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You may have heard it bantered about that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet were married March 11th, 1302 in Mantua near Verona, Italy. Shakespeare’s main source of inspiration, you see, was a narrative poem titled The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet by Arthur Brooke. Some argue Brooke’s characters were based on a real couple. In reality, even Brooke’s story was not original. The tragic tale of fated lovers has spanned hundreds of years, multiple continents and myriad languages.
Did the likes of Romeo and Juliet truly exist? Possibly – many a fabled story found its inspiration in reality. Was a tragic couple wed on this day in 1302? Again, it’s possible. But there lies our shortcoming. In focusing on a young couple in love, we look past a vital piece of the puzzle – it was a tragedy. Or all the worse, tragedy becomes romanticised.
Was this intended? Certainly not in the case of Brooke. In his preface “To the Reader” he acknowledges the story is to serve as a cautionary tale. Young people, especially, should be on guard against lusts of the flesh, excess, and dishonesty. They should seek and consider the advice of friends and family.
What fun is that? you say. To which I’d counter, what fun is dying when you needn’t?
Now, what about Shakespeare? Many argue on behalf of romanticism; many argue that it was Romeo and Juliet’s deep love for one another that saved their families. Yet the argument may be just as strong on the other side. Consider for a moment that Brooke’s story spanned months – Shakespeare’s, a matter of days. How deep could their love have grown in so brief a time? Shakespeare describes the main characters as “star-crossed lovers” – literally, against the stars. In plays you see the them dying peacefully with poison – yet the dagger through the heart is an entirely different matter. Their families do reconcile after their deaths; but that only proves reconciliation was possible. Couldn’t it have been just as possible if they had gone about their love differently?
So yes, Romeo and Juliet may have wed on March 11th, 1302 – but the real question remains, was it the right way to go about it?