Romeo and Juliet is Historical

   The story at the root of the great first tragedy of Shakespeare does seem to be based upon an actual love story that occurred in Verona in about 1302-3. Shakespeare famously telescopes the action of some months into about four days, and reduced the ages of the lovers emphasizing their innocence. According to a local history of Verona 2009-2013 (Renbel Travel Service), the Italian soldier and memoir writer da Porta heard the story form an archer named de Verona, or one from Verona. The story checks out in various ways. Dante, while exiled, was sheltered by the Della Scalas of Verona (Paradise, XVII), and mentions the Cappelletti and Montecchi families (Purgatory, VI), which a note (Charles Eliot Norton edition) identifies as Guelphs of Cremona and Ghibbelines of Verona. Bartolemeo I della Scala might even be the Prince shown in the play. But it is indeed the Christian factional disputes, here over the authority of the Emperor and that of the Pope over rule in Italy, that is the background or crossed stars that is the setting. So the point is indeed that Love, or the imago Dei, is sacrificed to purge the conventional Christian-coated factional hatreds.

   Nor is it surprising that the story should be true, as similar love stories happen among warring peoples, holding the seeds of peace. One such story famously occurred in the civil war in Sarjevo.

   Another way the story checks out is that there is a tomb of Juliet, which was of red marble, in the underground crypt of the East wing of a Church of St. Francisco al Corso which became a cloister there in Verona. Visitors once chipped off pieces to make love tokens. The tomb was hidden as a horse watering trough, because Juliet was considered a suicide, yet buried in sanctified ground- an issue also regarding Ophelia. An Archduke Giovanni took the cover to the tomb of Juliet from Verona to Vienna in the early nineteenth century, which may well have had writing on it. The Capulet family crypt may be elsewhere, buried but find-able beneath modern Verona. There is also a Montague house and a house given to the city by the Capelletto family, from the 1300’s, said to be Juliet’s house. One has to imagine where the orchard might have been. Girls answer lovers letters written to Juliet in an upstairs room.  I’d write, “Escape to Mantua!”

   I was sure I had read that the story was true, in the Introduction to a Collected Works in a bed-and-breakfast place in Stratford, Ont, where we would hitch hike to see plays and read in the Tim Horton’s by night. Seeing Plays, we would sleep in the park by day, shower at the Y, and get a room for one night to rest up. I once saw Judy Collins and The Tempest there in the same trip, staying on the island across from the theater, in the bushes! Sometimes friends, and once a love, came along. Once I chased, but luckily did not catch, a genuine and utterly gorgeous French actress (who no doubt remains chased to this day), and once fell for the girl who played Hermia, till I had to visit at the door of the backstage to persuade my soul that she was not herself Hermia! (And do not speak of Olivia Hussey playing Juliet, perhaps the Mona Lisa of Modern Film.) But I would usually go alone as a lost lover, like Romeo wandering among the trees for love of Rosaline, among the flower gardens made for tourists and honeymoon couples.

3 thoughts on “Romeo and Juliet is Historical

  1. Enjoyed this very much. Timely as we just saw a wonderful performance of “Shakespeare in Love” at the. NJ Shakespeare Theatre.

    “…staying on the island across from the theater, in the bushes…”

    In high school sat in the best seats imaginable in the Dress Circle of Carnegie Hall – we knew how to sneak in by getting up to the offices and dance studios above, then taking the stairs down into the hall at an entrance, now closed off, next the men’s room on the orchestra level.

    Sat in the first row of the Dress Circle, on the carpet of a center aisle, for a performance of the “St. Matthew Passion” conducted by Pablo Casals.

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