Sunday, 13 February 2011

Veneto - In Fair Verona, Where We Lay Our Scene.

Verona is the setting for one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, Romeo and Juliet.  As tomorrow is St Valentine's Day and I'm blogging about the Veneto, I thought it would be apt to write a blogpost about this, probably the world's greatest love story!


The story of Romeo and Juliet has been in existence in one form or another since antiquity.  One of the earliest versions was that of Pyramus and Thisbe retold by Ovid in his collection of myths, Metamorphoses.  Where exactly Shakespeare got his version of the story from is a matter of debate, but he may have been influenced by a collection of tales called The Palace of Pleasure that was published in London in 1566 by a civil servant called William Painter.  Painter in turn 'borrowed' the story from a poet called Arthur Brook, who had translated the original text of the Italian poet, Mateo Bandello

Regardless of how Shakespeare got his hands on the story, we know that Italian romances were incredibly fashionable in 16th-century England.  Romeo and Juliet wasn't the only play that Shakespeare set in the Veneto - The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Twelfth Night and The Two Gentlemen of Verona were all set in and around the Veneto.  Whether or not Shakespeare ever read The Palace of Pleasure, he would no doubt have been influenced by the general tendency to use Italy and the Veneto as the setting for these plays.  Whilst, in a sense, Shakespeare was capitalising on the popularity of Italian stories like Romeo and Juliet, he managed to take the story even further and turn it into a classic, which has influenced generations of writers, songwriters, playwrights and movie makers ever since!

Romeo and Juliet by Sir Frank Dicksee
 Universal stories

Whilst Shakespeare could be criticised for reworking someone else's story, I strongly believe that there is no such thing as an original plot.  Every story that exists, exists because it's part of the universal human experience.  Romeo and Juliet, Prometheus, Hamlet, Oedipus - these are all stories that run deep in the human psyche. What's interesting is how they are retold by writers/poets/film-makers and how the stories are portrayed in a way that reflects the culture and concerns of the society they are being retold for.  It's interesting to see different versions of Romeo and Juliet and how these reflect the time that the plays/books/films were made. 

Shakespeare was a master of tension - Romeo and Juliet sometimes defies classification - is it a love story?  Or a tragedy?  Or even a comedy?  By alternating tragic and comic scenes, Shakespeare increased the tension of the story:  one minute you are on tenterhooks, doubting that Romeo and Juliet's love will survive the conflicts that surround them, the next you have relaxed into a false sense of joy and optimism.  Shakespeare managed to recreate the sensations we all feel when falling in love - the elation, the anxiety, the bravado, but also the fear of trusting someone so completely, with something that is so very fragile - the lover's heart!

Teenage Love

One thing that sits uncomfortably with a modern audience are the ages of Romeo and Juliet.  In modern times, Juliet is usually played by actresses who are older than 13, which is the age of the character in Shakespeare's play.  This is understandable, considering the nature of sexuality in the modern age.  On the other hand, I find the characterisation of Romeo and Juliet surprisingly modern.  Their love has the typically passionate obsession of a teenage crush.  It's a story about teenage love, written at a time when the concept of teenagers didn't really exist.  Yet again, I think Shakespeare was ahead of his time and can't help wondering if he's currently living in a flat in Brixton or somewhere, building a time machine that will take him back to the 16th century!

Juliet by Phillip H Calderon (1888)

Innumerable songs, books and movies have explored the theme of love and what it all means.  I can't help wondering what would have happened if Romeo and Juliet had lived happily ever after.  Would they have turned into a bickering old couple, who regretted having married so young - would it have ended in a messy divorce or would they have been one of those old couples you see, who still love each other passionately after decades of being together?  I guess there's no real point to wondering in this way.  Shakespeare understood the true nature of the story and that it had to end badly.  By bringing in death, he managed to eroticise a story that otherwise could have been incredibly trite and wouldn't have appealed to contemporary and future audiences in the way it has.

Zeffirelli's 1968 film version

One of the main reasons I started this blog was so I could discover seminal books, movies, food and music that everyone should learn about and know.  I can safely include Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet in this category.  It's an amazing film and is overwhelming in the rich colours and lush cinematography of a film that is very much of its time.  Zeffirelli used beautiful actors and created a movie that was both sensuous and engaging.  I studied Romeo and Juliet at school, but that was a long time ago and, despite the fact that many lines were cut from Zeffirelli's version, it all came flooding back to me.

One aspect of Zeffirelli's film that particularly impressed me was the way he managed to convey the fight scenes, as light-hearted taunting that eventually turned serious.  It captured the impulsiveness of young men and gave a very realistic depth to the violence of the story.  I think most young men who carry knives or guns have no sense of how dangerous a situation can become and how serious it is to take someone's life. 

I was also very impressed by the actress who played Juliet's Nurse - an incredibly complicated character to play, being the main comic relief in a story that is so unbelievably tragic. 

I'm posting a video from YouTube that shows the scene when Romeo and Juliet first meet - it also has the haunting soundtrack of the main song in Zeffirelli's movie, What is a Youth?

Other versions

I still love Baz Lurhmann's 1996 version William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet and, in the same way that Zeffirelli captures the innocence and naked sensuality of the 60's, Luhrmann captures the grim beauty of life for the MTV generation.  Romeo and Juliet has been re-interpreted in so many ways - there have been feminist versions and queer versions, it has been set in 1950's Manhattan (Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story), in war-torn Israel and apartheid-era South Africa. 

Traditionalists may sneer at modern adaptations of Shakespeare's works, but surely that's the whole point of Shakespeare?  He adapted age-old stories to suit a 16th-century audience - it's only logical that modern artists and writers should adapt his work to suit the realities of the modern age. 

I'm going to leave you with another clip from YouTube - also when Romeo and Juliet first meet, but from Baz Lurhmann's movie this time, with the song in the soundtrack being Kissing You by Des'ree.  Enjoy!

Image credits:

The image of the flag of Veneto was provided copyright-free on Wikimedia, the original image having been supplied by wikuser Vajotwo with this derived version being added by wikiuser Flanker - you can see a more detailed description of this image at

The images of Romeo and Juliet by the English painter Sir Frank Dicksee and that of Juliet by Philip H Calderon are from Wikimedia Commons.  They are in the public domain and are copyright-free.


Clare said...

Thanks for this Michael - interesting discussion about who 'owns' stories and about how each artist (including Shakespeare) often just puts their own spin on existing stories - a bit like the idea that resources are here for all of us to use, not for one person to own...
But having said that it made me think about bands like the Rolling Stones and to an extent The Beatles who cashed in on African American blues standards and made big money on them whereas their heroes didn't always. Any thoughts?

Maukee75 said...

Hi Clare, it's an interesting point and I wonder whether or not there is a real issue with taking someone else's ideas and making money out of them. It seems to happen all the time these days and very little is sacrosanct. I guess, as a writer, musician or artist, there is an intrinsic value in creating your story, song or work of art, that enriches you as a person and, I would like to think, that most artists aren't in it for the money, but rather the joy of creating!

No consolation, I know, when someone builds on your idea and becomes incredibly rich as a result, but perhaps there is a reason why the world pays attention to work that is repackaged and commercialised - I must admit, I'm not sure what that reason might be, other than the fact that people feel 'safe' with art that is reinterpreted with a particular audience in mind (ie. the ones who are buying into the repackaged version of an original).

I think Shakespeare understood his audience very well and, I guess, he had to earn a crust, like the rest of us! Maybe he did something completely different in his spare time that hasn't survived the passing of time, or wasn't considered important enough to preserve! Interesting thought . . .