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What Is the Story of Romeo and Juliet?

Illustrated by David Malan
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Who HQ brings you the stories behind the most well-known characters of our time.

Discover the origins of one of literature's most famous couples, Romeo and Juliet, and their creator, William Shakespeare, in this fun and informative addition to the What Is the Story Of? series.


In 1597, Shakespeare debuted his newest play, a tragedy about a young Italian couple whose families were sworn enemies. Romeo and Juliet quickly became one of the most famous couples in literary history, and this play became one of Shakespeare's most performed shows. But did you know that much of Romeo and Juliet's story was adapted from tales by other writers? Learn all about how William Shakespeare's dynamic and romantic teenage duo sprouted from the Italian story of The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet in 1562 and grew into adaptions like West Side Story and even Gnomeo & Juliet in this nonfiction book for young readers.
What Is the Story of Romeo and Juliet?

 
When the biggest stars from Walt Disney Studios arrived in Hollywood for the premiere of a new animated movie, celebrities including Zendaya, James McAvoy, and Sir Elton John walked on a fuzzy blue carpet toward the doors of the El Capitan Theatre.
 
Inside, the audience sat in green chairs and marveled at the shiny gold ceiling. Suddenly, the lights dimmed. Gnomeo & Juliet in 3D was starting. The audience watched a small animated garden gnome appear on-screen.
 
“The story you are about to see has been told before,” the gnome said. “A lot.”
 
Everyone in the theater giggled. They knew the exact story the gnome was talking about. The movie continued, and two gnomes named Gnomeo and Juliet lit up the screen. They met. They fell in love. They picked flowers. There was only one problem: Juliet’s family lived on one side of the garden fence, and Gnomeo’s family lived on the other. Those two families did not get along.
 
Laughter filled the theater as gnomes and flamingos danced across the screen. The crowd gasped when gnomes fought one another with lawn mowers. Luckily, the movie had a happy ending: Gnomeo and Juliet’s love proved too strong for their family’s disapproval.
 
When the movie ended, the crowd rose to their feet. “Bravo!” they cheered, as the movie’s creators bowed.
 
It’s difficult to believe that Gnomeo & Juliet is based on a tragic love story that is over five hundred years old! The first gnome to appear in the movie even hinted about that. That story is called Romeo and Juliet.
 
There have been many love stories written over time in all parts of the world. None are as famous as the story of Romeo and Juliet.
  
 
Chapter 1: Young Love


William Shakespeare was born in April of 1564, in Stratford-­upon-­Avon, England. Like other babies in this time and place, little William was probably given a taste of honey and butter right after he was born, followed by a healthy serving of jellied hare’s brains for strength. (A hare is a mammal that resembles a large rabbit.) On April 26, the infant Shakespeare was then carried down to the nearby church to be baptized into the Christian faith. In Shakespeare’s time, nearly 20 percent of babies didn’t live past their first month. Shakespeare’s father, John, and his mother, Mary, had already lost two daughters before William was born. They did everything they could to make sure young William would grow up healthy and strong.
 
William did survive, and he grew into a strong young boy. He lived with his parents, brothers, and sisters in a wooden house on a busy street in town. John ran a glove-­making shop from the front of their home. Making gloves was an important business in sixteenth-­century England.
 
As a boy, William liked to escape the noise of town and explore the countryside with his brothers and sisters. Right outside of Stratford, lush meadows and pastures, sheep farms, and trails were the perfect places for William and his siblings to explore. They spent hours roaming the forest and learning about all the plants, weeds, and flowers that sprouted from the ground.
 
Safety was always a concern, even in the woods. Drifters and local outlaws sometimes hid among the trees to avoid capture by local authorities. William and his siblings made sure to stay clear of dangerous people while they roamed the countryside. But that didn’t stop the children from exploring! One of their favorite places to visit was an old bone house, or crypt, built in the back of a church. The crypt stored the remains of the town’s dead. At the time, the bubonic (say: boo-­BAH-­nick) plague was sweeping through Europe. One out of every ten people in Stratford died. Although William and his siblings couldn’t see inside the building, they would sneak around the outside of the crypt and imagine what horrors lay just inside its four walls. They’d scare one another silly with made-­up stories about the dead people who were buried there.
 
As he got older, William started attending school six days a week at the King Edward VI School in his hometown. School was very strict when Shakespeare was a student. The school day started at around six or seven in the morning with daily prayers. Next, students attended classes in Latin, math, or ancient Greek. A breakfast of bread and ale was served at nine, followed by more classes. The children then returned home around one for dinner with their families. They came back to school for more classes until five at night. William and his classmates only had about fifteen minutes each day for recess!
 
William was a very good student. As the years went by, he excelled in arts and in poetry. But school was too strict for someone like William, and he soon found other hobbies and interests. In fact, he had a big secret.
 
William was in love. The object of his affection was a young woman named Anne Hathaway. Anne was the beautiful daughter of a wealthy farmer. She was older than William and took her work on the farm seriously. William couldn’t contain his feelings for Anne any longer. He told Anne that he loved her, and she revealed that she loved him back. They hoped to be married.
 
There was one problem: William was only eighteen, and in England, he was still too young to get married without his father’s permission. John Shakespeare could be a difficult man. Instead, William and Anne fled Stratford to a nearby town, to be married in secret. Anne’s friends Fulk Sandells and John Richardson stood in for their parents and gave permission for William to marry Anne.
 
Despite the rocky start, some historians believe that William and Anne moved back in with William’s family shortly after their marriage. Anne and William had three children together: Susanna was the oldest, followed by twins, Hamnet and Judith. William likely worked as a lawyer’s clerk to provide for his family in his small childhood home. But William had big dreams.
 
He wanted to move to London, England’s capital city. Queen Elizabeth I was England’s ruler. The Renaissance (say: REH-­nuh-­SAHNS), a period of artistic and cultural exploration that had started in Italy, had finally made its way to England. New ideas about music, literature, and painting were taking root in London. Artists were respected and able to earn a good salary.
 
William had always loved writing and was often praised for his poetry. He decided to move alone to London to pursue a career in the theater. There, he hoped to make a name for himself and bring honor and fortune to the Shakespeare family name.
 
In London, William found work with an acting troupe called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He performed in plays all over the city. William also began writing many of the plays that the actors performed. Most were historical plays about kings and queens. One was a comedy about mistaken twins. But there was another kind of story that he wanted to write.
 
William hoped to write the best love story of all time. He was lonely in London without his family. William would visit Stratford when he could, but he was much older now. He was no longer a school-­age boy madly in love with a beautiful young farm girl. He wanted to write a story about young love, the kind he had felt in his youth. But this wouldn’t be an ordinary love story. His love story would include fierce sword fights and mysterious potions. There would be kissing. This story would prove that love conquers hate. And William already had his inspiration.
Max Bisantz is a children's book author and Senior Editor of Global Licensing at National Geographic and National Geographic Kids. He has written several humor and nonfiction titles with Penguin Young Readers including Mad Libs, The Who Was? series, Sanrio's Gudetama, and more. He was born in Lowell, MA and now lives in Washington D.C. after many years in Brooklyn, NY. View titles by Max Bisantz
Who HQ is your headquarters for history. The Who HQ team is always working to provide simple and clear answers to some of our biggest questions. From Who Was George Washington? to Who Is Michelle Obama?, and What Was the Battle of Gettysburg? to Where Is the Great Barrier Reef?, we strive to give you all the facts. Visit us at WhoHQ.com View titles by Who HQ

About

Who HQ brings you the stories behind the most well-known characters of our time.

Discover the origins of one of literature's most famous couples, Romeo and Juliet, and their creator, William Shakespeare, in this fun and informative addition to the What Is the Story Of? series.


In 1597, Shakespeare debuted his newest play, a tragedy about a young Italian couple whose families were sworn enemies. Romeo and Juliet quickly became one of the most famous couples in literary history, and this play became one of Shakespeare's most performed shows. But did you know that much of Romeo and Juliet's story was adapted from tales by other writers? Learn all about how William Shakespeare's dynamic and romantic teenage duo sprouted from the Italian story of The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet in 1562 and grew into adaptions like West Side Story and even Gnomeo & Juliet in this nonfiction book for young readers.

Excerpt

What Is the Story of Romeo and Juliet?

 
When the biggest stars from Walt Disney Studios arrived in Hollywood for the premiere of a new animated movie, celebrities including Zendaya, James McAvoy, and Sir Elton John walked on a fuzzy blue carpet toward the doors of the El Capitan Theatre.
 
Inside, the audience sat in green chairs and marveled at the shiny gold ceiling. Suddenly, the lights dimmed. Gnomeo & Juliet in 3D was starting. The audience watched a small animated garden gnome appear on-screen.
 
“The story you are about to see has been told before,” the gnome said. “A lot.”
 
Everyone in the theater giggled. They knew the exact story the gnome was talking about. The movie continued, and two gnomes named Gnomeo and Juliet lit up the screen. They met. They fell in love. They picked flowers. There was only one problem: Juliet’s family lived on one side of the garden fence, and Gnomeo’s family lived on the other. Those two families did not get along.
 
Laughter filled the theater as gnomes and flamingos danced across the screen. The crowd gasped when gnomes fought one another with lawn mowers. Luckily, the movie had a happy ending: Gnomeo and Juliet’s love proved too strong for their family’s disapproval.
 
When the movie ended, the crowd rose to their feet. “Bravo!” they cheered, as the movie’s creators bowed.
 
It’s difficult to believe that Gnomeo & Juliet is based on a tragic love story that is over five hundred years old! The first gnome to appear in the movie even hinted about that. That story is called Romeo and Juliet.
 
There have been many love stories written over time in all parts of the world. None are as famous as the story of Romeo and Juliet.
  
 
Chapter 1: Young Love


William Shakespeare was born in April of 1564, in Stratford-­upon-­Avon, England. Like other babies in this time and place, little William was probably given a taste of honey and butter right after he was born, followed by a healthy serving of jellied hare’s brains for strength. (A hare is a mammal that resembles a large rabbit.) On April 26, the infant Shakespeare was then carried down to the nearby church to be baptized into the Christian faith. In Shakespeare’s time, nearly 20 percent of babies didn’t live past their first month. Shakespeare’s father, John, and his mother, Mary, had already lost two daughters before William was born. They did everything they could to make sure young William would grow up healthy and strong.
 
William did survive, and he grew into a strong young boy. He lived with his parents, brothers, and sisters in a wooden house on a busy street in town. John ran a glove-­making shop from the front of their home. Making gloves was an important business in sixteenth-­century England.
 
As a boy, William liked to escape the noise of town and explore the countryside with his brothers and sisters. Right outside of Stratford, lush meadows and pastures, sheep farms, and trails were the perfect places for William and his siblings to explore. They spent hours roaming the forest and learning about all the plants, weeds, and flowers that sprouted from the ground.
 
Safety was always a concern, even in the woods. Drifters and local outlaws sometimes hid among the trees to avoid capture by local authorities. William and his siblings made sure to stay clear of dangerous people while they roamed the countryside. But that didn’t stop the children from exploring! One of their favorite places to visit was an old bone house, or crypt, built in the back of a church. The crypt stored the remains of the town’s dead. At the time, the bubonic (say: boo-­BAH-­nick) plague was sweeping through Europe. One out of every ten people in Stratford died. Although William and his siblings couldn’t see inside the building, they would sneak around the outside of the crypt and imagine what horrors lay just inside its four walls. They’d scare one another silly with made-­up stories about the dead people who were buried there.
 
As he got older, William started attending school six days a week at the King Edward VI School in his hometown. School was very strict when Shakespeare was a student. The school day started at around six or seven in the morning with daily prayers. Next, students attended classes in Latin, math, or ancient Greek. A breakfast of bread and ale was served at nine, followed by more classes. The children then returned home around one for dinner with their families. They came back to school for more classes until five at night. William and his classmates only had about fifteen minutes each day for recess!
 
William was a very good student. As the years went by, he excelled in arts and in poetry. But school was too strict for someone like William, and he soon found other hobbies and interests. In fact, he had a big secret.
 
William was in love. The object of his affection was a young woman named Anne Hathaway. Anne was the beautiful daughter of a wealthy farmer. She was older than William and took her work on the farm seriously. William couldn’t contain his feelings for Anne any longer. He told Anne that he loved her, and she revealed that she loved him back. They hoped to be married.
 
There was one problem: William was only eighteen, and in England, he was still too young to get married without his father’s permission. John Shakespeare could be a difficult man. Instead, William and Anne fled Stratford to a nearby town, to be married in secret. Anne’s friends Fulk Sandells and John Richardson stood in for their parents and gave permission for William to marry Anne.
 
Despite the rocky start, some historians believe that William and Anne moved back in with William’s family shortly after their marriage. Anne and William had three children together: Susanna was the oldest, followed by twins, Hamnet and Judith. William likely worked as a lawyer’s clerk to provide for his family in his small childhood home. But William had big dreams.
 
He wanted to move to London, England’s capital city. Queen Elizabeth I was England’s ruler. The Renaissance (say: REH-­nuh-­SAHNS), a period of artistic and cultural exploration that had started in Italy, had finally made its way to England. New ideas about music, literature, and painting were taking root in London. Artists were respected and able to earn a good salary.
 
William had always loved writing and was often praised for his poetry. He decided to move alone to London to pursue a career in the theater. There, he hoped to make a name for himself and bring honor and fortune to the Shakespeare family name.
 
In London, William found work with an acting troupe called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He performed in plays all over the city. William also began writing many of the plays that the actors performed. Most were historical plays about kings and queens. One was a comedy about mistaken twins. But there was another kind of story that he wanted to write.
 
William hoped to write the best love story of all time. He was lonely in London without his family. William would visit Stratford when he could, but he was much older now. He was no longer a school-­age boy madly in love with a beautiful young farm girl. He wanted to write a story about young love, the kind he had felt in his youth. But this wouldn’t be an ordinary love story. His love story would include fierce sword fights and mysterious potions. There would be kissing. This story would prove that love conquers hate. And William already had his inspiration.

Author

Max Bisantz is a children's book author and Senior Editor of Global Licensing at National Geographic and National Geographic Kids. He has written several humor and nonfiction titles with Penguin Young Readers including Mad Libs, The Who Was? series, Sanrio's Gudetama, and more. He was born in Lowell, MA and now lives in Washington D.C. after many years in Brooklyn, NY. View titles by Max Bisantz
Who HQ is your headquarters for history. The Who HQ team is always working to provide simple and clear answers to some of our biggest questions. From Who Was George Washington? to Who Is Michelle Obama?, and What Was the Battle of Gettysburg? to Where Is the Great Barrier Reef?, we strive to give you all the facts. Visit us at WhoHQ.com View titles by Who HQ

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