The story of Romeo and Juliet has been re-jigged a hundred different ways—from Broadway musicals to operas to ballets. Most recently, director Baz Luhrmann’s popular feature film starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo and Claire Danes as Juliet. What I didn’t know till recently was that Shakespeare’s play was not the first. Far from it.
Since ancient times, countless “girl-and-boy-from-warring-families” tragedies have been written. The Roman writer Ovid’s “Pyramus and Thisbe” tells the story of forbidden love between a girl and boy from two feuding families, and a secret rendezvous in a tomb…one that ends in tragedy. The Greek author Xenophon in his “Ephesian Tale” spins a wild story that includes a trip abroad, pirates, a crucifixion and sleeping potion, all of which culminates in a tragic tomb scene.
Then in 1216 in Florence, two families from opposing factions came to blows when a Donati girl ran off with a Buondelmonti boy, and her cousin was killed at the Ponte Vecchio during the ensuing battle.This legend apparently took root in Tuscan consciousness, because no less than three writers in the two following centuries decided to commit it to the written word in a new literary form, the novella (short story).
The first, Masuccio Salernitno, set the story in Siena, with Juliet traveling to Alexandria, Egypt to find her banished husband. Later in the century, Luigi Da Porta took up the tale, calling the two rival families Capelletti and Montiecchi. He claimed he’d heard the story in Verona (and set it there), though interestingly, those two family names appeared together two hundred years before), in Dante’s Purgatory. A third Italian, Matteo Bandello, stuck to Verona as the couple’s home town, with Romeo escaping to Manua.
Those locations “stuck” when, in the sixteenth century, Englishman Arthur Brooke wrote the story as a narrative poem, and in 1594 Shakespeare finally took up the gauntlet, immortalizing the lovers in his masterful play. Verona was only too happy to claim the pair as “theirs,” and today “Romeo’s Castle,” “Juliet’s Balcony” and “Juliet’s Tomb” are popular tourist attractions.
I hope the citizen of that fine city will forgive my literary license, returning the bulk of the story to its earliest Italian roots – Florence.
Robin Maxwell, author of O, Juliet, grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Tufts University School of Occupational Therapy, and practiced in that field for several years before moving to Hollywood to become a parrot tamer, casting director and finally a screenwriter. Read more about Robin here: http://www.robinmaxwell.com/
IMAGE: Pyramus and Thisbe by Abraham Hondius, c 1625/30 – 1691/95