The date when Romeo and Juliet was written is placed between 1591 and 1595. The earliest known published text dates from 1597. As with Shakespeare’s other plays, there are theories as to its source.
Determining the Correct Date
There are several reasons why 1591-95 is thought by scholars to have been the period when Shakespeare wrote it. One source is the play itself. In Act 1 / Scene III / 23, the nurse spoke of an earthquake. This quake supposedly took place 11 years earlier. According to records there was an earthquake in England in 1580.
Another reason is the style. Critical and textual studies show that the style is very similar to his other plays dating from the 1590s. This is also used as evidence for 1591-1595 as the date when Romeo and Juliet was written.
Publication of Q1
As stated the earliest manuscript of the play dates from 1597. This copy is known as Q1 or Quarto. While the basic play is the same, textual differences are glaring. This has led to the Q1 being labeled a bad or pirated copy. It’s been suggested that Shakespeare’s company had nothing to do with it and it was published without their permission. But what it does prove is that the play was made no later than 1596.
Publication of Q2
This edition came out in 1599. It is more than a hundred lines lengthier than the one published in 1597. Its publication is credited to Cuthbert Burby. Its clarity led it to being republished several times. These dates included 1609, 1622 and 1637. When considering when Romeo and Juliet was written, the Q2 edition is often cited as the first legitimate one.
Publication of the Folios and Modern Versions
The Folio editions of the play were first published in 1623. Its contents were derived from the Q2 and its subsequent editions. These Folios were then published several times. By the 1700s beginning with Nicholas Rowe, annotated versions began appearing. These versions would form the basis for the modern books.
Scholars have discovered several works where Shakespeare derived the basic plot. The earliest possible source is Masucio Salernitano’s II Novelino. Dating from 1476, it contains the basic elements of the play. This includes the young lovers, the rival suitor, the friendly friar and sleeping potion. There are no suicides however.
When studying the times when Romeo and Juliet was written, the name of Arthur Brooke will also come up. He was the one who published an old tale called The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet. Based on studies it appears Shakespeare took most of his material here. Shakespeare also relied on William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure.
The play became a hit during Shakespeare’s day and was performed regularly on stage. As popular with young lovers then, it remains so now. Aside from theater, the play has also been adapted in movies and television.
There may come a time documents will surface that will show exactly when Romeo and Juliet was written. Until that time comes, most scholars are still of the opinion that Shakespeare probably wrote a draft in 1591 and came out with the final version in 1595.