Plagiarism in Verona?

“Romeo, Romeo. Wherefore art thou, Romeo?”

You may have never heard of The Globe. It’s possible you know nothing about PotPan or Prince Escalus or Friar John. It’s even plausible that you could be in the minority of people who don’t know the name of Shakespeare.

But its almost inconceivable that you would not know Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare’s classic has been told and retold on stage, in film, on the small screen, and in song. Adaptations run from classic (1968’s Romeo and Juliet starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey) to animated (2011’s Gnomeo and Juliet) to bizarre (Warm Bodies, 2013) to blockbuster (Leo DiCaprio, anyone?)

No matter the re-imagining, nothing compares to the Bard’s original conception of star-crossed lovers, which is widely believed to have first been performed on this day in 1595.

Except, the story wasn’t exactly the Bard’s. And it wasn’t exactly an original.

The Montagues and the Capulets–the two families at the center of Romeo and Juliet‘s bitter feud–were not creations of Shakespeare’s mind. The two names appeared in a not-so-obscure work over 250 years before he was even born: Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” In it, the poet writes:

“Come and see, you who are negligent, / Montagues and Capulets, Monaldi and Filippeschi: / One lot already grieving, the other in fear. / Come, you who are cruel, come and see the distress / Of your noble families, and cleanse their rottenness.” (emphasis mine)

The Montagues and Capulets were real political factions, rather than families, in the 13th century. Perhaps Shakespeare was just lending credibility by using historically accurate names?

Maybe…but it goes deeper.

In 1476, Masuccio Salernitano published a story called Il Novellino. It had many of the ingredients of Shakespeare’s play–the feuding families and young lovers–but there is no suicidal ending. In 1530, Luigi da Porto published Historia Novellamente Ritrovata di due Nobili Amanti (A Story Newly Found of Two Noble Lovers). This version of the story brings the star-crossed lovers–Romeo and Giulietta, members of the Montecchi and Capelletti families, respectively–to Verona. Familiar characters also make appearances in this version, such as Paris and Friar Lorenz (Lawrence). At the end of this story, the lovers DO commit suicide.

Matteo Bandello is credited with the next popular adaptation of the story, Novelle, which came out in 1554. His story keeps the basic premise but also adds a few details readers (or watchers) of Shakespeare will recognize: the masked ball, for example, and the character of the Nurse.

However, of all of these earlier stories, most scholars count Arthur Brooke’s 1562 poem “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet” as the most straight-forward source of Shakespeare’s play. Brooke’s poem is a ringer for Shakespeare’s (published in 1597) with three notable exceptions: he compressed the action from several months to only a few days, he further developed Mercutio into a much more complex character, and he brought Paris back into the story at the end, to die by the hand of Romeo at Juliet’s tomb.

So there you have it. Was the famous Bard nothing more than a mere plagiarist, his most famous work lifted from the page of another?

By 21st Century standards, perhaps. But by 16th Century standards?

Lifting ideas and inspiration from other writers–sometimes plot point by plot point–was common practice in the 1500’s. Rather than “stealing,” it was seen as honoring, a way of paying tribute to the genius and artistry of others.

In addition, there is some evidence that the original story of Romeo and Juliet belonged less to any one writer and more to the people themselves–the real-life Romeo and Juliet.

In 1594, Italian Girolamo del Corte published a History of Verona and included a story called Storia di Verona, claiming it as a true event which took place in 1303. In it, star-crossed lovers escaped an arraigned marriage by using of a sleeping potion, resulting in tragedy.

While we don’t know the historical accuracy of del Corte’s account, the original tale–if indeed it did occur in the early 14th century–was obviously well-known enough to inspire countless fictionalized versions, adapted and reimagined over and over throughout the years with an ever-evolving set of characters, settings, and circumstances while keeping the spirit of the story–the tragedy of star-crossed lovers–at its core.

Sounds kind of like another play I know…

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