01 March 2009

Comment on Romeo and Juliet

Comments in blogs are supposed to start discussion threads, but since some comments have not been responded to, allow me to use comments in my main blog.

To my question, "Could Shakespeare, for instance, have written what he wrote had he been born in France, speaking French?" (12 December 2008), Play Wright responded, "It's an interesting question. Perhaps he would've written 'Les Miserables Wives of Windsor' or 'Cyrano de Venice.' But seriously, didn't he crib a lot of stuff from other writers? I remember reading somewhere that the original 'Romeo and Juliet' is by some Italian writer. So in a sense Shakespeare in this case was writing Italian!" (14 December 2008)

Indeed, Shakespeare borrowed (today, we would say "plagiarized") much of his Romeo and Juliet (1591-1595) from the English prose collection Palace of Pleasure (1582) by William Painter and the English narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562) by Arthur Brooke. These latter two in turn borrowed (today, we would say "adapted") from an Italian tale by Matteo Bandello. It is extremely unlikely that Shakespeare, who according to Ben Jonson "hadst small Latin and less Greek," would have read Bandello. More likely, Shakespeare was monolingual, though that did not stop him from writing, in my opinion both as a critic and a playwright, the greatest plays ever written.

On the other hand, maybe it was not Shakespeare of Stratford at all who wrote Romeo and Juliet. See, for example, the site Absolute Shakespeare. I am a signatory, in fact, to the statement "Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare" of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition. I love the plays, but would not for a moment feel bad if the real Shakespeare turned out to be someone else.

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