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DAWN Images August 21, 2005

Romeo and Juliet: An Immortal Love Story


Monument of Nizami Ganjavi, Azerbaijan Shakespeare Monument, UK
Above left: Monument of Nizami Ganjavi (Azerbaijan). Above right: Monument of William Shakespeare (Straford0upon-Avon, UK)

Romeo and Juliet have come to characterize youth and youthful love. We know them through William Shakespeare, and the immortal lines that he put in their mouths, such as “What we call rose would by any other name smell just as sweet.” The lines are his, and so is the masterful treatment of the plot.

The story, however, goes back to at least more than a thousand years before Shakespeare, and the Elizabethan audience knew it in at least five different versions before Shakespeare was even born. His claim to fame rests on the way he used his craft to retell this well-known story — and indeed retelling an old story was a norm rather than deviation in those days.

Since times immemorial, many imaginations were haunted by a pair of unfortunate lovers, the female of which should commit herself to a dagger at the tomb of her untimely deceased lover. This was the central motif in the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, narrated by the Roman poet Ovid in the second century before Christ (Shakespeare himself parodied this tale in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). This primordial folk tale perhaps also gained currency in Persia and affected the handling of the semi-historical love story about a 7th century Persian Emperor Khusrau Pervez and his Armenian Christian wife Shirin (Irene). The definitive version, written around 1191 by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi, threatened Shirin with a distasteful marriage after Khusrau’s murder and she, much like Thisbe in Metamorphosis, asked to spend a night on her lover’s tomb, killing herself there with a dagger. Nizami also introduced Farhad, a sculptor who falls in love with Shirin while Khusrau is still courting her. He has to be prevented by false news of her death. Dismayed, he kills himself with a pick axe.

After passing through the Hellenistic and Latin hands the story now picked up a little bit of Persian mysticism: Farhad’s end serves as a mirror to Shirin’s own impending suicide. They both die from the same tragic flaw — too much love for ‘the other’ — but while he fails to see falsehood from truth, or appearance from reality, she at least dies for a real cause. The influence of this Persian version on the later romances that eventually served the plot for Romeo and Juliet is unrecorded but not unlikely. It is mindboggling to think that these two love stories, one so eastern and the other so western, were both derived form a single source.

Spain was the crossroad of civilizations between Islam and the West. The influence of eastern, especially Muslim, storytelling on the early Spanish literature is well-recorded. In 1476, the story of unfortunate lovers found a new version in Il Novellino (The Novel) by Spanish writer Massucio of Salerno. Here, Mariotto and Giannozza, a boy and a girl from Siena, secretly marry with the assistance of a friar. The boy kills a prominent citizen in a quarrel and is exiled to Alexandria while the girl avoids marriage to a suitor of her father’s choice by taking from the friar a magic potion (traceable in literature at least as far back as Ephesiaca by Xenophon of Ephesus in the fifth century A.D.). The potion puts her to a death-like sleep, she is sent to the tomb, rescued by the friar and eventually sent on her way to Alexandria. Her beloved husband, however, doesn’t receive the news since the messenger is intercepted by pirates, returns to Siena, gets caught and is executed. The girl returns heartbroken, goes to a nunnery and dies of grief.

The name Romeo was given to this character in Luigi da Porto’s novel published around 1530. It was adapted, of course, from the Spanish Il Novellino. Luigi shifted the scene from Spain to Italy and made some other changes, too. The city is Verona. Romeo and Guilietta come from two feuding families, the Montecchi and the Cappelletti. They meet at a carnival ball (where a minor character Marcuccio is also present), Romeo forgets his previous unrequited flame, and the friar who marries them is called Lorenzo. The gentleman whom Romeo kills despite earlier hesitations to fight is named Theobaldo Cappelletti, the city to which Romeo is banished is Mantua, and Lorenzo’s messenger who fails to deliver the crucial update is a fellow friar. Romeo carries a poison when he returns to Verona after hearing about Guilietta’s death, Guilietta wakes up in time to hear him speak, afterwards refuses the friar’s advice to go to a nunnery and dies by stopping her own breath. This Italian version was called Historia novellamente ritrovata di due Nobili Amanti.

In 1554, the story of Romeo and his girl reappeared in the Italian writer Matteo Bandello’s novel, Novelle. Changes occurred. For instance, Romeo goes to the ball in a mask, the minor character there is named Mercutio, the heroine’s name is Julietta, she is 18 years old and has a nurse. Romeo’s premarital visit to Julietta’s chamber is engineered by providing a rope ladder to the nurse. The poison he uses in the end is purchased from one Spolentino.

In 1559, the story of Romeo and Julietta appeared in French when Pierre Boaistaua included it in his Histoires Tragiques. He translated it from the 1554 novel by Bandello. However, the character who sold poison to Romeo was described here as an apothecary (later racked and hanged). Romeo dies before the heroine Juliet (as she is named in this French piece) wakes up and she, just like Thisbe and Shirin of the earlier stories, kills herself with a dagger (Romeo’s in this case).

By this time or shortly afterwards, the story became popular in England. At least the contemporary English poet Arthur Brooke saw a play about the two lovers on the British stage sometime before 1562. In 1562, he published a long narrative poem called The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet. Although he claimed that it was adapted from the Italian version of Bandell, it was in fact taken from the French adaptation. William Shakespeare, born two years after the first publication of Brooke’s poem, evidently consulted it for writing his play when he grew up. The poem opened like this:

There is beyond the Alps a town of ancient fame
Whose bright renown yet shineth clear.
Verona men it name,
Built in an happy time, built on a fertile soil,
Maintainid by the heavenly fates and by the townish toil...
There were two ancient stocks, which
Fortune high did place
Above the rest, endued with wealth and nobler of their race,
Loved of the common sort, loved of the Prince alike —
And like unhappy were they both when
Fortune list to strike — Whose praise with equal blast
Fame in her trumpet blew.

This should remind us of the famous prologue of Shakespeare’s play (written 30-37 years later), “Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”

Brooke named the two contesting houses Montague and Capilet, the hero was named Romeus, Juliet was a rather scheming creature (although her age was reduced to 16), the nurse became occasionally comical but remained unattractive and the narrative was spread over nine months. Juliet’s kinsman whom Romeo kills unwillingly was named Tybalt. Mercutio, the gentleman who hits on Juliet at the ball before she falls for Romeo, became quite memorable but remained a minor character. Despite sympathizing with the lovers, whose deep kissing at the very first meeting was graphically described, Brooke disapproved their carnality and haste. In the scene where Romeus talks to Juliet in her balcony, abstinence from premarital sex was a greater concern than love itself.

Four years after Brooke’s poem, William Painter included the story in The Palace of Pleasure, published in 1566. We do not know when Shakespeare wrote his play Romeo and Juliet, but it is commonly assumed to be sometime between 1592 and 1596. It is likely that he also consulted Painter’s work of 1566, but his familiarity with the relevant foreign novels remains uncertain. The old play (of 1559 or later) may not have been available to him and almost certainly would be of no use. He reduced the age of Juliet to a little less than 14 (which should correspond to the age of his own daughter, Susanna, if the play was written in 1596), and restored the hero’s name to its 1530 Italian version, Romeo.

Brooke’s poem of 1562 was obviously the main source and the play mostly runs parallel to it. The kissing scene in the source poem turned into a tongue-in-cheek repartee between Romeo and Juliet (but not with Romeo’s tongue in Juliet’s cheek, unlike in the source poem). Later again, where Juliet tries to find out about her anonymous lover with the nurse’s help, Shakespeare kept the ethos of the source poem but spruced it up for the stage, using that mastery over stagecraft in which no one was ever able to surpass him, before or after. He compressed the narrative to a few days, moving the events at a fast pace and introducing Tybalt and Paris earlier in the story, enhanced dramatic unity.

Of course, all characters got a doze of Shakespeare’s fresh DNA. Mercutio, instead of hitting on Juliet (as in the source stories), becomes Romeo’s unforgettable friend whose dramatic presence should dwarf Romeo himself if he wouldn’t die halfway through the play (cursing “a plague o’ both your houses”). The nurse became the untiring provider of bawdy jokes and hearty laughter.

The moral condescension of Brooke had to go. The lovers, allowed by Shakespeare to be themselves, turned into the two dramatic characters that were probably the best known and best loved in the entire history of imagination. The scene where Romeo addresses Juliet while she stands high in her balcony was by no means original to Shakespeare since it also featured in Brooke’s poem, but in Shakespeare’s hands it reached a perfection that cannot be surpassed. No one can ever forget it after once watching it on stage, in film, or in print:

Romeo: Lady, by yonder blessed moon I swear, That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops -

Juliet: O, swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon, That monthly changes in her circled orb, Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

Romeo: What shall I swear by?

Juliet: Do not swear at all; Or if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self, Which is the god of my idolatry, And I’ll believe thee.

The story lives on, mostly in the immortal lines of Shakespeare, but also in other adaptations such as operas and, of course, the remarkable Hollywood musical, West Side Story (1962). We need not mention the various other film versions, since they are too well known already, but the one directed by Zeffirelli in 1969 is usually regarded as the best representation of Shakespeare’s work on screen. The other one, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is memorable for adapting the entire script to the modern setting, without changing dialogue.

The treatment of this story, and the conjecture about Shakespeare’s writing of it, was however far from authentic in Shakespeare in Love. No doubt, the screen biographical about Shakespeare was very engaging and well deserved the acclaim and popularity it received. However, it failed to represent even the most basic values and devices that used to aid the creative processes of an Elizabethan playwright.

The path to the understanding of Shakespeare’s immortal superiority lies in accepting the fact he lived in an age where perfection was a more important value than originality. And in perfection he excelled.


The definitive version, written around 1191 by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi, threatened Shirin with a distasteful marriage after Khusrau’s murder and she, much like Thisbe in Metamorphosis, asked to spend a night on her lover’s tomb, killing herself there with a dagger.

 
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