Shakespeare's Sources

Tiffany Howe

     Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is one play in a series of stories about two young lovers with feuding families.  The first known story was in the fifth century A.D., not printed until 1726, called Ephesiaca by Xenophon of Ephesus.  The wife is separated from her husband and to avoid marrying another man, she takes a sleeping potion.  She wakes up in a tomb and is carried off for other adventures.
    Based on this story is Masuccio's Il Novellino of 1476.  It is an Italian story about Mariotto and Giannozza.  A Friar secretly marries them, and then Mariotto kills an important citizen and is exiled to Alexandria.  Giannozza takes a sleeping potion to avoid marrying a man of her fathers choosing and after being buried, sneaks away to Alexandria.  Pirates capture the messenger that was going to tell Mariotto that Giannozza was not really dead.  Therefore, when Mariotto hears of her death, he returns home and tries to open the tomb.  He is beheaded and Giannozza comes back and dies in a convent.  The sequences of events in this story are very similar to Romeo and Juliet.  However, there is no mention of feuding families and the lovers do not commit suicide.
     In 1530 Luigi da Porto published Historia novellamente ritrovata di due Nobili Amanti based on Masuccio's story but set in Verona with feuding families, the Montecchi and the Cappelletti.   Romeo meets Giulietta at a Carnival ball and forgets about an unrequited love he has for another girl.   They see each other at church and Romeo visits her chamber window.  Romeo mistakes Giulietta's sleeping for her death and kills himself.  When Giulietta wakes she "drew in her breath and held it long, and then, uttering a great cry, fell dead on the corpse of Romeo."  It lacks characters comparable to the Nurse and Benvolio but Mercutio has an undeveloped counterpart in this narrative, named Marcuccio.
     Inspired by Porto, Matteo Bandello wrote Novelle in 1554.  In this version, Julietta wants to run off with the banished Romeo but he forbids it.  Romeo writes a letter to his father explaining everything when he learns the false news that Julietta is dead.  Julietta and Romeo share a scene in the tomb where they are both alive.  Mercutio and the Nurse have minor roles.
     Pierre Boaistuau translated this version by Bandello into French in 1559 in his Histoires Tragiques.  For the first time the names Romeo and Juliet are used in the story.  Romeo attends the ball hoping he will find a new woman so he will forget about his unrequited love.  Juliet's father shows his temper with Juliet for not wanting to marry the Count Paris introducing the power of the father figure.  Also, Romeo dies before Juliet awakens and she kills herself with Romeo's dagger.  The Friar explains the whole situation to prove his innocence, the apothecary is hanged and the Nurse is banished for concealing the marriage.
     The sole source that Shakespeare must have used is Arthur Brooke's poem The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet published in 1962.  Brooke was a writer during the 'Drab Age' but Shakespeare was able to dramatize Brooke’s poem into an emotional play.  The evolution involved character development and a strict time schedule, necessary for the action that occurs in a play.  Brooke touched on the love/hate theme in his poem and also stressed the star-crossed fortune of Romeo and Juliet.
 In order to make the young lover's fate more believable, Shakespeare compresses the time lapse of the action into a few days. This contrasts the 9 months it takes Brooke's poem to unfold.  Juliet also gets increasingly younger as the story is told.  Bandello has Julietta as 18, Brooke makes Juliet 16, and Shakespeare lowers her age even father to almost 14.
    It is not certain whether Shakespeare did use all of these sources but there is an obvious connection between them.  The most influential for Shakespeare seems to have been the narrative poem by Arthur Brooke.  Shakespeare's choices were made to make the story a successful play rather than a narrative or poem.  More character development was used and a different time schedule moves along the action.  Regardless of the sources, most scholars would agree that Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is a masterpiece manipulating language and human interaction.


Bullough, Geoffrey, ed.  Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1957.

Herford, C., ed.  The Works of Shakespeare.  New York:  The Macmillan company, 1904.

Muir, Kenneth.  The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays.  Great Britain:  The University Press, 1977.

Shakespeare, William.  Romeo and Juliet.  Ed.  David Bevington.  New York:  Scott, Foresman and Company,  1980.

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