In search of Romeo and Juliet

The course of true history never did run smooth

Juliet's balcony
  • Juliet's balcony

Lamb’s Players fine production of West Side Story raises a question. The musical based Tony and Maria on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. But where did the Bard’s star-crossed lovers come from? And were they real?

You can go to Verona, Italy, and see Juliet’s house at Via Cappello, 23. You can even stand on her balcony, a stone rectangle jutting from the second floor, and visit the famous tomb. And Cappello sounds like Capulet, right?

But soft. The balcony was built early in the 20th century to attract tourists. They queue up to be where Romeo woo’d her on the cobblestone street.

Shakespeare’s major source, most likely, comes from the long poem by Arthur Brooke, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562). But this was a translation of Matteo Bandello’s Giulietta e Romeo (1554), who in turn rewrote Luigi da Porto’s Giulietta e Romeus (1535).

Da Porto’s tale takes place in Verona. His source said the families were the Montecchi (Montague) and Capulletti (Capulet). Da Porto swore the story was true.

Romeus meets Giulietta at a carnival. He forgets he’s already in love with another woman and falls headlong. When he peers through her window, she’s asleep. Thinking she’s dead, Romeus ends his life. She wakes up, sees he’s gone, and dies.

Da Porto gave the lovers their now familiar names and added new characters: Marcuccio, Theobaldo, Friar Lorenzo. He wrote the novella as a warning against the “dangers of love.”

In the Italian versions, Juliet’s name always comes first. As the tellings come forward, she grows younger: 18 in Bandello, 16 in Brooke, and just shy of 14 in Shakespeare.

Da Porto’s families were familiar to readers of Dante’s Purgatorio VI. 106-108 (completed around 1310). “Come behold Montecchi and Cappelletti…/Those sad already…” So were they Shakespeare’s feuding families?

Actually no.

They weren’t families. They were political factions. The mercantile Montecchi’s had a castle outside Verona. But these weren’t the feuding members of the clan. The Montecchi’s in Cremona were. They thrived in the late 1200s. The Cappellettis, also of Cremona, were aristocrats. They wore little hats to distinguish themselves and flourished after most Montecchis had left the region.

Da Porto probably chose Dante’s names because they were so recognizable. Some of the original Montecchi’s drifted to England and became Montagus. The mother of Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesly, Third Earl of Southampton, was a Montagu. Another reason the Bard liked the name?

Da Porto’s actual source might have been Masuccio Salernitano’s Il Novellino (1476). The lovers are Mariotto and Giannozza. He’s a Maganelli, she a Saraceni. They live in Siena, not Verona. And their families have feuded for over a century.

Aided by a friar, they marry in secret. Mariotto slays a nobleman in a duel (though not a Saraceni). If caught in Siena, he will be beheaded. So he sails to a family home in Alexandria, Egypt.

Giannozza’s father wants her to wed. Distraught, she takes a sleeping potion to mimic death. Hearing she died, Mariotto returns to Siena. When he tries to open her tomb, gendarmes capture him. Giannozza can’t stop the execution. She cradles the severed head in her hands, and dies of a broken heart.

Salernitano said Mariotto and Giannozza, the “two noble lovers,” were his contemporaries.

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Better check that balcony for dry-rot.

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