I had been forewarned that the movie Shakespeare in Love was not historically accurate. I was prepared to accept this fact in the name of entertainment. But, about halfway through the movie, I was overcome by my long-simmering feelings concerning the English-speaking world's neglect of Shakespeare's reliance on Italian literature. I was not provoked into writing this essay, however, until I chanced upon a newly reissued Romeo and Juliet with a preface by a scholar who actually opined that it was "obvious" that Will Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet as a young man fresh in the throes of his first experience of "true love." To set the record straight, Shakespeare was at least 30 years old and the father of three children when he wrote R&J; he had experienced more than one episode of love, true or romantic or otherwise.
In 1991 in Italy, I happened upon a variety of manuscripts relating to commedia dell'arte and other traditional Italian theatre art forms. One group of quartos contained scenarios very similar to the themes/stories of the following plays by Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, and Romeo and Juliet. Also, I came upon three "novellas" telling the story of Romeo and Juliet: Story Thirty Three, by Masuccio Salernitano (Tommaso dei Guardati, 1410 to 1480); Giulietta e Romeo or Historia novellamente ritrovata di due nobili amanti by Luigi da Porto (1485 to 1529); and Giuletta e Romeo by Matteo Bandello (1485 to 1561). Da Porto and Bandello fixed the situation of R&J in the city of Verona, in the region of Venice. (I also came upon a novella entitled Otello written by Giraldi Cinthio, but this is a matter for another presentation.)
When I started teaching theatre history at Loyola University, Chicago, I continued to experience the fact that the majority of histories and commentaries I read entirely ignored Shakespeare's use of Renaissance Italian literature. Most Shakespeare scholars agreed that Will had received an excellent grammar school education at the hands of master teachers trained in the literature and curriculum of the Italian Renaissance. While these authorities were willing to cite possible classical sources, they were completely silent about the Italian texts available to Shakespeare.
There can be no doubt concerning the existence of texts in Italian narrating the story of Romero and Juliet prior to Shakespeare's R & J. What must be shown is their availability to Shakespeare and the probability of their use by him as sources for his own creation. I can present the basic outline of the internal textual and eternal contextual evidence for such a demonstration.
The Tudors embraced the Italian Renaissance with great gusto. An astonishing number of English humanists and artists journeyed to Italy to complete their scholarly and artistic education. We know from historical records of the time that there was a sizable Italian community in London centered around an area in which Shakespeare worked. Two of the Italians in London are of special importance to us because of their significant connections to Shakespeare: John Florio, the compiler of the first Italian-English dictionary, and Emilia Bassano, wife of Alfonso Bassano, head of the Bassano family, a company of Venetian theatre artists who were in residence at the court of Queen Elizabeth.
John Florio was a scholar, educator, translator and poet. He wrote poetry in English and Latin as well as in Italian. Florio's poetry so impressed Shakespeare's patron, Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton, that he unceremoniously transferred his patronage to Florio, depriving Will of his stipend.
Some authorities believe that Emilia Bassano was Shakespeare's mistress, suspecting her of being the mysterious "Dark Lady" of Will's sonnets. Be this as it may, there is no doubt that Shakespeare knew Emilia and the members of her Venetian theatre family on a professional and social basis. As Venetians, the Bassano family would have been thoroughly trained in the theatre arts and literature of the commedia and thoroughly acquainted with the Venetian works of Italian Renaissance literature. I believe it most probable that the Bassanos possessed da Porto's and Bandello's novella of the story of R & J and that they orally presented these in various contexts.
Regarding the internal textural evidence in Shakespeare's R & J: da Porto names the two feuding families the Capuleti and the Montecchi, after two physically opposing castles bearing these names just outside of Verona; and Bandello's R & J, which builds upon da Porto, was translated into French by Pierre Boaistuau, who renders the family names into French as Capulet and Montague.
Most English-speaking scholars assume Shakespeare used Arthur Brooke's The Tragical Historye of Romeus and Juliet, based on Boaistuau's French version of Bandello, for his telling of R & J. I find this assumption hard to sustain in the light of the rich knowledge and use of Italian language and culture in Shakespeare's play, and in the light of the depth and quality of Shakespeare's focus on the psychological states of Romeo and Juliet. To me, the textural evidence strongly favors the assumption that Shakespeare knew the story of Romeo and Juliet from the several Italian texts available to him in London at the time, the principal text being Bandello's novella.
With Benedeto Croce (Italian philosopher, literary critic, and Shakespeare scholar), I see Bandello's focus on the psychology of the two doomed lovers as a groundbreaking humanistic take on a very old Veronese tale. I believe Shakespeare seized upon the psychological vein that Bandello opened, expertly mining its ore to produce his universal, eternal, and definitive telling of the story of Juliet and her Romeo.
What wonderful treasures, scholarly and artistic, await a serious study of Shakespeare's Italian sources!
Pre-modern versions exist in the dramatic literature of classical Latin and Greek. Obviously they are not located in Verona, Italy. The theme is very old and is to be found embedded in folklore throughout the Mediterranean. The modern form of the story as that of Romeo and Juliet developed in the 15th and 16th century in the form of the novelle or novella (short story). The Italian novella were very popular in 16th century England, especially in London, where several versions of the story existed in English translations from the Italian and the French. It is certain that Shakespeare was familiar with these novella, especially in light of the fact that The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado, All's Well, and Measure for Measure, as well as Romeo and Juliet come directly from these Italian sources. The following are the most likely novella sources:
1. Masuccio Salernitano, born Tommaso dei Guardati (1410 - 1480), Kingdom of Naples, story 33 of 50 novella, written in Italian dialect. He develops the story of two young star-crossed lovers from Latin and Italian sources. His is considered the first modern version of Romeo and Juliet.
2. Luigi da Porto, born in the Veneto region of Italy (1485-1529), retold the Masuccio story 33 explicitly as Giulietta e Romeo to honor the city of Verona, from which one side of my family comes. Da Porto establishes all of the essential elements of the story as to locale and constructs the plot around events chronicled in Verona. He has a second version of the story: Historia novellamente ritrovata di due nobili amanti.
3. Matteo Bandello, born in the Piedmont region of Italy (1485-1561, wrote the most famous version of Romeo and Juliet, which was translated into French and English, and adapted into commedia dell' arte theatre scenarii for live performance by many troops, some of which went to London and were performing at the time Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet. Dramatic Publishing Company publishes a play, Dark Lady, by Karen Sunde which explores the possible connection between Will and that Italian troop.
When you read the da Porto and the Bandello texts, you can see quite plainly Shakespeare's reliance on their developments of the story, and, at the same time, the great genius of Shakespeare reconstructing the story to suit his own poetic ends.
All of these sources can be found in the Arden Shakespeare editions of Shakespeare's work. The novella can be found in various libraries in Italy, but with great difficulty. The most interesting treasure yet to be mined are the scenarii of the commedia dell'arte in Venice. Most researches look for plays. There were a few, but the real sources are novella and commedia.