Garrick's decision to omit Rosaline, following Cibber's lead, led to extensive rewriting of Romeo's character and motivations, aligning the play with the moral standards of the time. This manoeuvre, though a departure from Shakespeare's original text, secured the play's popularity with 18th-century audiences. Romeo’s affection and subsequent abandonment of Rosaline in favour of Juliet was commonly perceived as a flaw in his character. Garrick had probably learnt this first-hand as his 1748 production did not include this change. Perhaps, in 1750 he did not wish to take his chances with the audience’s favours and so included it despite the significant departure from the Shakespearean original this entailed.

Garrick's efforts played a crucial role in popularising Shakespeare’s works during the eighteenth-century revival of Early Modern English drama. His reworking of Romeo and Juliet epitomizes the delicate balance directors tried to strike between fidelity to the source material on the one hand and catering to the tastes of contemporary audiences on the other.

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