Romeo and Juliet: Not a Shakespearean Tale After All
William Shakespeare's world renowned Romeo and Juliet (written sometime between 1591 and 1595) stands in the historical record as one of the greatest love stories ever written. It has been retold many times in playhouses and theaters and has a wealth of film adaptations of both traditional and modern interpretations. It is most interesting to discover then, that Romeo and Juliet was not, in fact, truly of his own creation, but rather a variation on a story told many times from the 1400s onwards.
Centered on the theme of star-crossed lovers , borrowed from poets as far back as ancient Greece, Romeo and Juliet's tale was told at least a century before Shakespeare actually wrote it. This article intends to take a brief look at these particular tales, which eventually culminated in the Bard's celebrated play.
A Summary of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
Shakespeare Birthplace Trust provides this excellent short summary of the Bard’s famous play Romeo and Juliet :
“An age-old vendetta between two powerful families erupts into bloodshed. A group of masked Montagues risk further conflict by gatecrashing a Capulet party. A young lovesick Romeo Montague falls instantly in love with Juliet Capulet, who is due to marry her father’s choice […] Paris. With the help of Juliet’s nurse, the women arrange for the couple to marry the next day, but Romeo’s attempt to halt a street fight leads to the death of Juliet’s own cousin, Tybalt, for which Romeo is banished. In a desperate attempt to be reunited with Romeo, Juliet follows the Friar’s plot and fakes her own death. The message fails to reach Romeo, and believing Juliet dead, he takes his life in her tomb. Juliet wakes to find Romeo’s corpse beside her and kills herself. The grieving family agree to end their feud.”
It is an enthralling and tragic tale, but Shakespeare didn’t come up with the plot for his play alone. Actually, it’s based on several older stories and some of them have very similar elements.
Early Versions of the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Plot
The first certain tale of the woes of Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet descends from Italian author Masuccio Salernitano (1410-1475). Published a year after his death, Salernitano's 33rd chapter of his Il Novellino tells of Mariotto and Giannoza, a pair of lovers who come from the feuding families of Maganelli and Saraceni respectively. In this account, their love affair takes place in Siena, Italy rather than in Verona and is believed to have occurred contemporary with Salernitano's time.
Much like Shakespeare's version, Mariotto and Giannoza fall in love and marry secretly with the aid of an Augustine friar. Shortly thereafter, Mariotto has words with another noble citizen—in this case, not his love's cousin—and kills the nobleman, resulting in his fleeing the city to avoid capital punishment. Giannoza, distraught, is comforted only by the fact that Mariotto has family in Alexandria, Egypt and makes a good home for himself there.
However, her own father—unaware of her wedding—decides it is time for her to take a husband, putting her in a terrible position. With the aid of the friar who had wed her and Mariotto, Giannoza drinks a sleeping potion to make her appear dead, so she can be smuggled out of Siena to reunite with her husband in Alexandria. Of course this plan goes terribly awry, and her letter to explain their plan to Mariotto never reaches him, though news of her death quickly does.
While she flees to Alexandria to finally reunite with him, Mariotto returns to Siena – risking his own life to see her corpse one final time. It is then that he is captured and taken to be executed for his previous crimes, beheaded three days before Giannoza's own return to the city. Giannoza then, heartbroken, wastes away of a broken heart, supposedly to be finally reunited with her beloved husband in heaven.
Like Shakespeare’s account of Romeo finding Juliet sleeping but believing her dead, Salernitano's earlier story contains a scene in which Mariotto finds the sleeping body of Giannoza, and believes she has died. ( Public Domain )
As one can see, there are many similar elements between Shakespeare's tale and Salernitano's. The themes of feuding families, the forbidden love, the sleeping potion, and the terrible communication mishap all lead to the parallel ending of mutual death of the star-crossed lovers. Writing only a hundred years apart, Shakespeare could well have come across Salernitano's work, or one of the many other variations that were written before the story reached the Bard's desk.
Luigi da Porta in the 1530s wrote a similar compilation, telling the tale of Romeo Montechhi and Giulietta Cappelleti, moving the setting of their lives from Siena to the Verona – the same place where Shakespeare would locate it. The pair again wed in secret with the aid of a friar, only to be torn apart by Romeo's accidental killing of Giulietta's cousin and their subsequent deaths—Romeo by Giulietta's sleeping potion, and Giulietta by holding her breath so she could die with him.
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Romeo and Juliet are wedded by a friar, just as Romeo and Giulietta in Luigi da Porta’s work. ( Public Domain )
Shakespeare’s Biggest Inspirations for Romeo and Juliet
Following da Porta came Matteo Bandello (1480-1562), a monk and an author who took da Porta and Salernitano's tales even further. He was the Italian author who is most directly credited as having influenced Shakespeare , as Bandello introduces many of the specific themes that make Shakespeare's play so well known today. Bandello's version, while in many ways comparable to Salernitano's text, provided the well-known last names of Montague and Capulet to the two titular characters.
Bandello also added the element of the costume ball, at which Romeo and Juliet meet, and also the pertinent moment in which Juliet viciously kills herself with her lover's dagger so that she may join Romeo in the afterlife, rather than merely wasting away as Giannoza did. Bandello's tale is widely believed to have been closely followed by the French author Pierre Boaistuau, whose version was then translated into English by Arthur Brooke as a poem called The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet in 1562. This English translation was the actual text that made it to Shakespeare's desk.
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Romeo and Juliet meet at a costume ball, just as the young lovers meet in Bandello’s story. ( Public Domain )
Is Romeo and Juliet Based on a Real Story?
Many Shakespearean scholars, well informed of these previous literary treasures, also have collected evidence that the Bard might have drawn the characters of Romeo and Juliet from his own life. A patron of Shakespeare's, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, is thought to have inspired Shakespeare's Romeo in character, further implicated because his stepmother descended from the Viscount Montagu.
Henry Wriothesley also had an unapproved relationship with the woman Elizabeth Vernon, as when news of their marriage reached the ears of Queen Elizabeth I , the queen put them both in jail as their union was a political threat to her reign. Unlike the real Romeo and Juliet—in every story—the Earl and Vernon were later able to live "happily ever after" outside the prison walls, yet this undesirable political union is highly considered to have also influenced the Bard's writings.
Transforming Romantic Literature
Despite the numerous versions of Romeo and Juliet's story that preceded William Shakespeare, it cannot be denied that it was his work that transformed their love affair into one of the greatest stories ever known . The Bard might have borrowed heavily from Salernitano, Bandello, and Brooke, but the audience which his play was presented to took the text into their hearts and spread it throughout Elizabethan England until the titular characters' names became interchangeable with the mantra "meant to be".
Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet's undying affection and subsequent suicides have made the passionate story immortal, and it remains one of the foremost inspirations for modern romantic literature .
Top Image: Detail of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (1884) by Frank Dicksee. Source: Public Domain
By Ryan Stone
Delahoyde, Michael. "The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet." Washington State University . February 9, 2015. Accessed May 27, 2015. http://public.wsu.edu/~delahoyd/shakespeare/romeus.html
Salernitano, Masuccio. The Novellino of Masuccio (Lawrence and Bullen: London, 1895.)
"A Note About Adaptation and Source Texts for Romeo and Juliet ". Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project. 2007. Accessed May 29, 2015.
"Luigi da Porto" from The Italian Novelists. trans. Thomas Roscoe (Frederick Warne and Co.: London, 1900.) http://elfinspell.com/RoscoeLuigiDaPorto.html
"Novels of Massuccio Salernitano" from The Italian Novelists. trans. Thomas Roscoe (Frederick Warne and Co.: London, 1900.) http://elfinspell.com/RoscoeMassuccio.html
“Romeo and Juliet: Synopsis and plot overview of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.” Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Accessed June 10, 2020. https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/explore-shakespeare/shakespedia/shakespeares-plays/romeo-and-juliet/