It's perhaps the most famous scene in all of English literature: Juliet stands on her balcony with Romeo in the garden below, star-crossed lovers meeting by moonlight. Colloquially known as "the balcony scene," it contains Romeo and Juliet's most quoted lines, which are so closely associated with the balcony that they're frequently repeated (often incorrectly and in a hammy style) by non-actors who seize upon any real-life balcony, porch, landing, or veranda to reenact the moment. There's only one problem: There is no balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet.
The word "balcony" never appears in Shakespeare's play. In fact, Shakespeare didn't know what a balcony was. Not only was there no balcony in Romeo and Juliet, there was no balcony in all of Shakespeare's England.
This strange fact—the lack of a balcony in Romeo and Juliet—can easily be verified by anyone who goes back and reads Shakespeare's play, something few have done since high school. What is more complicated is understanding how a non-existent balcony has become so indelibly associated with Romeo and Juliet, that today it’s difficult to imagine the play without it. But tracing the history of how the balcony scene evolved over the past four centuries reveals that even when it comes to Shakespeare, audiences may care less about the original text than about adaptations and revisions that appeal to the sensibilities of the current era.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known use in English of the word "balcone" (as it was then spelled) didn’t occur until 1618, two years after Shakespeare died. Even the concept of a balcony was (literally) foreign to Shakespeare's British contemporaries. In 1611, more than a decade and a half after Romeo and Juliet was first performed, an Englishman named Tom Coryat published an account of the tour of the Continent he undertook in 1608. His whopper of a title, Coryat's Crudities: Hastily Gobled Up in Five Moneths Travells in France, Savoy, Italy, Rhetia Commonly Called the Grisons Country, Helvetia Alias Switzerland, Some Parts of High Germany and the Netherlands: Newly Digested in the Hungry Aire of Odcombe in the County of Somerset, and Now Dispersed to the Nourishment of the Travelling Members of this Kingdome, indicates how exotic and unknown he presumed the nations he visited were to his English readers. Italy, which figures prominently in many of Shakespeare's plays, was a source of especial architectural fascination for Coryat, even without the word "balcone" to describe what he saw:
I noted another thing in these Venetian Palaces ... and it is very little used in any other country that I could perceive in my travels, saving only in Venice and other Italian Cities. Some what above the middle of the front of the building, or ... a little beneath the toppe of the front they have right opposite unto their windows, a very pleasant little tarrasse, that jutteth or butteth out from the maine building: the edge whereof is decked with many prety litle turned pillers, either of marble or free stone to leane over. These kind of tarrasses or little galleries of pleasure ... serve only for this purpose, that people may from that place as from a most delectable prospect contemplate and view the parts of the City round about them.
For 17th-century English readers, there was something nearly scandalous in what Coryat describes, because the bodies on these jutting, butting galleries of pleasure now known as balconies weren't just viewing; they were also on view. As Henry Wotton, another Englishman, put it in his 1624 treatise The Elements of Architecture, there is "in no Habitations lesse privacie" than those of the Italians. The strangeness of this architectural feature thus stood in for larger national and cultural differences: Shakespeare's England was too cool for such architectural innovations, in terms of climate (they were experiencing a mini-Ice Age) but also perhaps in terms of social or sexual temperament.
So how did the culturally charged image of the balcony become so closely associated with Romeo and Juliet that it now serves as a visual synecdoche for the play itself?
The staged scene most strongly associated with Shakespeare actually comes from another playwright entirely, Thomas Otway. Little known today, Otway serves as a reminder that a famous playwright and exceedingly popular plays can fall out of public favor—as happened to Shakespeare, and particularly to Romeo and Juliet, which for nearly a century was rarely performed. In 1642, the Puritan Parliament, at war with King Charles I, closed London's theaters. After Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 and the theaters were reopened, Shakespeare plays were put on again, including a 1662 revival of Romeo and Juliet. But far more popular was Otway's 1679 play, The History and Fall of Caius Marius, which grafts dialogue, characters, and plot from Romeo and Juliet onto an ancient Roman military and political struggle drawn from Plutarch. Although Shakespeare himself often borrowed heavily from a wide range of sources, Otway's own substantial appropriations—as when the young heroine Lavinia soliloquizes "O Marius, Marius! wherefore art thou Marius?"—might strike modern audiences as a nearly sacrilegious level of plagiarism.
But for much of the 17th and 18th centuries, audiences wouldn't be shocked to hear Lavinia and Marius speaking words commonly thought of as "belonging" to Juliet or Romeo. People in that era were far more likely to be familiar with Otway's play than with Shakespeare's. Caius Marius was produced over 30 times in London between 1701 and 1735; in those same years, Romeo and Juliet wasn't performed at all. Shakespeare wasn't studied in schools, and print copies of the play remained relatively rare—and expensive. The current perception of Shakespeare, particularly Romeo and Juliet, as ubiquitous cultural capital is the product of efforts that only began in the middle of the 18th century (undertaken in no small part by actor, producer, theater manager, and Shakespeare adaptor David Garrick, as much as an act of self-promotion as anything else).
And, as it turns out, the seemingly quintessential Romeo and Juliet scene should actually be attributed to Otway, who explicitly staged his version of the exchange between the lovers with Lavinia "in the balcony" while Romeo responds from the garden below. Garrick retained the balcony in his revival of Romeo and Juliet at London's Drury Lane, along with another of Otway's innovations (this one resurrected more recently by Baz Luhrmann): giving the lovers one last scene together after Lavinia/Juliet's fake poison wears off, before Marius/Romeo's real poison kicks in.
Spranger Barry, who initially played Romeo in Garrick's production, left Drury Lane and joined the rival Covent Garden theater, where he starred in a competing Romeo and Juliet, immortalized in a popular etching establishing the visual iconography of the "balcony scene." The image of Juliet on her balcony with Romeo below has thereafter been given a seemingly eternal and ever-expanding life. The Internet offers countless examples in which toddlers, cats, dogs, Lego figures, and even pieces of fruit "act out" the balcony scene. The half million visitors who flock to Verona each year can even act it out for themselves on a pseudo-balcony that was constructed by adding an old sarcophagus to the exterior of a building dubiously christened "Casa di Giulietta" in the early 20th century, specifically to satisfy the hordes of tourists seeking an authentic Romeo and Juliet experience.
I'm not suggesting audiences should condemn the cultural process of adaptation, appropriation, and revision that created the cult of the balcony. In fact, I myself am a flagrant Shakespeare adaptor. The reason I re-read Romeo and Juliet a couple of years ago, and first noticed the lack of a balcony, is that I was writing my novel Juliet's Nurse. The story imagines the 14 years leading up to the events in the play, as told by one of Shakespeare's most memorable "minor" characters. As a novelist, I confronted what actors and directors have long known: Adaptation is not a violation of some unalterable essence of Shakespeare's oeuvre—it's integral to our experience of his work.
Every performance of a play involves countless acts of interpretation and revision. The same performer may not deliver a speech precisely the same way from one night to the next. Choosing how to stage a scene—particularly when it comes to Shakespeare, who wrote few explicit stage directions—requires choices well beyond what is in the text. Because Shakespeare's plays initially were performed without being published, it's safe to assume that the versions we have differ from what he originally wrote. Indeed, companies performing a Shakespeare play today must decide which of the numerous "authoritative" yet contradictory versions to use. Even then, directors frequently choose to alter or omit some passages for their specific production. Any of these interpretations might reveal something about the immediate context in which it was created.
Given the persistent place the non-existent balcony holds in the collective cultural memory, it's especially worth examining the effect of this enduring and adored revision. Why do audiences prefer to remember Juliet standing on a balcony while speaking to Romeo rather than allowing her to remain as Shakespeare positioned her, at her window?
Windows had their own importance in 14th-century Italy, in which Romeo and Juliet is set. Daughters of wealthy families were valuable in this era because they could be married off to secure useful political, business, and social alliances. To protect and promote their daughterly assets, families in late medieval Italy heavily restricted the public movements of unmarried girls (usually from the age of twelve on), who might only be allowed to leave the house to attend occasional religious ceremonies. These females passed most of their time confined at home sewing, usually near a tall window, which provided illumination for one's work but also a view onto the very urban streets to which a wealthy girl or woman had extremely limited direct access. The window marked the immense difference between interior and exterior, as Juliet notes: "Then, window, let day in, and let life out."
That line seems ominous enough. But the balcony on which audiences now expect to see Juliet does what a window cannot. It is, literally as well as metaphorically, a liminal space, a feature of the domestic building that functions not as enclosure but as a highly eroticized form of exposure. Recall the implicit sexual connotation of Italian balconies in early English architectural treatises. As early as 1633, once balconies became known to the English, they were perceived as a space of sexual display for English women, as shown through yet another forgotten play by a forgotten playwright. In Thomas Nabbes's Covent Garden, two characters discuss a recent construction boom in London using such risqué language that it's impossible to miss the erotic charge of particular architectural features:
Artlove: Mistresse Tongall, you are delighting your selfe with these new erections.
Tongall: Faire erections are pleasing things [...] How like you the Balconee's? They set off a Ladyes person well, when she presents her selfe to the view of gazing passengers.
Who could not like the balcony, when it's a perfect place for a lady to admire (and perhaps inspire) such delightful erections?
Little wonder the balcony has become the most cherished symbol of Shakespeare's play. A dutiful daughter should be secured within the father's house, but the young woman who steps onto the balcony exposes her desirability, and her own desires. The window may let light in, but the balcony lets Juliet out, even as it invites Romeo in. Indeed, it's become a trope in stage and film versions of Romeo and Juliet to have Romeo climb up to the balcony, an architectural mounting that anticipates the sexual mounting that will end in both characters' death.
This may be precisely why the balcony has become irresistible, despite its absence from Shakespeare's play. Although I kept any reference to a balcony out of Juliet's Nurse (my agent wanted an image of a balcony on the cover, to be sure potential readers "knew what the book was about"), I happily waited my turn to pose for photos on Casa di Giulietta's sarcophagus-cum-balcone. When it comes to Romeo and Juliet, it's the audience who wants to see—or be—Juliet upon the balcony, stepping out from the protection of her father's house in a display of desire, consequences be damned. By focusing only on the balcony, the audience remains in that exhilarating moment, denying the tragedy and death to come.
The balcony scene as it is misremembered is romantic, sexually charged, and indelibly part of our culture—does it matter if this is a staging Shakespeare never actually envisioned, given the centuries of revision that have made it precisely what audiences want?