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15th Apr 2019 - 8th Jun 2019

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The Background to the Story

By John Good

Daniel Boyd as Romeo and Catrin Stewart as Juliet. Photo: Tristram Kenton


Shakespeare is thought to have taken the plot of Romeo and Juliet mainly from a poem by Arthur Brooke, The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, first published in 1562. However, there are a quite a few other sources he could have worked from, as the story was well-known. In fact, as with many well-known stories, there is some historical fact at the bottom of it. The Montecchi and the Capelleti were political factions of the thirteenth century and mentioned by Dante in his poem The Divine Comedy. In 1594 Girolamo del Corte related the story of Romeo and Juliet in his Storia di Verona, claiming it as a true event which took place in 1303.

The story was certainly already popular in the fourteenth century; then, towards the end of the fifteenth century, in 1476, a famous novella writer Masuccio Salernitano published his version in a collection called Il Novellino. It had many of the ingredients of Shakespeare’s play, but, although it ended unhappily, the lovers did not commit suicide. Next came Luigi da Porto’s Historia Novellamente Ritrovata di due Nobili Amanti, a Story Newly Found of Two Noble Lovers, which appeared about 1530. This set the scene firmly in Verona and named the two lovers as Romeo and Giulietta and their respective families as Montecchi and Capelletti. He invents the characters of the County Paris and there is also a Friar Lorenz. His plotline incorporates many of the features recognizable in Shakespeare’s play, including the lovers’ suicides.

Following Da Porto was Matteo Bandello, whose Novelle came out in 1554. This is a straightforward version, which includes the masked ball. A character corresponding to Shakespeare’s Benvolio is introduced and Mercutio is described as “audacious among maidens as a lion among lambs”. The Nurse is a new and significant character in the plot and the lovers again end their lives by their own hands; in Juliet’s case, this is accomplished by the remarkable method of holding her breath.

Only five years later, a French translation of Bandello’s work by Pierre Boisteau was included in Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques with the title Histoire de Deux Amans, a Story of Two Lovers. This includes further subtleties, such as Juliet’s feelings at Tybalt’s death, and Capulet’s tolerance of Romeo at the ball. An English prose translation of the story called Rhomeo and Julietta appeared in a popular anthology compiled by William Painter, entitled The Palace of Pleasure. This collection was published in 1567, only three years after Shakespeare was born, and he would no doubt have been familiar with it as he grew up.

However, it is generally agreed that Shakespeare went to another version of the story for most of his plot and inspiration, the 1562 poem by Arthur Brooke, The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet. Brooke did not live to see his poem made flesh on the Elizabethan stage, as he died at sea just a year after the poem was published. But we might gauge his attitude to the star-cross’d lovers from his preface to the poem, in which he condemns them for “thrilling themselves to unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and advice of friends” and “abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage to cloak the shame of stolen contracts”. Despite this, the poem itself is more sympathetic to the lovers.

When Shakespeare came to create his play, there were three main changes he made to Brooke’s basic plotline: he compressed the action from several months to a few days, he developed Mercutio from a mere courtier into a much more complex character and he brought Paris back into the story at the end, to die by the hand of Romeo at Juliet’s tomb.

The story was obviously still a highly popular one, as Brooke’s poem was reprinted in 1587, about eight years before the first performance of Shakespeare’s play. The popularity of the story, its city setting and the similarity of the feuding families to the powerful and often quarrelling citizens of such a city, have led to the tradition that actual sites in Verona correspond to some of those represented in the play. This tradition, needless to say, is eagerly upheld by the tourist industry. There is now a ‘Romeo and Juliet Trail’. A medieval building of brick and battlements is identified as the house of the Montagues, and a tall building of mellow brick thought to date to the thirteenth century is that of the Capulets. It is in the courtyard of this house that we find THE balcony. Although, strictly speaking, Shakespeare never mentions a balcony; his stage directions simply indicate that Juliet “appears above, at a window”. This is a favourite spot for today’s young lovers to take their photographs, especially beside the bronze statue of Juliet herself.

The trail ends at Juliet’s tomb in the remains of the old monastery of the Capucins, near the River Adige. The stone sarcophagus lies appropriately in a dimly-lit crypt but, in the spirit of a delightful and life-affirming irony, it is now a popular venue for Veronese weddings…