Tracing the sources of Shakespeare’s plays to their roots is fun, though sometimes vexing. Do you work backwards, or try and trace the evolution from ancient texts to his eventual recreation?

Chronologically, the most obvious inspiration for Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which includes the tragic tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, a story Shakespeare clearly knew well—so well, he parodied his own success with R&J by having Bottom and the Mechanicals (a band name if I ever heard one) utterly butcher the source material.

(Aside: Shakespeare was hilariously self-referential in subtle ways. He let us know how he felt about contemporary productions of his works and the actors who played in them, peppering his work with inside jokes. Hamlet’s advice to the players is too spot-on, his ridicule of Bottom’s scenery-chewing too knowing. He had to be making fun of his fellows—and himself.)

The next relative of this story is certainly a distant one: the Ephesiaca of Xenophon of Ephesus, written in the fifth century CE. The lovers Anthia and Habrocomes are on their way to Egypt when they are taken by pirates. Sold into slavery, they are separated, undergoing several rather lusty adventures. At one point Anthia is shipwrecked with her new owners and kidnapped by robbers. She’s about to be sacrificed to Ares when she’s rescued by a local magistrate called Periaus, who declares his right o marry her. Faithful to her husband, she obtains a potion from a doctor which she thinks is mortal but (as in Cymbeline) is merely a sleeping potion. She awakens in a tomb and, due to the consistency of her luck, is carried off by tomb-robbers to further adventures (it totally gives off that Perils Of Pauline vibe).

Leaping ahead nearly a thousand years, we reach the first of the stories recognizable as direct antecedents of R&J: Masuccio Salernitano’s thirty-third novel from Il Novellino. Set in Sienna, this stars Mariotto and Gianozza as the lovers and involves secret marriages, deaths of kinsmen, and a young groom fleeing to Alexandria. The bride is then forced to marry against her will, but is given a draught by the Friar that makes her appear dead. Alas, the Friar’s message detailing the plan is waylaid by pirates (shades of Shakespeare in Love!). The story plays out the same as Shakespeare’s R&J, except Gianozza flees to a convent where she dies. Pregnant, if I recall correctly.

Next comes the first version to name the lovers Romeo and Giulietta, and is probably the most important of Shakespeare’s sources (though he himself may never have seen it). This was written by Luigi da Porto somewhere around 1524, though published posthumously in 1535.

A native of Vicenza, da Porto set the action in nearby Verona, rooting the story very firmly in the reign of Bartolomeo della Scala, 1301-1304. He dedicated his story to ‘the most beautiful and graceful Lady Lucina Savorgnano’. This version is completely recognizable, starting with the establishment of the Cappelletti/Montecchi feud. Romeo Montecchio goes to the Cappelletti ball to see one lady, but upon sight of Giulietta Capelletti he falls madly in love. She does the same, and while she’s dancing he holds one of her hands (her other had is held by a suitor named Maruccio who, we are told, is noble and handsome. But she doesn’t like him because ‘in July and in January, his hands were always freezing’).

The two begin to meet in secret, ‘sometimes in the church, at others from the windows’. Then we get the Balcony Scene, with these lines:

What brings you hither and alone at this hour?

The power of love.

And know you not that being discovered here would mean instantaneous death?

Alas, dear lady, I know only too well, and certain it is I shall surely die unless you take pity on me. But, as I must die in some place, Heaven grant that I may die near you, who are the goddess of my idolatry and with whom life would seem paradise, would you and Heaven only consent to give ear to my love.

Enlisting the aid of Friar Lorenzo, Giulietta’s confessor, they wed in secret. But there’s a brawl in the street between the feuding families, and in the massive fighting Romeo kills Tebaldo Cappelletto. Exiled, Romeo says farewell to his wife in the friar’s confessional, then flees to Mantua.

Lord and Lady Cappelletti, misconstruing their daughter’s distress, decide to marry her to the cold-handed Maruccio. Hearing her absolute refusal, her father loses his temper and ‘threatened her with his bitterest hatred if she dared oppose his wishes’. Desperate, Giulietta sends her servant Pietro to Romeo in Mantua. Romeo sends word back that she must be faithful to him, and instructs her to go to the friar, as the holy man ‘was capable of working miracles’.

She does, and Lorenzo gives her a potion ‘which you will drink, after which you will, for a space for forty-eight hours, more or less, fall into a profound sleep that no man, however great a physician he may be, cannot choose but pronounce you dead.’ He’ll be there when she wakes and conduct her to her husband in Mantua.

It plays out just the same. She takes the potion and is thought dead. But the monk Lorenzo sent to Romeo can’t find him. Instead the faithful Pietro brings the news of her death to Romeo, who buys a poison and goes back to Verona, blaming himself:

I am the sole cause of thy death, for I kept not my promise to take thee away from thy father’s house, and thou, who would not forsake me, preferred to die. Should I, through fear of death, remain alive? No, this shall never be.’

He goes to her tomb and drinks the poison. Just then she wakes up, and he bitterly laments, ‘Oh, how cruel is fate!’ He tells her what he has done, and the weeping Giulietta kisses him, ‘imprinting innumerable kiss on his lips.’

Must you die in my presence and for my sake, my sweet lord? Will the Heavens suffer that after your death I should live even for a brief while? Cannot I give you my life and die alone?

If ever my love and fidelity were dear to you, live, if only for my sake. I therefore beg of you that after my life you continue to live, for no other reason than I may know that one I so dearly love is thinking of me, who is now dying before your very eyes.

Since you die on account of my feigned death, what should I do for your real one? I grieve also that I have not here at hand any means whereby I can die and hate myself that I must still continue to live, but I fervently pray that in a brief time, since I have been the cause of your death, I may bear you company.

Friar Lorenzo arrives just in time to see Romeo die in Giulietta’s arms. He says, ‘And you, Giulietta, what will you do now?’

Remain here and die.

Which bring us to the worst death in literature: ‘Then, holding her breath for a long time, she uttered forth a piercing scream, falling stone dead upon the body of her husband.’ Because that works?

Everyone comes rushing in, the Friar confesses, the bereaved parents embrace, burying the feud, and raise a monument to their lost children.

‘Here finished the unfortunate love affair of Romeo Montecchi and Giulietta Cappelletti.’

Of course, that wasn’t the finish. In 1542 a Frenchman named Adrian Sevin also riffed on the work of Masuccio Salernitano, changing the names to Halquadrich and Burglipha. And a poem by Clizia was published in Venice in 1553. But the direct heir to da Porto is Matteo Bandello, who basically rewrote da Porto’s version, only adding the name Paris to the story, and changing the name Maruccio to Marcuccio–one step closer to Mercutio.

Bandello’s minor changes notwithstanding, he’s significant because he left Italy towards the end of his life, bringing the story of Romeo and Giulietta to France, and thus closer to England. His version was so popular it was picked up in Venice by the blind poet and playwright Luigi Groto, the first to turn it into a play, published in Italian in 1578. In the play a nightingale sings when the lovers are to part.

Bandello’s version was also picked up by a French poet named Pierre Boistuau, who rewrote the whole thing in his native tongue, making subtle changes – instead of going to the Capulet ball to forget his puppy love, Romeo goes in hopes of seeing her; he obtains the potion from an avaricious apothecary; and Romeo dies before Juliet awakens, thus omitting what is (to me) the best scene in the story, a mistake that Shakespeare will repeat.

Boistuau was translated into English by William Painter in his collection of tales entitled Palace Of Pleasure, published in 1567. But before that, in 1562, Boistuau’s version was brought into the English tongue, retold and embellished by one Arthur Brooke in The Tragicall History Of Romeus And Juliet. By this point the story is fairly well in place, and though I find Brooke almost unreadable, his version was very popular during Elizabeth’s reign, being reprinted in 1582 and again in 1587. It was even imitated in Bernard Garter’s Two English Lovers, which, as the title indicates, transfers the setting to England.

It is almost certainly from Brooke’s poem that Shakespeare took his inspiration. It’s possible he also read Painter’s version, but in Brooke he has everything he needs to fire his imagination and create the play we know. Everything, that is, save great poetry. Shakespeare performs an amazing piece of alchemy, taking a leaden and dull narrative and turning it into gold.

Thus we have the progression in the evolution of Romeo & Juliet—da Porto to Bandello to Brooke to Shakespeare, with various off-shoots along the way. Convoluted? Perhaps. But fascinating, and well worth the roundabout journey.