The Origins of Romeo & Juliet

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JULY / AUG 2016: BY SCARLETT GRANT

The inspiration behind this article was my sister telling me that when she had to study Shakespeare in school, the class chose between Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet. They chose the latter. She was unhappy. “Everyone knows that story, it’s boring!” she said.

Everyone knows the story of Romeo and Juliet… right?

Why does this Shakespearean play (written between 1591-1595) stick with people and society? Is it because similar stories existed for hundreds if not thousands of years? One notable example is Pyramus and Thisbe, in the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, first published in 8 AD. Both tales contain similar themes, including the lover’s parents despising one another and Pyramus believing Thisbe is dead. Another possible source is The Ephesian Tale of Anthia and Habrocomes, written in the 3rd Century by Xenophon of Ephesus. Its major similarities are lovers’ separation and a potion that induces a deathlike sleep.

Shakespeare took inspiration from contemporary sources. The earliest similar version is Mariotto and Gianozza (1476) by Masuccio Salernitano. Although set in Siena, it has many elements found in Romeo and Juliet, such as secret marriage, the friar’s participation, a lethal fight, the male protagonist’s exile, and the female protagonist’s forced marriage.

Luigi Da Porto adapted it as Giulietta e Romeo with further depth, published posthumously in 1531. He may have added autobiographical elements. Porto was a soldier at a ball given by the Savorgnan family and fell in love with Lucina, the daughter of the house. Current rival family feuds kept them apart. Lucina married elsewhere. Years later, Da Porto wrote and dedicated this story to her. Maybe the personal angle influenced the play’s legendary status.

Da Porto provided many of the names and characters Shakespeare used. He standardized the protagonists, friar, and rival families’ names, moved the setting to Verona and introduced Mercutio, Tybalt, Count Paris, and Nurse. Da Porto added more to the plot, including the feuding families, the ball meeting, the balcony scene, Romeo’s murder of Tybalt, and the post-suicides reconciliation. In this version, Romeo takes the poison while Juliet stabs herself with his dagger.

Matteo Bandello republished this tale in 1554 with his own take on it. Although largely unchanged, he added the Benvolio and lengthened the tale.

Pierre Boaistuau translated it into French in 1559. Boaistuau added moralizing and sentiment, including the characters’ rhetorical outbursts.

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The story arrived in England with an English translation of Boaistuau by Arthur Brooke in 1562, titled The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet. A trend existed in England within this time of translating and adapting Italian works. Italian influences and settings appear in other Shakespearean plays such as The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing.

The play was popular throughout Shakespeare’s life and after his death, and never fell from favor. Some did not enjoy it. The earliest criticism is from Samuel Pepys, who wrote “it is a play of itself the worst I ever heard in my life.” Samuel Johnson, author of the English Dictionary, thought it was one of Shakespeare’s “most pleasing” plays.

As we can see from the influences and various incarnations of Romeo and Juliet, romantic tragedies are popular. Multiple adaptations and twists appear on stage with settings including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Apartheid era South Africa, and the Pueblo Revolt, showing how the play can be adapted to any variation. It inspired at least 27 operas, the earliest written in 1776. Prokofiev’s ballet adaptation is most famous for the composition, Dance of the Knights. West Side Story (1957) by Stephen Sondheim is most famous musical variation.

Romeo and Juliet may be the most filmed play of all time, the most famous adaptations being Zeffirelli’s (1968, Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting) and Luhrmann’s (1996, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes) versions. Young actors play both couples in each film, targeting young, current film viewers. Zeffirelli’s was the first to use actors close in age to the characters (earlier adaptations used actors far older than the teenaged Romeo and Juliet). The Luhrmann film intended to reach the MTV generation and modernized the setting.

With it appealing to every previous and future generation, it is correct to say everyone knows the story of Romeo and Juliet.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant will graduate university this year. She is half scared and excited to be entering “the real world.” She is an amateur history buff, and interested in music, film and writing.

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5 Replies to “The Origins of Romeo & Juliet”

  1. Wow–I knew Shakespeare borrowed a lot of source material, but I didn’t realize that the “origin story” of Romeo and Juliet was so complicated. That’s fascinating!

    I once read an essay by G.K. Chesterton which remarked that Shakespeare seems to have specialized in making good plays out of bad novels. It’s a funny way of putting it, but I think it’s true; he took not-so-memorable stories and turned them into something magical.

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    1. I once read an essay by G.K. Chesterton which remarked that Shakespeare seems to have specialized in making good plays out of bad novels. It’s a funny way of putting it, but I think it’s true; he took not-so-memorable stories and turned them into something magical.

      And I think that’s why we revere his writing so much — that he could take a story people had told before and retell it in such a powerful, memorable way. We don’t read those other versions of this story, we read his.

      I know someone who wants all of Shakespeare’s plays translated into modern language so modern people can understand it better (and this is not some young punk, it’s a person in their 60s). I think that’s a horrifying idea because it’s Shakespeare’s power of language that gives his plays their magic, not just the stories he’s telling.

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      1. Exactly! I have no problem with modernizing the SETTINGS of his plays–ie, putting on a production of “Hamlet” which takes place in present-day England rather than medieval Denmark. I’ve seen that sort of thing done often, and it can work extremely well. But don’t alter the language!! The language is the best thing about it, precisely because Shakespeare was such a brilliant author.

        Like, you can’t just take the line “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” and translate it as “Hey, Romeo, why are you called ‘Romeo’?” and pretend you haven’t lost something. You have MOST DEFINITELY lost something.

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      2. Precisely. I love switching up the settings — my favorite Hamlet takes place in NYC in the 2000s. And if you want to write a retelling, that’s great. But don’t imagine that you can “update the language” and pass it off as still being Shakespeare.

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