Dante and Shakespeare: A Tale of Montagues and Capulets

Dante Alighieri, poet of the Divine Comedy, achieved many firsts in his great epic poem written at the beginning of the 14th century. If you made a full list of these firsts, one interesting bit of trivia you would find is that he was the first to mention in book form the feuding families of Verona that the English-speaking world would later come to know by way of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as the Montagues and the Capulets. (Romeo is the Montague and Juliet is the Capulet in this pair of star-crossed lovers whose lives end in tragedy.)

Dante refers to these two families by their Italian names––the Montecchi and the Cappelletti. These bold face names appear in a passage in the Purgatorio section of Divine Comedy where Dante laments the collapse of civil order in the Italian lands of the former Roman Empire. He cites warring factions and dysfunctional families as indicators of the moral and spiritual malaise in which Italy finds itself in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Some scholars believe that the Montecchi and the Cappelletti were not just feuding families, but were also caught up in the Ghibelline versus Guelph factionalism that soaked northern Italian city-states in blood and conflict during Dante’s lifetime. Indeed, it is possible that the tragedy of these two families is that they have fought each other for political control of their cities for so long that they have brought ruin to both sides. It may be a theatrical device several hundred years after the fact to turn the story into one of a tragic romance between the young offspring of the Montagues and the Capulets.

Shakespeare wrote his version of the story in the 1590s. He apparently based it on a mix of several early and mid sixteenth century English versions of the tale, English translations of popular Italian stories of the era, and similar stories that come from Greek and Roman classics. Curiously, despite the number of plays Shakespeare set in Italy, and his affinity for well-known Italian stories, he appears to have had little knowledge of Dante or the Divine Comedy. This is especially curious because Chaucer, who was born more than two centuries before Shakespeare, was already an admirer of Dante’s. Like Dante, Chaucer is the most important writer of his era and country to choose to write in the vernacular. He was so inspired by—and so familiar with the Divine Comedy that he quoted from it and adapted a number of its stories and scenes in his Ur-literature for the English language, the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer even referred specifically to Dante as “the grete poete of Ytaille, That highte Dant.” Milton, born only a few decades after Shakespeare, was also highly influenced by his familiarity with Dante.

Shakespeare, however, seems to have missed the Dante boat, even though one of his most famous plays draws on families whose names appear to be first recorded in print by Dante.

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