Most of Romeo and Juliet is fiction. But not all. Since I set the story very firmly in 1499 I was able to introduce a few touches of real history too, fragments of Italy which resonate with the story and are still with us today. Here are a few examples. The rest I’ll leave to others to discover. And to find what it means in the story itself go to Audible here.
Arthur Brooke, author of the poem which Shakespeare used as the basis of Romeo and Juliet, follows his original Italian sources in stating that the story really happened. He ends his verse with the claim that the tomb of Juliet and her knight still stood in Verona and was much admired. This is pure fancy. There is no record of any family called Capulet in the city. One called Montecchi — perhaps an Italian Montague — did exist but they were expelled in 1229, long before anyone began to write about two star-cross’d lovers.
Romeo and Juliet are fictional characters through and through. None of this stops millions of tourists visiting modern Verona to gawp at the famous house in via Capello — so called because it once belonged to the Da Capello family, the nearest anyone can get to ‘Capulet’. This building may date back as far as the 13th century but most of the features visible today date from a heavy restoration in the 1940s, including the much-photographed balcony which was probably a sarcophagus before the town council of Verona decided to stick it halfway up the wall. Quite a few visitors also make the trip to the former convent of San Francesco al Corso to pose for selfies by her supposed stone coffin, below, though in truth the place is much more interesting for its works of art than something that was once used as a simple water trough.
Does it matter? Not really. Stories are sometimes made as much by the imagination of audiences and readers as they are by that of a playwright or author. If enough people believe a myth to be true, is it really still a myth?
It’s impossible to separate the tale of Juliet and her Romeo from this ancient city in the Veneto. So I have set much of this narrative in places you can still see today since the historic centre, set behind its walls in a bend of the Adige river, is recognisably the Verona of five hundred years ago.
The social centre is where the first scene takes place — the market square, once the Roman forum, now the Piazza Erbe, where the servants of Montagues and Capulets are spoiling for a fight. There are still market stalls but mostly they’re for the tourists these days. But in and around the piazza you’ll still find plenty of interesting streets and palaces hidden away.
Another key location is the imposing basilica of San Zeno, one of Verona’s most impressive sights, a fifteen to twenty minute walk away from the Piazza Erbe. The embalmed corpse of the saint himself, which so appals Juliet, remains there sixteen centuries on from his death, visible in red robes in a glass casket in the crypt. Above the main doors is the famous rose window with its wheel of fortune characters around the circumference.
Sant’Anastasia, the Capulets’ parish church is little changed, though its most famous feature, the extraordinary Pisanello fresco of Saint George and the Princess with its hanged men in the background, above, has suffered over the years. Around the corner runs the low colonnaded street of Sottoriva where Romeo has his fateful meeting with Tybalt. Today this is a quiet place for restaurants and local shops. But in the period in which the story is set it was a rundown area of brothels and suspect taverns.
Back towards the Piazza Erbe lie the central monumental buildings of the city, and the curious raised tombs of the Scaligeri clan where Romeo meets Mercutio and Benvolio before the Capulet banquet. The tombs are an odd corner in this monumental part of the old city, scarcely grand and now fenced off from the public. Next to them the little church of Santa Maria Antica is well worth a visit for its intimate interior and the relics of the family that once ruled Verona.
The statue of Cangrande above his sarcophagus over the church door, grinning on his horse, a dog’s head mask on his back, is a copy. The original you’ll find in his castle, the seat of Escalus in this version. As Mercutio notes, it’s unlikely Cangrande was smiling when he passed away in 1329 since rumour long had it he was poisoned by a relative. In 2004 a post mortem was carried out on his remains and it was discovered he died of digitalis poisoning, perhaps at the hands of his nephew.
Today the fortress is known as the ‘Castelvecchio’, the old castle. But to the players in this tale it wouldn’t be old at all, so in the story it’s called simply Cangrande’s castle. The red brick swallow-tail bridge over the Adige which Romeo rides across is a popular place for evening excursions and a very lively market at times.
The building itself has been converted into a museum and art gallery — the painting of the girl with her charcoal drawing of a stick figure seen in Juliet’s bedroom can be found there again after being recovered when a bunch of thieves stole some of the museum’s most admired canvases. The Roman arena, where the three youths meet after the banquet, is no longer a haunt for prostitutes and vagabonds but a tourist attraction used for operatic performances that attract music lovers from all over the world.
Here’s a map to put it into a little context. Click on the icon in the right hand corner for the big version and you can walk the streets thanks to the magic of Google.
Shakespeare doesn’t state when his tale is set, though usually it is assumed to be in the early fourteenth century when Verona was still an independent city state. I’ve placed this version very deliberately in July 1499, a time when Italy was in a feverish mood of excitement due to what we now call the Renaissance. By that time Verona had become part of the Venetian empire.
For me Romeo and Juliet is very much a story about ambition and aspiration. The two lovers want to be free to be themselves. Juliet, in particular, is desperate to throw off the social shackles that mean a woman is a lesser citizen, a possession to be sold by her family in accordance with the social and religious mores of the day.
In 1499 Italy was divided into contentious, occasionally warring city states, not a country at all. Religion was a source of bitter and occasionally bloody argument. The Catholic Church under the Borgia Pope was headed for the split that was to form Protestantism, led by clerics who opposed the corruption and debauchery of Rome.
Count Paris is newly arrived from Florence which has just seen the brief rule of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, a forerunner of the Protestants, a hardline ascetic who controlled the city for a little while, and brought in the Bonfire of the Vanities, only to be burned at a stake himself when he fell. In the east the Islamic Ottoman empire was rising, threatening to invade Christian Europe and engaging in a running war with its nearest western neighbour, the Venetians.
At the same time art and culture were flourishing. In Venice the printer Aldus Manutius had invented the technology to mass produce books cheaply, bringing reading and learning, something previously restricted to the few, to a wider audience. Michelangelo and Da Vinci were constantly crossing the borders between art, philosophy and science, while Machiavelli was plotting to set out the principles of his version of modern statecraft in The Prince.
A new century was just a few months away, with it the start of the second half of the millennium. It seemed an apt moment for a story about two young people who wish to shrug off the stifling world of their parents and explore the brave new one emerging around them.
Another clip and some context…
Shakespeare’s take on Romeo and Juliet has an extraordinary structure. It begins almost as rude comedy among the ruffians in the marketplace, strutting towards a fight. Then the narrative turns romantic as the couple meet, and almost into suspense as we wonder how they’ll manage to wed in secret. By the end of the third part the wheel of fortune has turned for the worse and brought the inexorable shift to tragedy with it.
Before the story closes we’ll almost step into the realm of horror with Juliet, seemingly dead, in the crypt. But here we’re back at the end of part three. Tybalt’s dead. Romeo’s banished for his murder. Paris, the man Juliet is being told to marry against her wishes, is becoming more and more impatient. As is Juliet’s father, increasingly incensed by her stalling. There’s a storm brewing in the Capulet household.
One of the recurring themes in this story is the gulf between young and old. How two generations fail to understand each other even when there’s love, real love, between them. Capulet, Juliet’s father, is easily seen as an ogre. He drinks too much. He’s quick to anger. But he’s also a prisoner of his time and the mores he’s inherited, conventions Juliet so dearly wishes to break. Capulet’s a merchant quietly envious of the class of an aristocrat like Paris. Being associated with nobility is, for him, as much a reason for the marriage with Juliet as their potential business ties. Which makes it all the more infuriating when his daughter dismisses them all. She’s not just spurning him. She’s rejecting Capulet’s very world.
She’s young, she’s rebellious, she’s intent on owning her life for herself not, at the age of sixteen, watching it given away to a man she loathes. She’s not head-in-the-air like Romeo. Juliet is a practical young woman who sees herself as a child of what we now call the Renaissance, fired by a new era of knowledge, art and exploration, desperate to see life beyond the walls of Verona. To her the idea of a forced marriage to a man like Paris is as good as a death sentence.
Capulet, on the other hand, sees his role as a traditional one. He’s the head of the family, the captain of the ship. Duty and obedience are expected of everyone, from wife and daughter as much as the servants he’ll whip if he thinks they need it. These are his responsibilities and, in his confused mind, his determination to enforce them represents a kind of love as well.
This scene is a turning point for Juliet. Everyone thinks she should marry Paris. Even Nurse who knows of her secret wedding to Romeo. Even her own mother who, when asked to take sides, backs her husband, not her child. This, she tells Juliet, is how the world works, what women do. Obey and know their place.
Juliet realises for the first time that, with Romeo gone, she’s virtually alone, with only the sympathetic ear of the seemingly powerless Friar Laurence to comfort her. The pressure is immense. It would be so easy to give in. Romeo’s a murderer, unable to return to Verona on pain of death. Paris may be loathsome but he’s rich and promising her a leisurely life.
Yet young and old do share the same blood, and Juliet surely carries a streak of her father’s stubbornness. Here, as he places the final ultimatum in front of her — marry Paris or else — the storm, long brewing, begins to break.
— Audible (@audible_com) December 7, 2016
Here are Richard’s thoughts. I’m with him. We need reasons. In Shakespeare it happens in nineteen lines or so. In an eleven-hour audio drama we have to know more. Connection, detachment from the adult world, need, above all a recognition of something shared…
I love his goths and emo comparison too. It hadn’t occurred to me as I was writing but it’s spot on. This is where scriptwriting beats straight fiction into the dust. You’re not a lone warrior any more. You’re collaborating. With luck you produce something that a great performer can take, run with and make bigger and better.
Gold posy ring with inscription and maker’s mark. © The Trustees of the British Museum
I hesitate to use real life in fiction. Every author’s familiar with that moaning email in which a reader cites an instance in the story and says, ‘That could never happen in real life.’ We also know that the event concerned is often one taken straight from real life itself.
To support the theory that nothing is stranger than non-fiction I enter one piece of evidence only: the year 2016.
But sometimes it’s hard to resist. In this adaptation we have many scenes you will not find in Shakespeare. In one Paris, a fuller character here, makes a rather creepy and pathetic effort to win Juliet over in the Capulet garden. He’s not a man who’s good with words, at least not around women. But he has brought her a ring, one with a history I will leave to the story to explain.
The ring has an inscription inside, ‘I have obtained whom God ordained’. Not a sentiment likely to win the heart of an independent-minded young woman like Juliet.
As you can see from the exhibit from the British Museum above… I didn’t make this up. Posy rings like this, with little messages inside them, were once common. And that inscription was too.
A gift I could not refuse.
Here we are at last. Almost two years after we first embarked on this project Romeo and Juliet: A Novel is going live on Audible sites around the world as this post appears. This isn’t the end of the story. Over the coming weeks we’ll be providing further background for those of you who want to find out more about the historical and cultural references behind the story.
For now let me just say thanks. To Richard Armitage for bringing his immense talents to the project. I cannot imagine how this story could have been told by anyone else. As a scriptwriter I am simply an architect sketching out blueprints. It remains to the actor to breathe life into the characters, the world and the story I describe in nothing more than words. Richard’s ability to do that is quite extraordinary. He brings a vast theatrical experience to the performance without ever appearing theatrical. His subtle uses of voices and accents makes the story real. I don’t know how he manages it, or how he appears to make it so easy — which it isn’t. I’m just grateful he does what he does.
But the two of us aren’t everything. There’s an Audible army behind us too, commissioning editors, directors, sound engineers, musicians, support people… an unseen band of heroes without whom none of this could have been possible.
One of the things I love about working in this extraordinary medium is the courage Audible shows in commissioning material outside the norm — such as wholescale reworkings of stories that have been loved and revered for centuries. That takes guts and vision. There’s a thirst for innovation around this place that you don’t find in many conventional publishing houses where the safe and predictable option is always the easy one to take.
For me Audible first showed their true colours six years ago when, in an outburst of brave insanity, they commissioned my good mate AJ Hartley and me to write Macbeth: A Novel. Not long after we had Alan Cumming, a magical piece of work, and two Audie nominations. Then they did the same with Hamlet and found Richard for us too and more Audie glitter as well. This kind of courage is rare in publishing these days, and matched by a focus on quality, on getting it right rather than getting out quick, that’s just as exceptional too. The encouragement, support and enthusiasm we’ve had throughout from everyone at Audible from beginning to end has been incredible. I can’t thank you all enough.
And finally the audience, the fans and followers who’ve been with us since this project was announced, with your support, encouragement and boundless enthusiasm. You’re the reason we’re doing this and you matter. When, on occasion, I faltered with doubts while writing R&J — as all writers do mid-project — I only had to tune into the enthusiastic and informed comments from listeners to Hamlet and Macbeth on the Audible sites to give me the spirit to get back into the fray. Without your very vocal support we wouldn’t be here.
Now, as the curtain finally rises, I hope we’ve made the wait worthwhile.
Oh… and this (shields eyes) is me rambling on too. Richard does it so much better.
I like having a new medium to play in as a writer; I want to find out all that it can do and everything I can do in it.
I’m with Scalzi on this all the way. The tricks that make audio work make a lot of general fiction work better too. I’ll be posting some longer thoughts about this later this month. One note: I don’t remove dialogue attributions altogether. Sometimes I think they’re still needed.