Though Shakespeare’s tale of Romeo and Juliet is the most well-known version of this story, it is by no means the original. The legend of these two star-crossed lovers is actually almost a century older than Shakespeare’s play. Like many playwrights of his time, Shakespeare used pieces of older legends and tales to create his version of Romeo and Juliet. While the original source of this tale is uncertain, novelist Masuccio Salernitano is recorded as the first author to set this story down in words around 1476. He was followed by several other Italian authors, who changed the names and characters, gradually evolving the plot into the story that Shakespeare performed for Queen Elizabeth I.
Masuccio Saleritano published the first known story of Romeo and Juliet as the 33rd section of his work Il Novelino. In his story, Romeo and Juliet were named Marriotto and Gianozza. The basic plot of the story is the same as Shakespeare’s, except the death scene at the end. Marriotto is executed for murdering a member of the noble class and Gianozza, his secret love, dies of desolation and sadness. Saleritano claimed that this very tale occurred in Siena, Italy, not long before he set it down in words. Whether or not this is true remains a mystery.
The next person to take up the tale was Luigi da Porto, who published his version of the story around 1530. Da Porto changed the names of the characters to Romeus and Giulietta, and fleshed out characters like Mercutio, Tybalt, and the two feuding families. Not long after the publication of Da Porto’s story, Mateo Bandello set down yet another version of the tale. Historians say that many of Shakespeare’s plays were based on Bandello’s writing, and Romeo and Juliet is no exception to this pattern. Shakespeare also never visited Italy, so the source for this story could not have come from Shakespeare’s own experiences, unless he changed the time and place in which the story occurred.
There were several more authors to take up the tale of Romeo and Juliet before Shakespeare set about making it immortal. Arthur Brooke, an English poet, published the Tragic Tale of Two Lovers in 1562, and it was the first recorded version of the story to be set down in English. William Painter revamped the story again in 1582, closely followed by Lopa de Vega, who published a Spanish version of the story eight years later. Shakespeare came across the tale in the early 1590’s, finishing and producing the play near the middle of the same decade. It is likely he used Brooke’s and Painter’s works, along with Banadello, to flesh out the tale and create his famous play.