So, here is a version of Romeo and Juliet you probably have never heard before.
Romeo and Juliet is believed to have been written by Shakespeare around 1594 - 1596.
It is a story about a young boy and girl who fall in love and secretly marry, only for it all to end in tragedy.
Very romantic and very sad.
In case you haven't read the play, please do so as soon as possible. If you have not seen any of the film versions, please watch all of them. They are all good in their own way.
There is even a new version coming out soon that looks quite promising.
I am rather fond of Baz Luhrmann's version with Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. While it is not entirely faithful to the play, I think it is truly inspired. How can you not like the moment when they first meet, looking through the fish tank?
But what is the play really about? Why did Shakespeare write it?
You can read Wikipedia to get a basic understanding of the play. As you will find, there is a long history behind the play, and there are many variations of the story going back in time.
So, why did Shakespeare choose this story?
Shakespeare was familiar with stories from Italy. Many of his plays -- Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, Much Ado About Nothing were based on Italian novellas.
Where would he have found such novellas?
One of his earliest patrons was Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. Southampton was descended from the Dacre family, who were powerful Northern Border lords.
Southampton was known for his physical beauty and for his interest in the arts, especially plays. It would seem natural that Southampton would be drawn to Shakespeare, who by 1595 was the leading playwright in London.
Shakespeare dedicated both Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece to Southampton.
Southampton is also considered the primary candidate to be Shakespeare's "Fair Youth" in the Sonnets.
Southampton was a courtier to Queen Elizabeth, with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex.
He and Essex were friends, and served in the military together. Essex was the Queen's "favourite" at this time. Essex was also a patron of Shakespeare's.
Southampton was friends with and patron to Giovanni Florio, a linguist who created an Italian and English dictionary, introduced Italian proverbs to the English, and was famous for translating Montaigne into English.
Therefore it seems likely that Shakespeare discovered the "Romeo and Juliet" story, the novella, from Southampton's friend, Giovanni Florio.
Now, it is important to know that when Southampton's father died, he became a ward to William Cecil, which made Cecil something like a surrogate father. Cecil also controlled who Southampton could marry.
William Cecil was the Lord Privy Seal, and he was the most powerful man in England.
His son Robert Cecil would later succeed his father and became even more powerful than the Queen he served.
In 1591, Southampton refused to marry Elizabeth de Vere (yes, the daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford) and he was fined 5,000 pounds by William Cecil, who made the match in the first place.
So, why then would Shakespeare write an adaptation of this old Italian story?
Peter Jensen and especially Clare Asquith have established a link between the Montagues of the play and the real Montagu family.
Southampton's mother was Mary Browne. Her father had been removed from the Privy Council, due to his Roman Catholic views, when Elizabeth became queen. He and his family, the Dacre family, opposed but did not challenge Elizabeth during her reign.
Mary Browne's father was Anthony Browne, 1st Viscount Montagu.
His second wife was Magdalen Dacre, whose family were so powerful in the North.
After Southampton's father died, and Southampton became a ward to William Cecil, his mother Mary was married again in 1575.
It is believed that a play about Montagues and Capulets was performed to celebrate the wedding -- another version of "Romeo and Juliet" by a well known writer named George Gascoigne. So, this play had a special significance for Southampton.
It would be natural then for Shakespeare to model his Romeo, House of Montague after his friend Southampton, from the Montagu family.
But who was Juliet?
In 1594-5, Southampton was involved with a very pretty young lady by the name of Elizabeth Vernon. He was 22 and she was 23.
There was a problem. She was one of Queen Elizabeth's chief ladies-in-waiting. Southampton himself was a courtier to the Queen.
Ladies-in-waiting could not have relationships without the Queen's permission.
Why would the Queen not approve of their match?
Elizabeth Vernon was descended from the same family as Magdalen Dacre. An alliance between such powerful families, Catholic families, would be a threat to the Queen's power, and would not serve her in her efforts to set England on a Protestant path.
Also, Elizabeth Vernon and Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex were cousins.
Already by 1595, the Queen feared that Essex would challenge her for the throne. She was not wrong to fear him.
An alliance between the Essex family and the Dacre family was simply unacceptable to the Queen.
So, if William Cecil was like a father for Southampton, Queen Elizabeth was like a mother to Elizabeth Vernon. Neither Cecil nor the Queen would approve of their match.
William Cecil's matchmaking Southampton with Elizabeth de Vere is not unlike Juliet's father matchmaking Juliet with Paris.
It is reasonable to assume that Southampton and Elizabeth Vernon may have made a wedding promise or secret vow to each other, much like Romeo and Juliet promise their love to one another, and marry in secret.
Was this play then a gift to Southampton and Elizabeth Vernon when they promised their love to one another?
This is a very plausible explanation why Shakespeare wrote his Romeo and Juliet, around 1594-5.
If the play was first performed in about January 1594, as some have said, then it shows how long they were hiding their love.
Shakespeare wrote many gifts for his patron, Southampton. Why should this be any different?
As far as performances of the play at court, in front of the Queen, any references to the secret wedding between Romeo and Juliet could be removed.
If this play was a gift, then why did Shakespeare write such a tragic ending?
It may have been a warning of what may happen to Southampton and Vernon if their affair was discovered. They could pay a very dear price for such a secret love.
They kept the affair quiet until 1598.
Then William Cecil died August 4, 1598.
Southampton and Vernon married August 30, 1598.
I don't think it's a coincidence that they married so soon after his death.
I like to think that Shakespeare was a very welcome guest at the ceremony, and it is likely that he and his fellow actors performed the play again as the primary wedding entertainment.
When the Queen discovered the marriage, she put them both in Fleet Prison.
Elizabeth Vernon was already pregnant.
Was the child born in prison? I can't find any evidence one way or the other.
The child did survive, and Southampton and his new bride were released.
But they were never again in the Queen's favor.
The experience would have been very traumatizing, and Southampton must have been very angry. It may have been at this point that Essex and Southampton began to plot to overthrow the Queen's government.
In 1601, Essex and Southampton would lead a rebellion against the Queen.
The rebellion failed, and Essex was executed.
Southampton was sentenced to death, but he was sent to prison instead, for two years. He was released after the Queen died in 1603.
From what we can tell, Southampton and Elizabeth were happily in love until the day he died in 1624. She survived him, and passed away in 1655.
Their firstborn child, Penelope would marry William Spencer, 2nd Baron Spencer.
This would mean that the late Lady Diana Spencer was descended from them.
Imagine that, Diana is a descendant of Southampton and Elizabeth Vernon, Shakespeare's original Romeo and Juliet.
This would also mean that her sons are descendants.
And finally, the newborn Prince George is also descended from Southampton and Vernon.
In conclusion, some people think that history like this has nothing to do with Shakespeare's plays. They would rather read the play and enjoy it as literature. Perhaps they think that by placing Shakespeare in his original historical context it somehow diminishes the beauty of his plays, and the man himself.
I think the story of Southampton and Elizabeth Vernon makes Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet play even even more moving. It enriches and elevates the play, and it makes me even more fascinated by this man named William Shakespeare, and the history in which he lived.
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David B. Schajer
Shakespeare and Love
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