Romeo and Juliet is Historical: Excerpt

   The event of Romeo and Juliet actually occurred, about 1302-3,[13] in Verona, and was related in an Italian history translated by Arthur Brooke, used by Shakespeare as a source of the play. The action of a few months is famously telescoped or encapsulated into as many days[14] by Shakespeare, where the haste and rapidity of the tragic events imitates the intensity and haste of love, and emphasizes the fated or un-opposable wave of the events. The five days of Romeo and Juliet are about as long as the four days of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Rather than look for an earthquake about the 1590’s, as has been done in considering the date of the production of the play, one wonders if there were not an earthquake in Italy there 11 years before this plague. The great plague comes with Boccaccio about 1315, when one third of all the people in Europe died. 1291-3 would be 11 years prior to 1302-3). Plague prevents the delivery of the crucial letter of Friar Lawrence to Romeo in Mantua. The original Italian sources are Bandello (1554) da Porto (1525) and Salernitano (1476), according to Hankins in the Signet edition (p. 586; Arden ed., pp. 33-37). Da Porta, writing war memoirs, said he heard the story from an archer named Pellegrino da Verona. It is likely that there were prior sources, a century and a half after the event would have torn the conscience of Verona. One might, as with the Saints, examine the local histories. According to one,[15] Verona was governed by the Scaliger family from 1277-1387, prior to the Visconti, and then the transfer of Verona to the Venetian Republic in 1405. Alberto della Scala tried in vain to appease the internal struggles due to the family hatreds of Verona, which became a part of the division in Italy between Guelphs, supporters of the Pope, and Ghibellines, supporters of the emperor. Incidentally, the reference to the Holy Roman Emperor is the best explanation for the almost playful use of the word emperor by Romeo and in the play Two Gentlemen of Verona. Dante Allighieri was hospitably received, at Verona by Bartolemmeo della Scala (Paradise XVII). The date was 1304, very close to the date of Romeo and Juliet. The quarreling Montecchi and Cappelletti families are referenced in Canto VI of Dante’s Purgatory.[17]  A note confirms that Montagues were Ghibellines, Capulets Guelph. The forgotten origin is the attempt, about 1045, of the emperor Henry to remove the Pope, and the excommunication of the emperor, followed by the besieging of the Pope, the retreat of Henry back to Germany and the relief of the Pope by Robert the founder of the Kingdom of Naples.[16] Just after he meets the philosophers Plato and Socrates in Hell, Dante sees the romantic suicides- the same question that led to the obscuring of the grave of Juliet. Justin Martyr, the first of the Christians known to have read the works of Plato, considers these to be saved, or Christian, in a sense of the word not used since (First Apology, XLVI). A different understanding of nature and convention and what Christian is, may be involved. Some interesting monuments remain, including the houses of Capulet and Montague and the tomb of Juliet. A Capelletto family gave the house to the city of Verona, and the house is from the thirteenth century. Archduke Giovanni seems to have taken the cover of the tomb in the Nineteenth Century, and chips of the red marble were taken as souvenirs. The tomb was converted to a horse watering pool to disguise it, because the convent at the site of the church was embarrassed by the scandal of having buried a suicide, a question familiar from Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. As usual in reading Shakespeare, the Shakespearean additions are an important indication of the purpose of the dramatist. The principal characters and events are all there in the story, while scenes like the palm dance, upon the meeting of the lovers, and events like the killing of Paris on the porch of the tomb, are Shakespearean additions, along with almost all the words. But Romeo and Juliet, in Shakespeare’s play, are about 13 or 14 and 16 or 17, and theirs, we think, is true love.  They are rich kids, and beautiful, though they are not a prince and princess. Rank is apparently not essential to true love. Hankins states: “In Biandello’s story Juliet is eighteen years old, in Brooke’s poem she is sixteen, and in Shakespeare’s play she is nearing her fourteenth birthday” (p. 856). The reason for this is a good question. It increases or emphasizes the innocence of the lovers, but also does something very interesting, in light of a comment of Bloom in the introduction to his edition of Rousseau’s Emile (p. 17): There is disjunction between the natural and conventional age of marriage, between puberty and the age when people are expected to marry. This difference, of course, causes all sorts of interesting circumstances in what are now recognized as the teen years of life, often a very difficult time in many ways. Shakespeare makes the two coincide in the play, and even in the world of Juliet, as her mother also was a bride at fourteen, though of a much older man. But Romeo and Juliet is then in a way an Italian history play.

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