Shakespeare’s Narrative Sources: Italian Novellas and Their European Dissemination


Montagues and Capulets

Da Porto calls the two rivalling families Montecchi (who became known as Monticoli once they moved from Verona to Udine) and Cappelletti. Although families historically existed in Verona with such surnames (see here), Da Porto was probably following a suggestion provided by three lines he found in Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia (‘Purgatorio’, 6.106-7). The context is that of Dante’s impassionate request that the Emperor Albert of Habsburg intervene to save Italy, which is torn by internecine strife:

Vieni a veder Montecchi e Cappelletti,

Monaldi e Filippeschi, uom sanza cura:

color già tristi, e questi con sospetti!

English translation: “Come and see the Montecchi and Cappelletti, / Monaldi and Filippeschi, those already wretched / And the ones in dread, you who have no care”.

Between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, commentaries on the Commedia proliferated and tried to inform readers who the names referred to by Dante were. Jacopo della Lana believed that the Montecchi and Cappelletti were a political party in Cremona; Pietro Alighieri (Dante’s son) stated that the Montecchi were a Veronese party that clashed with the local counts, while the Cappelletti were a party in Cremona. Benvenuto da Imola argued that the Cappelletti and Montecchi were two allied families active in the Veronese political life. Francesco da Buti maintained that both were Cremonese parties that opposed each other, hinting that the Cappelletti were Guelphs, and the Montecchi Ghibellines. Others followed, sometimes exchanging the Ghibelline/Guelph affiliation, sometimes changing setting. Da Porto read these commentaries and elaborated his own story.

Further reading:

Moore, Olin H. 1930. “The Origins of the Legend of Romeo and Juliet in Italy.” Speculum 5(3): 264-77.

Italian feuds

Although the term ‘vendetta’ did not enter the English language until the nineteenth century, Elizabethans already knew about feuds between Italian families.

In Italy “sin, by lust and vanity, hath and doth breed up everywhere common contempt of God’s word, private contention in many families, open factions in every city.” (Roger Ascham, The Schoolmaster. London: John Day, 1570: hiii).

“Those that kill men in their mad mood with desire of revenge are likewise of two sorts: for some (as Frenchmen) take present revenge in the heat of their passion when their blood begins to boil, at leastwise smother it not long: others (as Italians above the rest) nourish their revengeful humour, and suffer it to fester in their cankered stomachs a long time. Two things also are to be considered in the execution or act of revenge: for some revenging themselves upon their enemies, practise the saying of Virgil (not considering that he speaketh de hoste, not de inimico): “Dolus an virtus quis in hoste requirat?”, which is more practised by Italians than by any nation in the world . . .Howbeit parricidy and fratricidy, and such like murders, were never so hot among Christians as between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines: the heat (or fury rather) of which deadly feud remaineth in Italy unto these days, as well for the former quarrel as for other flaws and factions, as the histories of that country do sufficiently declare, and as they who travel into Italy may know more particularly. For as I travelled with two others from Florence to Siena, two days after it was yielded up to the Duke of Florence, in the name of King Philip, I heard an old man (born near Siena) report very strange things, not impertinent to the argument in hand. For being demanded what were the most remarkable things that were to be seen at Siena, “Alas” said he, “my sons, what do you think to see at Siena? Siena is no more Siena: you shall see nothing there but the horrible vengeance of God”. And being asked what he meant thereby, “I have seen” quoth he, “many a time and often with these eyes, kinsmen, yea brethren imbrue their hands in one another’s blood for quarrels (God knows) arising upon small occasions”. And he added, that their manner was to dip their hands in the blood of the slain, and having rubbed their faces therewith, to show themselves to their fellows in this butcherly and beastly manner. These and the like speeches this old father who was above fourscore and ten years old uttered not without many tears; thanking God withal, that in mercy he suffered him to live to see vengeance taken upon them. “For”, said he, “I doubted whether there was a God or not, when I saw such horrible facts remain unpunished”. This is the good report which this old man gave of his country . . . [T]ouching murders committed in Italy by one kinsman upon another, by reason of deadly feud and factions[, t]his worthy learned writer therefore reports, how that his ancestors being forced to abandon and forsake their native soil by reason of the civil war, and having retired themselves into an odd corner of the country which they had fortified; so it was, that their enemies watching their opportunity, surprised it on a time when it was slenderly guarded: who when they had taken it, assaulted the tower wherein Pontanus his great grandmother was, where her two brethren (who were of the contrary faction) called upon her to yield herself; which she promised to do, upon condition they would not hurt her children. But they refusing to accept the condition, set the tower on fire, and so burned their sister and their young nephews for the devilish and damnable affection they bare unto their own faction” (Richard Carew (translating Henri Estienne), A World of Wonders. London: John Norton, 1607: 142, 148-9).

Further reading: Clark, Glenn. 2011. “The Civil Mutinies of Romeo and Juliet.” ELR 41(2): 280-300.

Portrayal of Verona

This city is of that antiquity that some do write it was first founded by the ancient Etruscans . . . But afterwards in process of time, the Gauls that are called Senones, having passed over the Alps under the conduct of their captain Brennus, came into this part of Italy, and ejected those Etruscans out of the possession thereof, and greatly amplified and enlarged the same. So that it was called Verona quasi Brenona, from their captain Brennus. But there are some that write, that it had the denomination of Verona from Vera, the name of a noble family amongst the Etruscans . Surely it is a very delectable, large, and populous city, and most sweetly seated: for the noble river Athesis runneth by it which Virgil calleth “amoenus” . . . it carrieth pretty barges of convenient quantity, wherein great store of merchandise is brought unto the city, both out of Germany and from Venice itself. In one side of this river, I told nineteen water-mills, which were like to those that I saw upon the river Rhodanus at the city of Lyons. There are four bridges which join together both the banks of the river, whereof one is very fair and beautiful above the rest … this river Athesis doth sometimes so extremely swell, that it hath utterly overwhelmed all the bridges, and much annoyed the city . . . The form of the building of this city is something like to that of Turin in Piedmont: for it is almost square. The greatest part of it standeth in a plain, and some part of it that bendeth to the South, is situate upon a hill, whereon are built two stately castles, the one of St Felix, the other of St Angelo . . . All these castles, especially those two on the hill, are passing well furnished with munition and artillery for the defence of the city against the invasion of the enemy. The walls of the city are the fairest of all the Italian cities that I saw, and indeed fairer than any I ever in all my life. For they are of a marvellous height, in some places forty foot high, according to my estimation, built all with brick, and fairly beautified with battlements . Al so there are five gates in them of great antiquity, whereof some are garnished with curious carvings, images, and marble pillars. The compass of the whole city together with the suburbs is thought to be betwixt six and seven miles . . .

So many notable antiquities and memorable monuments are to be seen in this noble city of Verona, as no Italian city whatsoever (Rome excepted) can show the like. But the worthiest and most remarkable of all is the amphitheatre commonly called the Arena, seated at the south-west end of the city where cattle are sold . . . Certainly this present building, whereof I now speak, is a most stupendous mass of work . . . it draweth all strangers into admiration thereof . . . It was reported unto me . . . that the like amphitheatre is not to be seen at this day in all of Italy, no, not in Rome itself . . . but it is very ruinous at this time . . . Were such a building to be made in England, I think it would cost at the least two millions of our pounds, that is, twenty hundred thousand pound, even as much as ten of our fairest cathedral churches. For it is all built with red marble . . . it was environed with two round walls, whereof the outward was a thing of rare magnificence. Which by the invasion of many barbarous people, as the Goths, Huns (who under the conduct of their King Attila sacked this city) and Longobards under their King Alboinus, hath been so ruinated, that there is but a little part thereof standing, the marble stones being pulled down, and removed there hence, partly for the garnishing of the private houses of the city, and partly for other uses . . . The lower arches are now converted to very base and sordid uses . For they serve partly for stables to put horses and hay in, and partly for tippling houses houses for poor folks to sell wine in, and other necessaries . . .  Also these gentlemen of Verona do daily beautify it with new addition of marble benches, because they have oftentimes great shows exhibited here to the people upon festival days, as running at tilt, and other exercises, especially upon their Carnival day . . .

Also I saw the rudera of an ancient theatre which was a distinct building from the foresaid amphitheatre, up on a hill on the farther side of the Athesis, near to the gardens of the Dominican friars.

The palace which doth now belong to the Capitano, was heretofore the habitation of the princely Scaligers: at the left hand of the porch whereof, which is a very magnificent and stately building, are three very fair arches made with free stone, and adorned with diamond work. In the from of this building which is newly built, and looketh towards that goodly walk . . . there is a great meeting of gentlemen and merchants twice a day . . . The piazza or the public walk without the palace is a fair place, paved all with brick . . . it is on every side enclosed with goodly buildings. At the East with the Praetor’s Palace, at the West with a certain goodly ancient building that serveth for public uses. At the South with the Prefectus’ Palace, at the North with the council house, which is a very fair building, having four beautiful windows in the front, and a goodly walk adorned with nine stately pillars of blue and porphyry marble that make eight fair arches. Also the higher part of the front is garnished with five beautiful marble statues of certain famous learned men born in this noble city, who with the excellent monuments of their wit have much ennobled their country. The first is of Marcus Vitruvius, who hath written ten books of architecture, being next to the palace wall of the Praetor. Next to him, Valerius Catullus, the poet. The third Caius Plinius the historiographer. The fourth Emilius Macer, the poet that wrote certain poems of herbs. The last, Cornelius Nepos, an eloquent poet in the time of Cicero. Also there is another of Hieronymus Fracastorius, erected over a stately arch that standeth at the west end of the council house.

I saw the monuments of two of the noble Scaligers of Verona in a little churchyard, adjoining to the church called Maria Antiqua, but a little way distant from that palace, where they lived in former times, which now belongeth to the Venetian Capitano, as I have before said. The fairest whereof is that Mastinus Scaliger, standing at one corner of the churchyard, which is such an exceeding sumptuous mausoleum that I saw not the like in Italy. It is supported with six stately pillars of porphyry marble, without the which are six sumptuous pillars more very curiously wrought with pretty works and borders. At the top of which outward pillars are certain little pinnacles, whereof sustaineth an image of an armed man made in alabaster. Also above those six pillars there is a marvellous rich work made of alabaster, whereon there stand more images exquisitely carved. Upon the top o f all, even upon a little pinnacle standeth the statue of Mastinus Scaliger himself on horseback made of alabaster . . . The other monument is of Canis Grandis, or Magnus Scaliger, which standeth in another corner of the same churchyard right opposite unto this, the same being a very magnificent thing adorned with many pillars and statues of marble, but something inferior to this . . . Also there is a third monument of another Scaliger prince, called Canis Signorius . . .

This city in the time of the Roman monarchy was a long time subject to the Romans. Afterward it was possessed by the Ostrogoths, and after them by the Longobards, whose first King Alboinus kept his court here. At last they gave place to the successors of Carolus Magnus . . . After them, it came into the hands of the tyrant Ezzelinus: who being again dispossessed, these Scaliger Princes . . . had the sovereign dominion of this city for the space of two hundred years, till Joannes Galeatius Viscount of Milan abrogated their government in the time of Antonius Signorius Scaliger about the year 1396. After which time the said Galeatius swayed Verona eighteen years. But as soon as he was dead, one of the Scaligers recovered it again. The same being made away with poison, Francis Carrarius enjoyed the principality half a year. But the Venetians being exasperated against him for Scaliger’s unnatural death, deposed him again about the year 1405 and governed the same till the year 1509. Then it was seven years subject to the Emperor Maximilian, who in the year 1517 restored it to the Venetians, that have continually from that time to this present day enjoyed the possession thereof.

The principal market place of the city is very fair, which I take occasion to mention by reason of a notable thing that I observed there tending to idolatry. For on the front of a fair house adjoining to this market place, there standeth the image of the Virgin Mary, made in white marble with Christ in one arm, and a book in one of her hands. Under the which this superstitious inscription is written concerning the adoration of the same image [the inscription is about indulgences granted to those who pray to the statue] . . . Also I saw about the middle of the same market place a marvellous pleasant fountain, adorned with a very ancient marble image, wearing a crown upon her head; that is said to be a representation of Verona . . . And in a gentleman’s house of the city but a little way from that, I saw a very beautiful pair of winding stairs, made by that singular architect Andreas Palladius, which by reason of the curious workmanship thereof are much showed to strangers.

There are some Jews in this city, though not so many as in Venice or Padua, who are shut up from the Christians in their ghetto by three gates . . .

The buildings of this city, especially those that belong to the gentlemen, are very fair, being for the most part built with brick: though I have scene some of the gentlemen’s houses built with passing fair stone, and richly adorned with many goodly marble pillars . . . Also many of their outward walls and their chimneys are very fairly painted, which giveth great ornament to their houses . . .

I was in ther d[u]omo, which is their cathedral church, a very ancient and goodly building, wherein are showed some notable monuments . . . I was in the Church of Saint Anastasia that belongeth to the Dominican friars, a building of notable magnificence.

. . .

(Thomas Coryat, Coryat’s Crudities. London: William Stansby, 1611: 308-26)

Verona as a city of violence:

– “At the city of Verona when that the king greedy of comen slaughter, cast him to transporten upon all the order of the senate the guilt of his royal majesty, of the which guilt that Albine was accused” (The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Newly Printed. London: John Reynes, 1542: ccxxxiii).

– “For which loss and for his labour spent in vain before Mantua, Ezelino returning to Verona, fell in such a rage, that he caused 12,000 Paduans, part of his army to be hewen to pieces. Such a cruelty as hath not ben heard of since the time of Silla” (William Thomas, The History of Italy. London: Thomas Berthelet, 1549: 98).

–  “Regions and Cities, subject to the signs & planets, and first of those that be under Aries, and Mars. Basternia, Syria, Palestina, England, France, Germany, Burgundy, Sweveland: and of cities with towns, Naples, Ancona, Ferrara, Florence, Verona, Capua, Lindavia, Cracovia, etc” (William Cuninngham, The Cosmographical Glass Containing the Pleasant Principles of Cosmography, Geography, Hydrography, or Navigation. London: John Day, 1559: 134).

– “[Brennus] passed into Italy, sacked Rome, and expelling the Tuscans, builded Milain, Brescia, Como, Bergamo, Vincenza, Trent, and Verona, which he called after his own name, Brenona” (John Stow, The Chronicles of England from Brute unto this Present Year of Christ. 1580. London: Henry Bynneman, 1580: 25).

– “[Marino Zeno] pacified certain grievous civil dissentions that arose among the citizens of Verona: whereas otherwise if by his grave advice and great diligence, they had not been prevented, the matter was likely to break out in hot broils of war” (Richard Hakluyt, Divers Voyages. London: Thomas Woodcock, 1582: B4v.).

– “Aries doth govern over the heart of the Orient, over the fire, over the choleric humours and hot: over the beginning of the Spring: over the head: the nose, the face, the ears and the eyes. And signifieth lean men, red-coloured, flat-nosed, choleric, strong, and right men of war: captains: soldiers: alchemists, and other martialists. Of diseases, it denoteth lethargy: madness: issues of blood: redness of the face: filthiness: falls: hurts: and all sicknesses violent and continual. Of colours, red: yellow: and sanguine colour: Of savours, the sweet. Of countries, Brittany: Almanie: Ind: Juda: England: Naples: Florence: Faence: Imole: Capue: Ferrara: Venice: Verone: Pavy: Cracovy: Marseilles: Saragosse” (Thomas Kelway, A Learned Astronomical Discourse, of the Judgement of Nativities. London: Edward White, 1593: 32).

– “for the grief I have to behold in Venice, such a crowd of nice darlings: in Padua, such indiscreet looks: in Vincenza, such beast-like demeanour: in Treviso, such disordered liberty: at Verona, such frantic fury; at Brescia, such miserable avarice” (Thomas Munday, The Defence of Contraries. London: Simon Waterson, 1593: 38).

The beauty of Verona and its attractions:

– “Likewise Verona / Standing in Gallia / With towers pleasant and high” (Arthur Kelton, A Commendation of Welshmen. London: Richard Grafton, 1546: ciiiv.).

– “Verona: A noble city in Italy, in the country called Marcia Tarvisina, not far from the mountains, where Catullus the poet, and Pliny were born” (Thomas Cooper, Thesaurus Linguae Romanae et Britannicae. London: Henry Wykes, 1565: n.n.).

– “The records of ancient antiquity unfoldeth in apert, and lively manner the happy and prosperous estate, of the flourishing and famous city Verona, whose academies so worthily governed, and the scholars so effectually instructed: that it caused Sir Vincentio of Pescara to send his son Strabino there to be trained up in such virtuous educations . . . as these courtesans which abide in the brothel-house here in Verona, and besides them, many a one that bears a gallant grace through the city . . .  Since first it was my fortune (dear friend) to use the company of the brave ladies and damozels here in Verona, I have been attainted with so many perilous passions, that sure I am past hope to have any recovery, yet do I strive with mine affection as forcibly as I can” (Anthony Munday, Zelauto. The Fountain of Fame. London: John Charlewood, 1580: 105, 109, 124).

– “thence to the great castle of Milan, thence to the arsenal of Venice, thence to the amphitheatre of  Verona” (John Elyot, Ortho-Epia Gallica. London: John Wolfe, 1593: 104).

English references to the Romeo and Juliet story besides Brooke’s and Painter’s translations

And Juliet,* Romeus young, / for beauty did embrace,

Yet did his manhood well agree, / unto his worthy grace.

So seemly shape did love procure:

And Venus’ birds came to the lure . . .

*Juliet. A noble maiden of the city Verona in Italy, which loved Romeus, eldest son of the Lord Montesche, and being privily married together, he at last poisoned himself for love of her. She for sorrow of his death slew herself in the same tomb, with his dagger” (Thomas Peend, The Pleasant Fable of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis. London: Thomas Colwell, 1565: B4v., C5r.).

This grave Venetian who heard the famous name

Of Mountacutes rehearsed there, which long had been of fame

In Italy, and he of self-same worthy race,

Gan straight with many courteous words in arms me to embrace,

And kissed me on cheek, and bad me make good cheer,

And thank the myghty God for that which happ’ned there,

Confessing that he was himself a Mountacute,

And bare the self-same arms that I did quarter in my scute:

And for a further proof, he showed in his hat

This token which the Mountacutes do bear always, for that

They covet to be known from Capels where they pass,

For ancient grutch which long age ’tween those two houses was.

[SD: “The actor had a token in his cap like to the Mountacutes of Italy]

(George Gascoigne, “A Device of a Masque” in A Hundred Sundry Flowers. London: Richard Smith, 1573: 390).

  • “there issued forth a vine, in manner of a fret, which spreading all the chamber, as was wonderful to behold, the branches and leaves were all of pure gold, curiously enamelled, instead of grapes, the rubies there did shine which were correspondent to the residue of the work, the hangings were all of arras, very richly wrought. In which was expressed the pitiful history of Romeus and Juletta, Gismonda and Guistairdo, Pyramus and Thisbe, Livio and Camilla, and of many other loving wights, who in regard of Venus’ law, had endured many bitter torments, and yielded themselves to martyrdom” (Barnabe Rich, A Right Excellent and Pleasant Dialogue, Between Mercury and an English Soldier Containing His Supplication to Mars: Beautified with Sundry Worthy Histories. London: John Day, 1574: Pi).
  • “Did Julietta die upon the corpse of her Romeo, and shall my body remain on earth, Synnatus being buried? . . . Dutifully tell them that such pressiness of parents brought Pyramus and Thisbe to a woeful end, Romeo and Julietta to untimely death, and drave Virginius miserably to murder his own daughter Virginia” (George Pettie, A Petite Palace of Pettie his pleasure. London: Richard Watkins, 1576: 20, 100).
  • “persuade thyself to find me as tried in truth, as Romeus and Juliet, and as steadfast in faith, as Pesistratus to Catanea” . . . “Hath Paris, Leander, Pyrame or Troilus / Aye truer been than I, to thee my pretty mouse? / Pesistratus in faith, or Romeus in truth? / What cause then hast thou had, to fall in such a ruth?” (John Grange, The golden Aphroditis. London: Henry Bynneman, 1577: D[1]ii,D[2]iir. )
  • Sir Romeus’ annoy /But trifle seems to mine,

Whose hap in winning of his love / Did clue of cares untwine.

(Thomas Proctor, A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions. London: Richard Jones, 1578: F1r.).

  • Verona-path we left, where Romeus doth lie,

Where Juliet with Iconia enjoy a place thereby.

(An., A Poor Knight his Palace of Private Pleasures. London: Richard Jones, 1579: Biiiv.).

  • “Had Romeo bewrayed his marriage at the first, and manifested the intent of his meaning, he had done very wisely, and gotten licence for the lives of two faithful friends”. (Austin Saker, Narbonus, The Labyrinth of Liberty. Londo: Richard Jones, 1580: 103).
  • “neither doth this stain of the wives’ behaviour often follow, for where Beauty, Love, and Free Choice maketh the marriage, they may be crossed by Fortune, and yet continue faithful. Pyramus and Thisbe, Romeus and Juliet, Arnalt and Amicla, and diverse others at the point to possess their loves were dispossessed of their lives, but yet unstained with dishonesty.” (George Whetstone, An Heptameron of Civil Discourses. London: Richard Jones, 1582: Iiii).
  • Where was there found a happier wight,

Than Troilus was till love did light?

What was the end of Romeus,

Did he not die like Pyramus

Who baths in bliss? Let him be mindful of Iphis

Who seeks to please, may riddé be like Hercules.

(Clement Robinson, A Handful of Pleasant Delights Containing Sundry New Sonnets and Delectable Histories, in Diverse Kinds of Meter. London: Richard Jones, 1584: n.n.).

Impulsive/lewd Italian youths

Already for the Elizabethans, Italy had become stereotyped as a land of romance (however, it could be argued that the Romeo/romance etymological nexus had already been exploited by Da Porto).

  • Robert Greene knew that he would be understood when he used the Italian phrase “Innamorati gagliardi” (vigorous lovers) (A Quip for an Upstart Courtier. London: John Wolfe, 1592: n.n.).
  • “be amorous with the Italian, and drink with the Dutchman” (William Cornwallis, “Of Resolution”, in Essays. London: Edmund Mattes, 1600: B6v.).

But Italians were not portrayed simply as romantic: they could very well be hot-tempered, lascivious, and depraved (as well as Popish).

  • yea, I could point out some with my finger, that never had gone out of England, but only to serve Circes,in Vanity and vice, and any licence to ill-living in England was counted stale and rude unto them. And so, being mules and horses before they went, returned very swine and asses home again: yet every where very foxes with subtle and busy heads: and where they may, very wolves, with cruel malicious hearts. A marvellous monster, which, for filthiness of living, for dullness to learning himself, for wiliness in dealing with others, for malice in hurting without cause, should carry at once in one body, the belly of a swine, the head of an ass, the brain of a fox, the womb of a wolf (Roger Ascham, The Schoolmaster. London: John Day, 1570: 26).
  • For fleshly lusts, the very Turks (whose carnal religion alloweth them) are not so much transported therewith, as the Italians are (in their restraint of civil laws and the dreadful law of God). A man of these Northerly parts can hardly believe without the testimony of his own eyes and ears, how chastity is laughed at among them, and hissed out of all good company, or how desperate adventures they will make to achieve disordinate desire in these kinds. . . . In Italy marriage is indeed a yoke, and that not easy, but so grievous, as brethren nowhere better agreeing, yet contend among themselves to be free from marriage, and he that of free will or by persuasion will take a wife to continue their posterity, shall be sure to have his wife and her honour as much respected by the rest, as if she were their own wife or sister, beside their liberal contribution to maintain her, so as themselves may be free to take the pleasure of women at large. By which liberty (if men only respect this world) they live more happily than other nations. For in those frugal commonwealths the unmarried live at a small rate of expenses, and they make small conscience of fornication, esteemed a small sin and easily remitted by confessors  . . .

The women of honour in Italy, I mean wives and virgins, are much sooner inflamed with love, be it lawful or unlawful, than the women of other nations. For being locked up at home, and covered with veils when they go abroad, and kept from any conversation with men, and being wooed by dumb signs, as walking twice a day by their houses kissing of the posts thereof, and like fopperies, they are more stirred up with the sight and much more with the flattering and dissembling speeches of men, and more credulous in flattering their own desires, by thinking the said poor actions of wooing to be signs of true love, than the women of other nations having free conversation with men. In general the men of all sorts are carried with fierce affections to forbidden lusts, and to those most which are most forbidden, most kept from them, and with greatest cost and danger to be obtained. And because they are barred not only the speech and conversation but the least sight of their love (all which are allowed men of other nations) they are carried rather with a blind rage of passion and a strong imagination of their own brain, than with true contemplation of virtues, or the power of beauty, to adore them as images, rather than love them as women. And as now they spare no cost, and will run great dangers to obtain their lustful desires, so would they pursue them to very madness, had they not the most natural remedy of this passion ready at hand to allay their desires, namely harlots, whom they call courtesans . . .

In regard of this jealousy, that the young women may not be defiled, nor the old women their keepers hired to be bawds to them, no women go to market, but only men, and the most rich disdain not to buy all necessaries for their own families, in which few have any men or at least they come not near the women. Yet for all this care, the Italians many times wear the fatal horns they so much detest, because women thus kept from men, think it simplicity to lose any opportunity offered, though it be with the meanest servant, and because there want not men as watchful to betray their chastity, as their husbands are to keep it, but especially because snares are laid for them in the very churches, and more specially in the nunneries, whether they cannot deny their wives and daughters to repair upon festival days of devotion.

. . .

In Italy as adultery seldom or never falls within the punishment of the law, because the Italians’ nature carries them to such an high degree of private revenge as the law cannot inflict greater (which private revenge by murder upon just grounds of jealousy is commonly taken secretly, and if known, yet winked at and favoured by the magistrate, in his own nature approving as well the revenge as the secrecy thereof, for avoiding shame) so fornication in Italy is not a sin winked at, but rather may be called an allowed trade.

(Charles Hughes, ed., Shakespeare’s Europe, Unpublished Chapters of Fyne Moryson’s An Itinerary [1617-1626]. New York: Benjamin Bloom, 1903: 408-13).

Further reading:

Bigliazzi, Silvia, and Lisanna Calvi, eds. 2016. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, and Civic Life: The Boundaries of Civic Space. New York: Routledge.

Locatelli, Angela. 1993. “The Fictional World of Romeo and Juliet: Cultural Connotations of an Italian Setting.” In Shakespeare’s Italy: Functions of Italian Locations in Renaissance Drama, edited by Michele Marrapodi et al., 69-84. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Clothing and monstrous male-female disorder

From the 1574 Statutes of Apparel of 1574:

The excess of apparel and the superfluity of unnecessary foreign wares thereto belonging now of late years is grown by sufferance to such an extremity that the manifest decay of the whole realm generally is like to follow (by bringing into the realm such superfluities of silks, cloths of gold, silver, and other most vain devices of so great cost for the quantity thereof as of necessity the moneys and treasure of the realm is and must be yearly conveyed out of the same to answer the said excess) but also particularly the wasting and undoing of a great number of young gentlemen, otherwise serviceable, and others seeking by show of apparel to be esteemed as gentlemen, who, allured by the vain show of those things, do not only consume themselves, their goods, and lands which their parents left unto them, but also run into such debts and shifts as they cannot live out of danger of laws without attempting unlawful acts, whereby they are not any ways serviceable to their country as otherwise they might be. Which great abuses, tending both to so manifest a decay of the wealth of the realm and to the ruin of a multitude of serviceable young men and gentlemen and of many good families, the Queen’s Majesty hath of her own princely wisdom so considered as she hath of late with great charged to her council commanded the same to be presently and speedily remedied both in her own court and in all other places of her realm, according to the sundry good laws heretofore provided . . .


Italian fashion associated with extravagance and effeminacy: see Piers Gaveston’s apparel in Marlowe’s Edward II (Scene 4, 411-17; first published in 1594 – London: William Jones).

I have not seen a dapper Jack so brisk.

He wears a short Italian hooded cloak,

Larded with pearl, and in his Tuscan cap

A jewel of more value than the crown.

While others walk below, the king and he

From out a window laugh at such as we,

And flout our train, and jest at our attire.

From An., HAEC-VIR Or the Womanish Man (London: Edward Wright, 1620), a dialogue between Haec-Vir (“the Womanish-Man”) and Hic-Mulier (“the Man-Woman”):

. . .


Are you a woman?


Are you a man? O Juno, Lucina, help me.


Yes I am.


Your name; most tender piece of masculine.


Haec-Vir. No stranger either in court, city, or country. But what is yours, most courageous counterfeit of Hercules and his distaff?


Near a kin to your goodness; and compounded of fully as false Latin. The world calls me Hic-Mulier.


What, Hic-Mulier, the Man-Woman? She that like a larum-bell at midnight hath raised the whole kingdom in arms against her? Good, stand, and let me take a full survey, both of thee, and all thy dependants.


Do freely: and when thou hast daubed me over with the worst colours thy malice can grind, then give me leave to answer for myself, and I will say thou art an accuser just and indifferent. Which done, I must intreat you to sit as many minutes, that I may likewise take your picture, and then refer to censure, whether of our deformities is most injurious to Nature, or most effeminine to good men, in the notoriousness of the example.


With like condition of freedom to answer. The articles are agreed on . . . I can but refer you to your godchild that carries your own name, I mean the book of Hic-Mulier, there you shall see your character, and feel your shame . . .  In that book you are arraigned, and found guilty: first, of baseness, in making yourself a slave to novelty, and the poor invention of every weak brain that hath but an embroidered outside; next, of unnaturalness, to forsake the creation of God, and customs of the Kingdom, to be pieced and patched up by a French tailor, an Italian baby-maker, and a Dutch soldier (beat from the army for the ill example of ruffianly behaviour); then, of shamelessness, in casting off all modest softness, and civility, to run through every desert and wilderness of men’s opinions, like careless untamed heifers, or wild savages; lastly, of foolishness, in having no moderation or temper, either in passions or affections: But turning all into perturbations and sicknesses of the soul, laugh away the preciousness of your time, and at last die with the flattering sweet malice of an incurable consumption. Thus baseness, unnaturalness, shamelessness, foolishness, are the main hatchments, or coat-armours, which you have ta’en as rich spoils to adorn you in the deformity of your apparel: which if you can excuse, I can pity, and thank Proserpina for thy wit; though no good man can allow of the reasons.


Well, then to the purpose. First, you say, I am base, in being a slave to novelty. What slavery can there be in freedom of election? Or what baseness, to crown my delights with those pleasures which are most suitable to mine affections? Bondage or slavery is a restraint from those actions, which the mind (of its own accord) doth most willingly desire: to perform the intents and purposes of another’s disposition, and that not but by mansuetude or sweetness of entreaty, but by the force of authority and strength of compulsion. Now for me to follow change, according to the limitation of mine own will and pleasure, there cannot bee a greater freedom. Nor do I in my delight of change otherwise then as the whole world doth, or as becometh a daughter of the world to do. For what is the world, but a very shop or warehouse of change? Sometimes winter, sometimes summer; day and night: they hold sometimes riches, sometimes poverty; sometimes health, sometimes sickness; now pleasure, presently anguish; now honour; then contempt: and to conclude, there is nothing but change, which doth surround and mix withal our fortunes. And will you have poor woman such a fixed star, that she shall not so much as move or twinkle in her own sphere? That were true slavery indeed, and a baseness beyond the chains of the worst servitude. Nature to every thing she hath created hath given a singular delight in change, as to herbs, plants and trees a time to wither and shed their leaves, a time to bud and bring forth their leaves, and a time for their fruits and flowers; to worms and creeping things a time to hide themselves in the pores and hollows of the earth, and a time to come abroad and suck the dew; to beasts liberty to choose their food, liberty to delight in their food, and liberty to feed and grow fat with their food . . . But to man, both these and all things else, to alter, frame and fashion, according as his will and delight shall rule him. Again, who will rob the eye of the variety of objects, the ear of the delight of sounds, the nose of smells, the tongue of tastes, and the hand of feeling? And shall only woman, excellent woman, so much better in that she is something purer, be only deprived of this benefit? Shall she be the bond-slave of time, the handmaid of opinion, or the strict observer of every frosty or cold benumbed imagination? It were a cruelty beyond the rack or strappado. . . .

Next, you condemn me of unnaturalness in forsaking my creation, and contemning custom. How do I forsake my creation, that do all the rights and offices due to my creation? I was created free, born free, and live free: what lets me then so to spin out my time, that I may die free? To alter creation, were to walk on my hands with my heels upward, to feed myself with my feet, or to forsake the sweet sound of sweet words, for the hissing noise of the serpent: but I walk with a face erected, with a body clothed, with a mind busied, and with a heart full of reasonable and devout cogitations; only offensive in attire, in as much as it is a stranger to the curiosity of the present times, and an enemy to custom. Are we then bound to be the flatterers of time, or the dependants on custom? O miserable servitude chained only to baseness and folly! For then custom, nothing is more absurd, nothing more foolish . . .  To conclude Custom is an idiot, and who so ever dependeth wholly upon him, without the discourse of Reason, will take from him his pied coat, and become a slave indeed to contempt and censure.

But you say we are barbarous and shameless, and cast off all softness, to run wild through a wilderness of opinions. In this you express more cruelty than in all the rest, because I stand not with my hands on my belly like a baby at Bartholomew fair, that move not my whole body when I should but only stirr my head like Jack of the clockhouse, which hath no joints, that am not dumb when wantons court me, as if ass-like I were ready for all burthens, or because I weep not when injury gripes me, like a worried deer in the fangs of many curs: am I therefore barbarous or shameless? He is much injurious that so baptised us: we are as free-borne as men, have as free election, and as free spirits, we are compounded of like parts, and may with like liberty make benefit of our creations: my countenance shall smile on the worthy, and frown on the ignoble, I will hear the wise, and be deaf to idiots . . . If this bee barbarous, let me leave the city, and live with creatures of like simplicity.

To conclude, you say we are all guilty of most infinite folly and indiscretion. I confess that discretion is the true salt which seasoneth every excellency, either in man or woman, and without it nothing is well, nothing is worthy: that want disgraceth our actions, staineth our virtues, and indeed makes us most prophane and irreligious, yet it is ever found in excess, as in too much, or too little: and of which of these are we guilty; do we wear too many clothes or too few? If too many, we should oppress Nature, if too few, we should bring sickness to Nature: but neither of these we do, for what we do wear is warm, thrifty and wholesome, then no excess, and so no indiscretion: where is then the error? Only in the fashion, only in the custom. Oh for mercy’s sake, bind us not to so hateful a companion.

. . .

Haec. Vir.

You have wrested out some wit, to wrangle forth no reason; since everything you would make for excuse, approves your guilt still more ugly: what baser bondage, or what more servile baseness, than for the flattering and soothing of an unbridled appetite, or delight, to take a wilful liberty to do evil, and to give evil example? This is to be Hell’s prentice, not Heaven’s free-woman. It is disputable amongst our divines, whether upon any occasion a woman may put on man’s attire, or no: all conclude it unfit, and the most indifferent will allow it, but only to escape persecution. Now you will not only put it on, but wear it continually; and not wear it; but take pride in it, not for persecution, but want on pleasure; not to escape danger, but to run into damnation; not to help others, but to confound the whole sex by the evilness of so lewd an example . . .


Sir, I confess you have raised mine eyelids up, but you have not clean taken away the film that covers the sight. I feel (I confess) cause of belief, and would willingly bend my heart to entertain belief, but when the accuser is guilty of as much or more then that he accuseth, or that I see you refuse the potion, and are as grievously infected, blame me not then a little to stagger, and till you will be pleased to be cleansed of that leprosy which I see apparent in you, give me leave to doubt whether mine infection be so contagious, as your blind severity would make it.

Therefore to take your proportion in a few lines (my dear Feminine-Masculine), tell me what charter, prescription or right of claim you have to those things you make our absolute inheritance? Why do you curl, frizzle and powder your hairs, bestowing more hours and time in dividing lock from lock, and hair from hair, in giving every thread his posture, and every curl his true sense and circumference than ever Caesar did in marshalling his army, either at Pharsalia, in Spain, or Britain? Why do you rob us of our ruffs, of our earrings, carcanets, and mamillions, of our fans and feathers, our busks and French bodies, nay, of our masks, hoods, shadows and shapynas? Not so much as the very art of painting, but you have so greedily engrossed it, that were it not for that little fantastical sharp pointed dagger that hangs at your chins, and the cross hilt which guards your upper lip, hardly would there be any difference between the fair mistress and the foolish servant. But is this theft the uttermost of our spoil? Fie, you have gone a world further, and even ravished from us our speech, our actions, sports, and recreations. Goodness leave me, if I have not heard a man court his mistress with the same words that Venus did Adonis, or as near as the book could instruct him; where are the tilts and tourneys, and lofty galliards that were danced in the days of old, when men capered in the air like wanton kids on the tops of mountains, and turned above ground as if they had been compact of fire or a purer element? Tut, all’s forsaken, all’s vanished, those motions showed more strength than art, and more courage than courtship; it was much too robustious, and rather spent the body than prepared it, especially where any defect before reigned; hence you took from us poor women . . . For this you have demolished the noble schools of horsemanship (of which many were in this city), hung up your arms to rust, glued up those swords in their scabbards that would shake all Christendom with the brandish, and entertained into your minds such softness, dullness, and effeminate niceness, that it would even make Heraclitus himself laugh against his nature to see how pulingly you languish in this weak entertained sin of womanish softness . . . Now since according to your own inference, even by the laws of nature, by the rules of religion, and the customs of all civil nations, it is necessary there be a distinct and special difference between man and woman, both in their habit and behaviours: what could we poor weak women do less (being far too weak by force to fetch back those spoils you have unjustly taken from us) than to gather up those garments you have proudly cast away, and therewith to clothe both our bodies and our minds, since no other means was left us to continue our names, and to support a difference? . . . Hence we have preserved (though to our own shames) those manly things which you have forsaken, which would you again accept, and restore to us the blushes we laid by, when first we put on your masculine garments, doubt not but chaste thoughts and bashfulness will again dwell in us, and our palaces being newly gilt, trimmed, and re-edified, draw to us all the Graces, all the Muses . . .  Cast then from you our ornaments, and put on your own armours. Be men in shape, men in show, men in words, men in actions, men in counsel, men in example: then will we love and serve you; then will we hear and obey you … Then shall you find delight in our words; pleasure in our faces; faith in our hearts; chastity in our thoughts, and sweetness both in our inward and outward inclinations . . .


Enough! You have both raised mine eyelids, cleared my sight, and made my heart entertain both shame and delight at an instant, shame in my follies past, delight in our noble and worthy conversion. Away then from me these light vanities, the only ensigns of a weak and soft nature: and come you grave and solid pieces, which arm a man with fortitude and resolution: you are too tough and stubborn for a woman’s wearing, we will here change our attires, as we have changed our minds, and with our attires, our names. I will no more be Haec-Vir, but Hic- Vir, nor you Hic-Mulier, but Haec-Mulier . . .

Further reading:

Bigliazzi, Silvia. 2018. “Romeo Before Romeo: Notes on Shakespeare Source Study.” Memoria di Shakespeare 5: 13-39.

Disruptive nurses

From John Dod and Roberts Cleaver’s conduct book A Godly Form of Household Government (London: Thomas Man, 1600, 235-9), with Puritan leanings:

Amongst the particular duties that a Christian wife ought to perform in her family, this is one: namely: that she nurse her own children, which to omit, and to put them forth to nursing, is both against the law of nature, and also against the will of God. Besides, it is hurtful both for the child’s body, and also for his wit; and lastly, it is hurtful to the mother herself, and it is an occasion that she falleth into much sickness thereby.

First, nature giveth milk to the woman for none other end, but that she should bestow it upon her child. We see by experience, that every beast, and every fowl is nourished and bred of the same that did bear it: only some women love to be mothers, but not nurses. As therefore every tree doth cherish and nourish that which it bringeth forth: even so also it becommeth natural mothers to nourish their children with their own milk.

Secondly, the examples of the Scriptures are many that prove this. As Sarah, who nursed Isaac, though she were a princess, and therefore able enough to have had others to have taken that pains. Though she was a beautiful woman, and of great years, yet she herself nursed and gave suck to her son. Also Anna, unto whom the Holy Ghost hath left it recorded as a commendation, that she nursed her own son Samuel. So when God chose a nurse for Moses, he led the handmaid of Pharaoh’s daughter to his mother; as though God would have none to nurse him but his mother. Likewise, when the Son of God was born, his Father thought none fit to be his nurse, but the Blessed Virgin his mother. It is a commendation of a good woman, and set down in the first place as a principal good work in a widow that is well reported of, if she have nursed her children. And therefore such as refuse thus to do, may well and fitly be called nice and unnatural mothers: yea, in so doing they make themselves but half-mothers, and so break the holy bond of nature, in locking up their breasts from their children, and delivering them forth like the cuckoo, to be hatched in the sparrow’s nest.

Thirdly, the children’s bodies be commonly so affected as the milk is which they receive. Now if the nurse be of an evil complexion, as she is affected in her body, or in her mind, or hath some hidden disease, the child sucking of her breast must needs take part with her. And if that be true which the learned do say, that the temperature of the mind follows the constitution of the body, needs must it be, that if the nurse be of a naughty nature, the child must take thereafter. Yet if it be so that the nurse be of a good complexion, and of an honest behaviour (whereas contrariwise, maidens that have made a scape are commonly called to be nurses) yet can it not be, but that the mother’s milk should be much more natural for the child than the milk of a stranger. As by experience, let a man be long accustomed to one kind of drink, if the same man change his air, and his drink, he is like to mislike it, as the eggs of a hen are altered under a hawk. Nevertheless, such women as be oppressed with infirmities, diseases, want of milk, or other just and lawful causes, are to be dispensed withal. But whose breasts have this perpetual drought? Forsooth, it is like the gout, no beggars may have it, but citizens or gentlewomen. In the ninth of Hosea, verse 14,. dry breasts are named for a curse. What a lamentable hap have gentlewomen to light upon this curse more than others? Sure if their breasts be dry (as they say they are), they should fast and pray together, that this curse might be removed from them.

And lastly, that it is hurtful to the mothers themselves both physicians can tell, and some women full oft have felt, when they have bene troubled with sore breasts, besides other diseases, that happen to them through plenty of milk.

The wise is further to remember, that God hath given her two breasts, not that she should employ and use them for a show, or of ostentation, but in the service of God, and to be a help to her husband, in suckling the child common to them both. Experience teacheth that God converteth the mother’s blood into the milk wherewith the child is nursed in her womb. He bringeth it into the breasts furnished with nipples convenient to minister the warm milk unto the child, whom he endueth with industry to draw out the milk for his own sustenance. The woman therefore that can suckle her child and doth it not, but refuseth this office and duty of a mother, declareth herself to be very unthankful to God, and (as it were) forsaketh and contemneth the fruit of her womb. And therefore the brute beasts lying upon the ground, and granting not one nipple or two, but six or seven to their young ones, shall rise in judgment against these dainty half-mothers, who for fear of wrinkling of their faces, or to avoid some small labour, do refuse this so necessary a duty of a mother due to her children.

Further reading:

Fildes, Valerie A. 1986. Breasts, Bottles and Babies: A History of Infant Feeding. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Queen Mab

No sources of Romeo and Juliet refer to Queen Mab. Shakespeare may have inserted a character typical of oral culture (and possibly of Celtic heritage), since no written text published in Elizabethan England refers to this character. ‘Queen’ may be a pun on ‘quean’, prostitute. On the other hand, the OED indicates the meaning of the noun as “A slattern, a promiscuous woman” (mab, n1 1). However, from the following three examples, it seems clear that ‘mab’ in the Tudor period indicated a hag or an old crone (occasionally associated with midwifery and witchcraft), rather than a slattern.

In A Mirror or Glass for Them That Be Sick [and] in Pain. Translated out of Dutch in English (London: John Gough, 1536), an anonymous translation (but possibly by the proto-Puritan Miles Coverdale) of Wilhelm Gnapheus’ Een troost ende spieghel der siecken ende derghenen, die in lijden zyn together with the dialogue Tobias ende Lazarus, a character called Lazarus laments that, on the question of the validity of pilgrimages, he “gave too much ear unto these old toothless mabs, and pillar-gnawers [i.e. sanctimonious hypocrites]” (Eiir.). Gnapheus had simply “olde wijuen” (old women).

The next passage is clearer. Translating the eighth satire of Horace (Book 1), Thomas Drant wrote:

Yet most these charming sorcerers,

undoubtedly me grieves,

Who do with poison, and with spells,

bereave men of their wits.

I cannot stay these mother mabs,

but they will charm by fits.

(A Medicinable Moral, That Is, the Two Books of Horace His Satires, Englished According to the Prescription of Saint Hierome. London: Thomas Marsh, 1566, Dviiiv.)

The speaker here is a statue of the god Priapus placed in a garden. Whereas Horace refers more generally to witches as “carminibus quae versant atque venenis / humanos animos” (19-20, “those who troubles human souls with their spells and incantations”), Drant specifies the description.

Finally, in the anonymous A New Merry and Witty Comedy or Interlude, Newly Imprinted, Treating Upon the History of Jacob and Esau (London: Henry Bynneman, 1568), Esau yells at Deborra (Deborah), his mother’s old nurse:

And come out thou mother Mab, out old rotten witch,

As white as midnight’s arsehole, or virgin pitch. (Gir.)

According to the OED, the etymology of ‘mab’ may be a shortening of the female name Mabel. Others believe they can trace a link to Queen Medb, a character of Irish mythology.

No ‘balcony’ scene

According to the OED, the first occurrence of the word ‘balcony’ in English dates to 1618: “It was properly a balcone, and so the building itself did jetty out” (Barten Holyday, Juvenal). When John Florio had to find a definition for Italian ‘balcone’, he was very generic: “any window, namely a bay window. Also a bulk or stall of a shop” (London: Edward Blount and William Barret, 1611). Notice instead the wonder of an Englishman, Thomas Coryat, at seeing balconies in Venice (Coryat’s Crudities. London: William Stansby, 1611):

I noted another thing in these Venetian palaces that I have very seldom seen in England, and it is very little used in any other country that I could perceive in my travels, saving only in Venice and other Italian cities. Some what above the middle of the front of the building, or (as I have observed in many of their palaces) a little beneath the top of the front they have right opposite unto their windows, a very pleasant little terrace, that jutteth or butteth out from the main building: the edge whereof is decked with many pretty little turned pillars, either of marble or free stone to lean over. These kind of terraces or little galleries of pleasure give great grace to the whole edifice and serve only for this purpose, that people may from that place as from a most delectable prospect contemplate and view the parts of the city round about them in the cool evening.

In Romeo and Juliet, the lovers are described “at the window” (Q1, S.D. 3.5) or “aloft” (Q2, S.D. 3.5). It was in Thomas Otway’s rewrite of the play, Caius Marius (1680), that the Juliet figure appears “in the balcony”.

Further reading:

Allen, B. Sprague. 1933. “Tom Coryat and Juliet’s ‘Balcony’.” PMLA 48: 945-48.

Franciscans and auricular confession

For William Tyndale, Catholic spies could be found “[i]n every  parish . . .  and in every great man’s house and in every tavern and alehouse. And through confessions know they all secrets, so that no man may open his mouth to rebuke what so ever they do, but that he shall be shortly made an heretic” (The Obedience of a Christian Man, 1528: xlii). Protestant attacks against the abuses of auricular confession were ubiquitous, and were linked with national treason: “They are trained to conference and secret consultation to make shift for their souls by ghostly counsel, and this their confession, wherein many traitorous devices are agreed upon” (Thomas Norton, quoted in Wheeler 1989: 58).

In Elizabethan England, friars were regarded with great hostility or ridicule, and had been expelled from the realm with the Henrician confiscation of the monasteries. In particular, the Protestant martyrologist John Foxe had this to say about Franciscans, highlighting their factiousness and hypocrisy:

These Franciscan or begging friars, although they were all under one rule and clothing of St. Francis, yet they be divided in many sects, and orders: some go on treen shoes or pattens, some barefooted, some regular Franciscans or Observants, some Minors or Minorites, other be called Minimi, other of the Gospel, other de Caputio. They all differ in many things, but accord in superstition and hypocrisy . . .  the begging friars and such other unprofitable bellies of the Church . . . ” (Acts and Monuments. London: John Day, 1583: 259-60).

Further reading:

Bramhall, Eric. 2013. Penitence and the English Reformation. PhD Thesis, University of Liverpool.

Wheeler, Carol Ellen. 1989. Every man crying out : Elizabethan anti-Catholic Pamphlets and the Birth of English Anti-Papism. PhD diss., Portland State University.


The Church of England did not modify the decree of the canon law according to which the minimum age for a marriage to be legal was 12 years for women and 14 for men. Certain provisions were taken to ensure that young heiresses would not be victims of fortune-hunters, or married without parental consent, as shown by this 1557 act:

. . . For remedy whereof, be it enacted by the King and Queen’s Majesties, the Lords Spiritual and Tem­poral, and the Commons, of this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, that it shall not be lawful to any person or persons to take or convey away, or cause to be taken or conveyed away, any maid or woman child unmarried, being under the age of sixteen years, out of or from the possession, custody, or governance, and against the will of the father of such maid or woman child, or of such person or persons to whom the father of such maid or woman child, by his last will and testament, or any other act in his life-time, hath or shall appoint, assign, bequeath, give or grant the order, keeping, education or governance of such maid or woman child, except such taking and conveying away as shall be had, made or done, by or for such person or persons, as without fraud or covin be or then shall be the master or mistress of such maid or woman child, or the guardian in socage, or guardian in chivalry, of or to such maid or woman child.

And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid , that if any person or persons above the age of 14 years shall from and after the first day of April next coming unlawfully take or convey, or cause to be taken or conveyed, any maid or woman child unmarried, being within the age of 16 years, out of or from the possession and against the will of the father or mother of such child, or out of or from the possession and against the will of such person or persons as then shall happen to have, by any lawful ways or means, the order, keeping, education or governance of any such maiden or woman child, that then every such person and persons so offending, being thereof lawfully attainted or convicted by the order and due course of the laws of this realm . . . shall have and suffer imprisonment of his or their bo­dies, by the space of two whole years, without bail or mainprize, or else shall pay such fine for his or their said  offence, as shall be assessed by the council of the queen’s highness, her heirs or successors, in the Star Chamber at Westminster.

And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid , that if any person or persons, after the said, day, shall so take away, or cause to be taken away as is aforesaid, and deflower any such maid or woman child as is aforesaid, or shall against the will, or unknowing of or to the father of any such maid or woman child, if the father be in life, or against the will or unknowing of the mother of any such maid or woman child (having the custody or governance of such child, if the father be dead) by secret letters, messages, or otherwise contract matrimony with any such maiden or woman child, except such con­tracts of matrimony as shall be made by the consent of such person or persons, as by the title of wardship shall then have or be intituled to have the marriage of such maid or woman child; that then every such person or persons so offending, being thereof lawfully convicted, as is aforesaid , shall suffer imprisonment of his or their bodies, by the space of five years, without bail or mainprize, or else shall pay such fine for his or their said offence, as shall be assessed by the said  council in the said Star Chamber; the one moiety of all which forfeitures and fines shall be to the king and queen’s majesties, her heirs and successors, the other moiety to the parties grieved.

The finalised 39 Articles of the Book of Common Prayer (1571) did not recognise matrimony as a sacrament ordained by Christ, but as one of those that “are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not the like nature of Sacraments with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God” (XXV Article). The family needed to be led by the husband and father, and children were expected to obey in all (see this 1578 ‘Prayer of Children for their Parents’ (London: John Day): “Lord God, whose will it is that next thy self we should yield most honour to our fathers and mothers . . . I beseech thee preserve my father and mother . . . And unto me, grant that they may not have any trouble by my means”). The nature of matrimony and the duties of husband and wife are explored in the following 1563 Homily of the State of Matrimony (London: Richard Jugge and Jon Cawood), attributed to Bishop John Jewel:

The word of Almighty God doth testify and declare whence the original beginning of matrimony cometh, and why it is ordained. It is instituted of God, to the intent that man and woman should live lawfully in a perpetual friendly fellowship, to bring forth fruit, and to avoid fornication: by which a means a good conscience might be preserved on both parties in bridling the corrupt inclinations of the flesh within the limits of honesty; for God hath straightly forbidden all whoredom and uncleanness, and hath from time to time taken grievous punishments of this inordinate lust, as all stories and ages hath declared. Furthermore, it is also ordained, that the Church of God and his kingdom might by this kind of life be conserved and enlarged, not only in that God giveth children by his blessing, but also in that they be brought up by the parents godly in the knowledge of God’s word; that thus the knowledge of God and true religion might be delivered by succession from one to another, that finally many might enjoy that everlasting immortality . . .

[St. Paul’s] precept doth peculiarly pertain to the husband: for he ought to be the leader and author of love in cherishing and increasing concord; which then shall take place, if he will use measureableness and not tyranny, and if he yield some things to the woman. For the woman is a weak creature, not endued with like strength and constancy of mind: therefore they be the sooner disquieted, and they be the more prone to all weak affections and dispositions of mind, more than men be; and lighter they be and more vain in their fantasies and opinions. These things must be considered of the man, that he be not too stiff;s o that he ought to wink at some things, and must gently expound all things, and to forbear. Howbeit, the common sort of men doth judge that such moderation should not become a man: for they say that it is a token of a womanish cowardness; and therefore they think that it is a man’s part to fume in anger, to fight with fist and staff. Howbeit, howsoever they imagine, undoubtedly St. Peter doth better judge what should beseeming to a man, and what he should most reasonably perform. For he saith reasoning should be used, and not fighting. Yea, he saith more, that the woman ought to have a certain honour attributed to her; that is to say, she must be spared and borne with, the rather for that she is the weaker vessel, of a frail heart, inconstant, and with a word soon stirred to wrath. And therefore, considering these her frailties, she is to be the rather spared. By this means thou shalt not only nourish concord, but shalt have her heart in thy power and will; for honest natures will sooner be retained to do their duty rather by gentle words than by stripes . . .

Truth it is, that [women] must specially feel the griefs and pains of their matrimony, in that they relinquish the liberty of their own rule, in the pain of their travailing, in the bringing up of their children; in which offices they be in great perils, and be grieved with great afflictions, which they might be without, if they lived out of matrimony. But St. Peter saith that this is the chief ornament of holy matrons, in that they set their hope and trust in God . . .

Italians and the art of the duel

Under Elizabeth I, there was no express law against duelling (compare James I’s Proclamation Prohibiting the Publishing of Any Reports or Writing of Duels. London: Robert Barker, 1613). The arrival in London of Italian fencing masters such as Vincenzo Saviolo and Rocco Bonetti, who set up schools, caused a stir.

  • From Vincentio Saviolo His Practice, in Two Books, the First Entreating of the Use of the Rapier and Dagger, the Second of Honour and Honourable Quarrels (London: John Wolfe,1595):

Injury without charge is of two sorts, viz. of words and of deeds. Of words thus, if one man should speak any thing of another, which were manifestly known to be false, to this he should not be bound to answer, because the first without any return would be accounted a false accuser and a liar: and in mine opinion, it is a more honourable reputation for a man to be silent in such a case, than by answering to seem to make any account of the words . . . for quarrels are to testify a truth, and where that is once manifest, the quarrel is not required.

Injury by deeds without charge is, when a man by advantage or such like means offereth a wrong, and it is evident that such a fact was villainously done, and this injury I account done without charge, in such like sort as that was by words, because that if he that is injuried would demand the other a reason of his villainy, how could he otherwise maintain it unless by alleging that the other had taken advantage of him, or done him some wrong. And if this be so, what needeth farther proof? But perhaps some man will ask me if in this case he should put up this injury without revenge. To whom I answer that combat was ordained for justifying of a truth, and not to lay open a way for one man to revenge him of another, for the punishment of such things resteth in the Prince for the maintenance of peace in the realm, which if it should be severely executed, no doubt but there would be fewer quarrels by many degrees. And in troth, the offence is the greater in this realm, where we know God, and hear his Gospel daily preached, which expressly forbiddeth manslaughter: by how much that he that killeth maketh a massacre of the very true image of the living God.

Wherefore we ought onely to fear, reverence, and obey him, and not follow our own vain appetites, which carry us headlong into utter ruin and destruction.

But to return to revenge, he that needs will follow it, ought to take another course than combat, albeit many no doubt will advise a man to return like for like, which in no case I would not wish should be followed. But many perhaps that are rather led by an ill custom than reason, will wonder at this I have already alleged, because hereafter I will also affirm that where an injury is shamefully done, not only the injuried is free of the charge, but the injurier resteth with the shame, for in matters of chivalry, where a man committeth no shameful, dishonourable, or vile fact, he cannot truly be said to have done unlike a gentleman, and methinketh it an unpossible thing to avoid receiving injury from another, therefore when anything happeneth which a man cannot escape, it ought to be judged shameful. For a shameful thing is, where a man committeth villainy which was in his power not to have done . . . (Z3v.-Z6v.)

  • From George Silver’s Paradoxes of Defence (London: Edward Blount, 1599):

The reason which moved me to adventure so great a task is the desire I have to bring the Truth to light, which hath long time lain hidden in the cave of contempt, while we like degenerate sons have forsaken our forefathers’ virtues with their weapons, and have lusted like men sick of a strange ague, after the strange vices and devices of Italian, French and Spanish fencers, little remembering that these apish toys could not free Rome from Brennius’ sack, nor France from King Henry the Fifth his conquest. To this desire to find out Truth the daughter of Time, begotten of Bellona, I was also moved, that by it I might remove the great loss of our English gallants, which we daily suffer by these imperfect fights . . .  these Italian fencers could not escape his censure, who teach us offence, not defence, and to fight, as Diogenes’ scholars were taught to dance, to bring their lives to an end by art . . .

George Silver having the perfect knowledge of all manner of weapons, and being experienced in all manner of fights, thereby perceiving the great abuses by the Italian teachers of offence done unto them, the great errors, inconveniences, and false resolutions they have brought them into have enforced me, even of pity of their most lamentable wounds and slaughters, and as I verily think it my bounden duty, with all love and humility to admonish them to take heed, how they submit themselves into the hands of Italian teachers of defence, or strangers what so ever; and to beware how they forsake or suspect their own natural fight, that they may by casting off of these Italianated, weak, fantastical, and most devilish and imperfect fights, and by exercising of their own ancient weapons, be restored, or achieve unto their natural, and most manly and victorious fight again, the dint and force whereof many brave nations have both felt and feared . . .

Now, o you Italian teachers of defence, where are your Stoccatas, Imbrocatas, Mandritas, Puntas, and Punta reversas, Stramisons, Passatas, Carricados, Amazzas, and Incartatas, and playing with your bodies, removing with your feet a little aside, circle-wise winding of your bodies, making of three times with your feet together, marking with one eye the motion of the adversary, and with the other eye the advantage of thrusting? What is become of all these juggling gambols, apish devices, with all the rest of your squint-eyed tricks, when as through your deep studies, long practices, and apt bodies, both strong and agilious, you have attained to the height of all these things, what then availeth it you, when you shall come to fight for your lives with a man of skill, you shall have neither time, nor place, in due time to perform any one of them . . .

And if I should choose a valiant man for service of the prince, or to take part with me or any friend of mine in a good quarrel, I would choose the unskilful man, being unencumbered with false fights, because such a man standeth free in his valour with strength and agility of body, freely taketh the benefit of nature, fighteth most brave, by loosing no opportunity, either soundly to hurt his enemy, or defend himself, but the other standing for his defence, upon his cunning Italian wards, Punta reversa, the Imbrocata, Stoccata, and being fast tied unto these false fights, standeth troubled in his wits, and nature thereby racked through the largeness or false lyings or spaces, whereby he is in his fight as a man half maimed, losing the opportunity of times and benefit of nature, and whereas before being ignorant of these false rapier fights, standing in the free liberty of nature given him by God, he was able in the field with his weapon to answer the valiantest man in the world, but now being tied unto that false fickle uncertain fight, thereby hath lost in nature his freedom, is now become scarce half a man, and every boy in that fight is become as good a man as himself. (A4v., A5r., B1r., H4r., K4r.)

Further reading:

Niayesh, Ladan. 2014.  “‘Make it a word and a blow’: The Duel and Its Rhetoric in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet”. Arrêt sur scène / Scene Focus, Institut de Recherche sur la Renaissance, l’Âge classique et les Lumières. ffhal-01880178.

Rossi, Sergio. 1993. “Duelling in the Italian Manner: The Case of Romeo and Juliet.” In Shakespeare’s Italy: Functions of Italian Locations in Renaissance Drama, edited by Michele Marrapodi et al., 112-24. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Love suicide in early modern England

“There are no examples at all of love-suicides who received lenient treatment or were eulogized as real Romeos, actual Juliets” (MacDonald and Murphy 1993: 104). Suicide was a sin as well as a crime “against Nature, against God, and against the King” (Hales v. Petit, 1 Plowd. Com. 253, Eng. Rep. 387, 400 [1561–62]), and there is evidence of widespread practices of communal desecration of the graves of people who had taken their own lives. Love suicide was a staple of early modern drama, tapping into a wide array of literary traditions and topoi, but, as Robert Burton noted, outside the realm of literature and drama, it could be perceived much differently:

For such men ordinarily, as are thoroughly possessed with this humour, become insensati et insani, for it is amor insanus, as the poet calls it, beside themselves, and as I have proved, no better than beasts, irrational, stupid, headstrong, void of fear of God or men, they frequently forswear themselves, spend, steal, commit incests, rapes, adulteries, murders, depopulate towns, cities, countries, to satisfy their lust.. . . Go to Bedlam for examples. It is so well known in every village, how many have either died for love or voluntary made away themselves, that I need not much labour to prove it. Nec modus aut requies nisi mors reperitur amoris: death is the common catastrophe to such persons.

(Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. by Rhonda L. Blair. Thomas C. Faulkner, and Nicholas Kiessling: Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989-2000: Vol. 3, 199.)

Gillian Woods notes: “Burton’s text serves as an important caution against assuming that early modern audiences all swooned sympathetically and ecstatically at Shakespeare’s play” (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013: 19).

Melancholy was often diagnosed as the motive behind such actions. André du Laurens (in English translation, A Discourse of the Preservation of the Sight. London: Ralph Jackson, 1599) observed:

[Melancholics] conceive of death as a terrible thing, and notwithstanding (which is strange) they often desire it, yea so eagerly, as that they will not let to destroy themselves. But this falleth out then only when fear is turned into despair, it is true indeed that this happeneth so oft unto those whom melancholy simply assaileth, as unto those which are mad. (92-3)

See also this passage from Timothy Bright’s Treatise of Melancholy (London: John Windet,1586):

when desperate fury is joined with fear: which so terrifieth, that to avoid the terror, they attempt sometimes to deprive themselves of life: so irksome it is unto them through these tragical conceits – although weighing and considering death by itself without comparison, and force of the passion, none more fear of than they. (111)

Further reading:

MacDonald, Michael, and Terence R. Murphy. 1993. Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Stelzer, Emanuel. 2016. “Social Implications of Love Suicide in Early Modern English Drama.” Critical Survey 28: 67-77.

Wymer, Rowland. 1986. Suicide and Despair in the Jacobean Drama. Brighton: The Harvester Press.

The 1592-3 London plague

From Simon Kellwaye’s A Defensative Against the Plague (London: John Windet,1593):

. . .  If these Heathens (having none but nature for their guide) proceeded so far in such exceeding love and zeal towards their country, as they preferred the tranquillity and peace thereof, before their private commodities, liberties, and lives, how justly may they condemn us (that challenge the name of Christians) since our good actions and endeavours want weight to balance down theirs. But it is no marvel, for in this declining and dotage of the world, the most part of men are prone to follow their own preferments, delighting in self-love, and greedily snatching at the top of fickle Fortune’s wheel (wherein the world’s summum bonum is fixed) which with the least touch overturns, laying the heedless climber in the dust, as they have greater regard and respect unto their private profit and advancement (be it never so worthless) wherein they fondly distrust the providence of God, than to the good of their country (how necessarily so ever it require their help) wherein they show their neglect of duty, and stain themselves with the filth of ingratitude, than which nothing (in a reasonable creature) can be more faulty, for creatures unreasonable naturally abhor it. The consideration whereof, hath animated me (amongst many thousands the unworthiest) in this dangerous time of sickness (not unlikely to prove more dangerous, the worst season of the year approaching) wherein God hath already drawn his sword against us, and stricken some few, and except we cause him by our speedy repentance to sheath it, he (no doubt) hath determined to strike us at the quick; how fearfully the wrath of God consumes, if his indignation be once kindled, we all know: but who shall be able to abide it? Let us therefore that have not yet felt his fury, become wise by the view of others miseries: the burnt child shuns the fire, but we (far more foolish than children) cast ourselves headlong into the flame, notwithstanding we see the ashes of our friends burnt before us . . .

The ancient physicians in times past have greatly doubted what the essential cause of this disease, which we commonly call the plague, or pestilence should be: yet all do agree that it is a pernicious and contagious fever, and reckoned to be one of the number of those which are called Epidemia, chiefly proceeding of adusted and melancholic blood, which may be easily perceived by the extreme heat and inflammation which inwardly they do feel that are infected therewith, first assaulting the heart, and astonishing the vital spirits, as also by the exterior carbuncles and botches which it produceth: whose malignity is such, both in young and old, rich and poor, noble and ignoble, that using all the means which by art can, or may be devised, yet in some it will in no sort give place, until it hath by death conquered the party infected therewith. . . .  how so ever it doth come, let us assure ourselves that it is a just punishment of God laid upon us, for our manifold sins and transgressions against his divine Majesty: for as Seneca saith, quicquid patimur ab alto venit, what crosses or afflictions so ever we suffer it cometh from the Lord, either for a trial of our faith, or a punishment for our sins.


Jews had been expelled from England since the Edict of Expulsion of 1290. In 1562, it was decreed that ‘Egyptians’ (i.e. gypsies, Romani people) had to abandon the realm or face charges of felony. In 1585, an ‘Act against Jesuits, Seminary Priests, and other such like disobedient Persons’ ordered Catholic priests trained at colleges abroad to return on the Continent. Recusants were expelled from London in James’ Act of 1605.

In their everyday life, Elizabethans would experience multiple forms of banishment. For example, see below the Vagabonds Act of 1597, which led to the building of hospitals for “rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars” – those who refused were sent to their original parish:

And be it also further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that all persons calling themselves scholars going about begging, all seafaring-men pretending losses of their ships or goods on the sea going about the country begging, all idle persons going about any country either begging or using any subtle craft or unlawful games and plays, or feigning themselves to have knowledge in physiognomy, palmistry, or other like crafty science, or pretending that they can tell destinies, fortunes, or such other like fantastical imaginations; all persons that be or utter themselves to be proctors, procurers, patent-gatherers or collectors for gaols, prisons, or hospitals; all fencers, bearwards, common players of interludes and minstrels wandering abroad (other than players of interludes belonging to any baron of this realm, or any other honourable personage of greater degree, to be authorised to play, under the hand and seal of arms of such baron or personage); all jugglers, tinkers, peddlers, and petty chapmen wandering abroad; all wandering persons and common labourers being persons able in body using loitering and refusing to work for such reasonable wages as is taxed or commonly given in such parts where such persons do or shall happen to dwell or abide, not having living otherwise to maintain themselves; all persons delivered out of gaols that beg for their fees, or otherwise do travel begging; all such persons as shall wander abroad begging pretending losses by fire or otherwise; and all such persons not being felons wandering pretending themselves to be Egyptians, or wandering in the habit, form, or attire of counterfeit Egyptians, shall be taken, adjudged, and deemed rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars, and shall sustain such pain and punishment as by this act is in that behalf appointed.

All such vagabonds, etc. found begging, shall be whipped and passed to the parish of their birth or last residence, etc. or sent to the house of correction, etc.


Since the late 1580s, transportation to the colonies had become an alternative sentence imposed for a felony. This is the 1603 proclamation, under James I:

We therefore of his Majesty’s Privy Council, whose names are hereunto subscribed, finding it of necessity to reform great abuses, and to have the due execution of so good and necessary a law, do according to the power limited unto us by the same statute, hereby assign and think it fit and expedient, that the places and parts beyond the seas to which any such incorrigible or dangerous rogues shall be banished and conveyed according to the said statute, shall be these countries and places following, viz. the New-found Land, the East and West Indies, France, Germany, Spain, and the Low-Counties, or any of them.

(Larkin, James F., and Paul L. Hughes, eds. 1969. Tudor Royal Proclamations. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969: 1.52-3.)

Further reading:

Kingsley-Smith, Jane. 2003. Shakespeare’s Drama of Exile. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Uncovered on the bier

The tradition of corpses left uncovered on biers, exposed to public view, in funeral processions, is attested in Renaissance Italy (see Strocchia 1981, 19, 34, 37, 131, or Agnolo Poliziano’s 1473 epicedium on Albiera degli Albizzi), and Arthur Brooke refers to it as a typically Italian ritual. Indeed, there is less evidence of this practice in early modern England, but poetic references to burials would suggest that uncovered biers were not exceptional: see Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12, 7-8:And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves, / Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard”. Monarchs’ bodies were sometimes left uncovered (the funeral of Henry II may have initiated this practice), although effigies seem to have been preferred in the Tudor period. It was definitely more common in the Middle Ages; see Arcite’s funeral procession in ‘The Knight’s Tale’ in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (2870-912; although here the body is not buried, but burnt; for an interlinear translation into modern English, see here):

And after this, Theseus hath y-sent
After a bere, and it al over-spradde
With cloth of gold, the richest that he hadde.
And of the same suyte he cladde Arcite;
Upon his hondes hadde he gloves whyte;
Eek on his heed a croune of laurer grene,

And in his hond a swerd ful bright and kene.
He leyde him bare the visage on the bere,
Therwith he weep that pitee was to here.
And for the peple sholde seen him alle,
Whan it was day, he broghte him to the halle,
That roreth of the crying and the soun.

Tho cam this woful Theban Palamoun,
With flotery berd, and ruggy asshy heres,
In clothes blake, y-dropped al with teres;
And, passing othere of weping, Emelye,
The rewfulleste of al the companye.
In as muche as the service sholde be
The more noble and riche in his degree,
Duk Theseus leet forth three stedes bringe,
That trapped were in steel al gliteringe,
And covered with the armes of daun Arcite.
Up-on thise stedes, that weren grete and whyte,
Ther seten folk, of which oon bar his sheeld,
Another his spere up in his hondes heeld;
The thridde bar with him his bowe Turkeys,
Of brend gold was the cas, and eek the harneys;
And riden forth a pas with sorweful chere
Toward the grove, as ye shul after here.
The nobleste of the Grekes that ther were
Upon hir shuldres carieden the bere,
With slakke pas, and eyen rede and wete,
Thurgh-out the citee, by the maister-strete,
That sprad was al with blak, and wonder hye
Right of the same is al the strete y-wrye.
Up-on the right hond wente old Egeus,
And on that other syde duk Theseus,
With vessels in hir hand of gold ful fyn,
Al ful of hony, milk, and blood, and wyn;
Eek Palamon, with ful greet companye;
And after that cam woful Emelye,
With fyr in honde, as was that tyme the gyse,
To do thoffice of funeral servyse.

On the other hand, consider that, “[d]espite the common sixteenth and seventeenth century practices of coffining the dead, very few early modern dramas present the dead body on stage within a coffin. Rather, in the theatre, the corpse is always exposed, discovered, and revealed, suggesting that the early modern theatre appropriates earlier burial practices not only for stage practicality but also for theatricality” (Imbracsio 2010: 12).

Further reading:

Imbracsio, N.M. 2010. Corpses Revealed: The Staging of the Theatrical Corpse in Early Modern Drama. PhD diss., University of New Hampshire.

Strocchia, Sharon T. 1981. Burials in Renaissance Florence, 1350-1500. PhD diss., University of California.

Italy and poisons

Italians were stereotypically associated with poisons, often in combination with anti-Catholic discourse (consider the use of poisons under the Borgias, coupled with the stock character of the Machiavellian intrigante). Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedies were often set in Italy; murder by Italian poison was a staple of early modern drama.

O Italy, the academy of manslaughter, the sporting storehouse of all murderous place of murder, the apothecary-shop of poison for all nations! How many kind of weapons hast thou invented for malice?” (Thomas Nashe, Pierce Penniless. London: Abel Jeffes, 1592: C4v.).

“If we should gather sins to their particular centres, we would appoint . . .  poisoning to Italy” (Thomas Adams, The Devils Banquet. London: Thomas Snodham, 1614: 291).

Further reading:

Bellany, Alastair. 2016. “Thinking with Poison.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Age of Shakespeare, edited by Robert Malcolm Smuts, 559-79. Oxford: Oxford University Press.