Who were the real Romeo and Juliet? Learn more as the play returns to Beijing

Star-crossed, but since when and from where exactly?

Image: TNT Theatre
Back by popular demand, Britain's TNT Theatre returns to Beijing this January with its interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. But who were the real star-crossed lovers? We break down the play's secrets.

Will the real Romeo and Juliet please stand up?

Romeo and Juliet. Few names mean so much to so many. But even the Bard's genius at creating human, relatable characters doesn't explain the story's tremendous appeal; every culture has star-crossed lovers, but none are so universal. So how did Shakespeare – even Shakespeare – create this romance for the ages?

For starters, he had help. As a child, he would have read Ovid's tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, taken from Babylonian mythology, about lovesick offspring of feuding families separated by a wall. Through a chink in the stone, they exchanged passionate whispers and eventually arranged an elopement at a nearby mulberry tree. Thisbe arrived first to see a lion gnawing its prey and fled in terror. When Pyramus saw her bloody veil, he feared the worst and fell on his sword. Thisbe returns to a corpse and stabs herself as well, and the gods honoured them by staining mulberries the colour of blood. Shakespeare features this in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the rude mechanicals stage their comically under-rehearsed version for the royals. It seems star-crossed lovers are as old as, well, the stars.

Lucas Gassel, Pyramus and Thisbe, 1540-1550

But Romeo and Juliet's story has a complex provenance. Historians still spar about the specifics, but we'll start our reconstruction with Dante's Divine Comedy in 1320, featuring the actual Montagues and Capulets – the Montecchi and Cappeletti – whose feuding destabilised northern Italy. Then in 1476, Masuccio Salernitano published Mariotto and Gianozza, a tale of star-crossed lovers from warring families that featured some now-familiar elements: a secret marriage courtesy of a sympathetic friar, a street fight and citizen's death, Mariotto's exile, Gianozza's forced marriage and a plot involving a potion and a missed message (no suicides here – Mariotto is beheaded and Gianozza dies of grief). Setting the story in Siena, Salernitano insisted events were true and took place during his lifetime.

If so, they had an echo. In 1524, Luigi da Porto's Giulietta e Romeo drew from Salernitano's work, classical mythology and his own star-crossed, inter-clan romance. With Da Porto, we build further with the principal characters' Italian names, the meeting at the ball and the love scenes (even the balcony), as well as suicides by poison and dagger, and the families' eventual reconciliation. Da Porto set his tale in Verona, where he claimed the actual story took place a century earlier – but he dedicated it to his lost love.

Ford Madox Brown, Romeo and Juliet, 1869-1870

Two decades later, Matteo Bandello's Novelle added the Nurse and Benvolio characters, but had Juliet commit suicide by holding her breath (!). But Shakespeare's primary source was most likely Arthur Brooke's 1562, 3,020-line poem, The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, which reintroduces all these elements, as well as lecturing the lovers about 'thrilling themselves to unhonest desire' and 'abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage.' At the end of the century, the Bard put quill to paper; he fleshed out Mercutio and the Nurse, had Romeo kill Paris, squeezed nine months of action into several days and created some of the most haunting poetry written. And Romeo and Juliet became immortal.

Juliet: Lamb or Lion?

Often dismissed as a lovesick teenager, Juliet is one of Shakespeare's strongest women. Sheltered, naïve, and not yet fourteen, at her first meeting with Romeo she still matches him in poetry and wit. On the balcony, she rebuffs his flowery language and all but proposes to him. As for the wedding night, she is ready, even eager; her Act III 'Gallop apace' speech uses extraordinarily strong, sexualised language. True, she is swayed by the friar into joining his ridiculous plot, but remember that her mother ignored her, her father threatened violence, and her long-allied nurse who helped arrange her marriage now advises silence and bigamy. To this teenager, the friar is the only adult left.

John William Waterhouse, Juliet or The Blue Necklace, 1898

Paul Stebbings, TNT theatre’s founder and director, says Shakespeare's marriage to a woman seven years his senior – as well as a houseful of daughters – gave him an 'extraordinary understanding and sympathy with the feminine,' which has protected him from the 'dead white male' label. 'Juliet is the centre of gravity,' he says. 'This young teenager takes all the important decisions. She is the voice of both passion and reason, while Romeo is consumed by his feelings and staggers from mistake to mistake. Juliet also has the best poetry and the finest images in her text,' he continues. 'She understands and articulates the central motif: Love and Death are one. Their love is too pure for this world – it will never survive Juliet washing Romeo's socks,' he says. 'They have to die.'

Tragedy or farce?

While many (all?) Shakespearean tragedies seem achingly preventable, Romeo and Juliet is particularly frustrating, given that it revolves not around a tragic flaw but cruel fate. This includes the asymmetric bloodlines, the missed message, the doomed plot, and the obstinate and even abusive father that forces Juliet into a marriage when even he doubts her maturity. But in Isaac Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare, the author questions the actual depth of the feud. As early as Act I, Scene II, Paris and Capulet senior discuss the futility of maintaining this hatred, and Romeo is already mooning over Rosaline, Capulet's niece. When Romeo and friends crash the Capulet party in minimal disguise, they are discovered and tolerated; likewise, his companions let him scale high walls and approach Juliet's bedroom alone. If the feud still burned hot, Romeo would face certain death.

Frederick Leighton, The Reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet, 1855

To Asimov, the real problem is Tybalt's all-consuming hatred of the Montagues, a passion he has imparted to his young cousin. Consider the balcony scene: Romeo rhapsodises about her beauty, while Juliet anguishes over his name. Asimov feels that a fading feud generating so much death only heightens the eventual tragedy.

Regardless, conflict is the story's scaffolding, and a major reason for its appeal. While Shakespeare's most popular play has had countless incarnations on stage, in film, and through song and dance, the action has been set during Apartheid in South Africa and the Cold War in Eastern Europe; in Gaza between Israelis and Palestinians, and New York between the Jets and the Sharks, to name just a few. Romeo and Juliet reminds us there's nothing like systemic hostility to intensify passion – but the fall is that much harder. In a world where conflict is on the rise, we would do well to remember the costs.

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