Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, and how the Capulet-Montague feud inspired a series of historical novels     

I always hated Shakespeare.

They made me read him. In junior high, it was JULIUS CAESAR, and I hated it. In high school, it was ROMEO & JULIET, which was cool only because we wasted a week watching the movie (the Zeffirelli, not the DiCaprio). The next year it was HENRY IV PART ONE, to which I said ‘You’ve gotta be kidding’ and scraped through on class discussions.

The Bard of Avon and I were not friendly. So how did I happen to write THE MASTER OF VERONA, the first of the STAR-CROSS’D series, combining so many of his characters and plays into one grand tapestry?

It started my senior year of high school. I had a choice between a reading-Shakespeare and an acting-Shakespeare class. I’d done some acting, and there were no quizzes involved in the performance class. A no-brainer.

It got better, as I was cast as Mercutio. Perhaps the best role for a young man, he has all the best dirty lines, a great ambiguous speech, a good fight, a great death, then backstage to play cards until curtain call. What more can one want?

Somewhere in the middle of rehearsals, I realized that my teachers had been holding out on me for years. Shakespeare wasn’t an author. He was a playwright. He didn’t write literature. He wrote plays, words to be spoken on stage by real living actors.

It was like the sun came out. You don’t read Shakespeare – you perform him.

Thus started my love affair with Shakespeare. Community theatre, college productions, professional summer stock, rep companies, until finally I was performing with some of the greatest Shakespearean actors in the world. I became a Shakespearean actor, something I would never have believed.

Shakespeare gave me a career. Then he did me one better and introduced me to my wife. We met playing Kate and Petruchio in THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, giving us banter material for the rest of our lives. Today she’s the Artistic Director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival and the Executive Director of A Crew Of Patches Theatre Company, while I bum around acting and choreographing stage violence. Performing and directing Shakespeare pays our bills.

Then, as if icing this cake with the word irony, Shakespeare got me to write a book. Once again, it starts with ROMEO & JULIET.

I’ve shared my general thoughts on that play elsewhere, but to boil it down, I’m firmly of the opinion that Shakespeare’s play isn’t a Tragedy, it’s actually a Comedy that goes horribly wrong. These are comic characters (lovesick young man, headstrong young girl, clowns, etc.) doing comic things (falling in and out of love, having secret weddings, etc.), only people begin dying.

I expressed these views at the bar a few times, and before I knew it I found myself approached to direct the show. Basically a ‘put your money where your mouth is’ proposition.

Warily, I accepted. I was 25, and it was my first time directing Shakespeare. So I poured through the whole text in a way I’d never done as an actor. And while I was doing that, I found something.

I found a cause for the feud.

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The show came and went, as all shows do. Throughout the following year, however, I was unable to leave the origin of the feud behind. The play was done, yet my research continued of its own volition.

I’d waded shin-deep into the history of Verona; now as I completely submerged myself I discovered some interesting facts.

At the time the tale of the star-cross’d lovers supposedly took place, some important people were in Verona:

Dante, the father of Renaissance literature.

Giotto, the father of Renaissance painting.

Petrarch, the poet who technically started the Renaissance by finding Cicero’s letters there.

Looking at those names, I realized that in a very real sense the Renaissance began in Verona at the start of the 14th century.

I then read the earlier versions of the play, the short stories (some not so short) that were Shakespeare’s sources, and then back further to his sources’ sources. I pinpointed a four year period wherein the tale was supposed to take place – during the reign of one Bartolomeo della Scala, sometime between 1300 and 1304. It was the first time I had heard the name della Scala, and I had no idea how much that name would come to dominate my life. Not insignificantly, Shakespeare’s Prince in the play is named Escalus, a Latin version of della Scala. I found that Dante had dedicated the third canticle of his Divine Comedy, PARADISO, to Bartolomeo’s little brother, Cangrande della Scala.

Cangrande. It didn’t mean much to me at the time. But it would.

At the same time I was running around doing historical research, I was also reading fiction. I am a glutton for well-written historical fiction. Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O’Brian, Colleen McCullough’s MASTERS OF ROME series, all of it. At the time, though, at the suggestion of my future wife, I was reading Dorothy Dunnett, perhaps the pinnacle of the genre. Dunnett is the only author who consistently makes me feel stupid – not always a good quality in a writer. You have to earn Dunnett, want Dunnett, especially the first hundred or so pages. But once you’re in her world, there’s no going back. She weaves a tapestry so fine, so richly detailed, so at the core of human experience, that her books are each a treasure.

It was Dorothy Dunnett, more than any other writer, who showed me that a book can be smart, dark, witty, gruesome, and exciting all at once. Her death was a heartbreaking loss to literature.

But back in early 2000 I hadn’t yet completed even the first of her series of historical novels. I wasn’t fully able to enjoy THE LYMOND CHRONICLES because Dante and the rest of the Verona cast kept getting in my way. So I laid her books aside and started to write.

It was going to be a short book, simple, sweet, it would get the idea out of my system.

Frustration followed. The first couple attempts I couldn’t find the voice. I was obsessed with the notion of the feud, which at that time was the core of my book. But it simply wasn’t enough. While the origin of the Capulet–Montague feud fascinated me, it was the backdrop – the della Scalas, Giotto, Dante – that kept leaping to the fore.

More research, more false starts. I settled in to read Dante’s DIVINE COMEDY, something I would have bet money against at any other point in my life. It wasn’t the great revelation Shakespeare was, but it did give me the landscape of the time. And halfway through Dante knocked my socks off by mentioning the feud between the Capelletti and the Montecchi. Capulet and Montagues, anyone?

Yet, in reading both in the histories and in Dante’s work, one man’s name kept cropping up. A man who stood above all his peers, outshone the luminaries of his day. Giotto’s patron, Dante’s friend. A man fit to be a tragic hero of one of Shakespeare’s plays. His name was Cangrande della Scala, but he was also known as The Greyhound of Verona. Revered as almost a God in his own lifetime, the man took Verona to its highest height, just before its worst fall. Dead before he turned forty, he was successful in everything he did, and was a tremendous patron of the arts.

In Cangrande’s time, Verona was hated and feared by its neighbors. Venice conspired against Cangrande, as did popes and emperors. There was an almost-unceasing war with nearby Padua for the twenty years of his rule, a city he finally won through benevolence, not war. There was the play by Paduan poet Albertino Mussato about Cangrande, veiled as being about someone else, showing him to be a bloody tyrant. Cangrande’s life fascinated me as much as any play I’d ever read. Because he reminded me of someone, a rogue I had fallen in love with the first time I played him. The ties between Shakespeare and Dante were growing.

Soon I was reading about Dante himself – his wit, his loves, his politics, his exile, his family. It was then that it happened – one of those moments you hear writers talk about, where a character steps off the page and introduces himself as the lead. For me, it was Pietro Alighieri, also known as Pietro di Dante. Barely eighteen when my story starts, he came upon the scene and knocked down all my plans, which is very unlike him, because he’s a good guy. A really good guy, the kind of guy I’d want to play if I didn’t enjoy scoundrels so much. Raised in his father’s ever-growing shadow, he was a prospectless second son until the death of his elder brother elevated him to heir. With no particular skill in anything, just great heart and determination, he gave the book its voice. For the sake of my narrative I moved away from Pietro now and again, but Pietro’s experience is ours, and we can watch in his growth, feel pride in his achievements, and share his disillusionments.

But there was another element missing. If the idea for the feud was going to become the subplot, a crucial but subdued backdrop, where was my plot? What was my spine? The book seemed to be writing itself, and everything was falling into place, and still I didn’t know what Pietro’s goal was.

That was when Shakespeare returned. The Bard of Avon seemed to chuckle as he met Dante’s son and gave him his raison detre. For me it was the ultimate ‘duh!’ moment. I said earlier that all good directors go back to the text. It appears to go for writers as well. However it happened, I had come full circle, the best of all possible worlds.

Mercutio. Of course, Mercutio. Referred to as both a cousin to the Prince, and ‘the Prince’s near ally,’ Mercutio was in some way tied to the della Scala family. The pivotal figure of ROMEO AND JULIET would be only a newborn babe when my story began. We couldn’t follow him, not from the outset – following the adventures of a toddler in 14th-century Italy is not what I call exciting. But following the trials and tribulations of his protector, young Pietro Alighieri – that had promise.

All at once it was Mercutio’s story. The possibility of creating from Shakespeare’s text and real history the tale of this marvelously troubled young man was just too tempting. I could explain the darkness in the Queen Mab speech, from his disdain of love and his homoerotic tendencies to his fear of war drums and his foul images of childbirth. Shakespeare’s Mercutio has a wealth of possibility, and if I could tap even a little of it, I had the makings of a great story.

Moreover, bringing it back to Shakespeare led me to look at the phrase ‘star-cross’d,’ which carries both prophecy and futility, as if nothing can be done to alter the lover’s dark fate. But in fact, Mercutio is the agent of the stars, because his death is what leads the young lovers to their fate. So Mercutio is a tool of the heavens.

Dante uses prophecy often. THE INFERNO begins with a retooling of an ancient prophecy regarding the mythical Greyhound, a man who will save Italy and take it into another age. I knew from my reading that scholars have often speculated that Dante was referring to Cangrande – but what if he meant someone else?

Here I was faced with a decision – can I bring the prophecies of Shakespeare and Dante together, roll them together, and slap them on a defenseless child still in his crib? Am I that cruel?

Turns out I am. Researching astrology and numerology, I came up with a prophetic doom revolving around Dante’s Greyhound that all my characters could struggle against, in vain. With the advantage of hindsight, I can say that the ‘new age of man’ alluded to in the Greyhound prophecy was the Renaissance.

The stars were aligned, the story poured out. A year for the first draft, then six months for the next, and the next. Once into the thick of it, I started seeing connections with the Bard’s other Italian plays. Characters and events from THE TAMING OF THE SHREW are actually mentioned in R&J, so Kate and Petruchio make cameo appearances. There are also characters from TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, of course, but others as well – Shylock, Don Pedro of Aragon and his nasty bastard brother. The Duke from MEASURE FOR MEASURE (also an Escalus) is mentioned in passing. And what Italian story can miss references to Caesar and Cleopatra? The original idea of the Capulet–Montague feud had blossomed into a panoramic story about Shakespeare’s characters living in Dante’s world.

Thus was born THE MASTER OF VERONA (2007) and its sequels, VOICE OF THE FALCONER (2009), FORTUNE’S FOOL (2012),  THE PRINCE’S DOOM (2014), and VARNISHED FACES (2015).

The Star-Cross’d Series.

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I’ve read that when Alan Alda met Donald Sutherland, he simply took the other man’s hand and said, “Thank you for my life.” If Shakespeare were alive today, I’m sure that’s what I’d have to say.

But I’d start by telling him how I’d always hated him.