Not happy with how the novel was progressing, I fought halfway through a bad version before I realized I wasn’t writing the story I wanted to tell.
More research, more false starts. Finally I took a deep breath and settled in to read Dante’s Divine Comedy, something I would have bet money against at any other point in my life. It wasn’t the great revelation Shakespeare was, but it did give me the landscape of the time. And halfway through Dante knocked my socks off by mentioning the feud between the Capelletti and the Montecchi. Capulet and Montagues, anyone?
In reading both the history of the period and the footnotes to Dante’s work, one man’s name kept cropping up. A man who stood above all his peers, outshone the luminaries of his day. Giotto’s patron, Dante’s friend. A man fit to be a tragic hero of one of Shakespeare’s plays. His name was Cangrande della Scala, but he was also known as the Greyhound of Verona. Revered as almost a God in his own lifetime, the man took Verona to its highest height, just before its worst fall.
Tall and handsome, with a smile famous for its joy and perfect set of teeth, he was successful in everything he did – warrior, lover, reveler, patron of the arts. Under his rule Verona was a hub of commercial and artistic growth. It was also hated and feared by its neighbors. Venice conspired against Cangrande, as did popes and emperors. He waged an almost-unceasing war with nearby Padua for twenty years, finally winning through benevolence, not battle.
Cangrande’s life fascinated me as much as any play I’d ever read. Because he reminded me of someone, a rogue I had fallen in love with the first time I played him. The ties between Shakespeare and Dante were growing.
Soon I was reading about Dante himself – his wit, his loves, his politics, his exile, his family. It was then that it happened – one of those moments you hear writers talk about, where a character steps off the page and introduces himself as the lead.
Pietro Alighieri, also known as Pietro di Dante. Barely eighteen when my story starts, he came upon the scene and knocked down all my plans, which is very unlike him because he’s a good guy. A really good guy, the kind of guy I’d want to play if I didn’t enjoy scoundrels so much. Raised in his father’s ever-growing shadow, he was a prospectless second son until the death of his elder brother elevated him to heir.
With no particular skill in anything, just great heart and determination, he gave the book its voice. For the sake of my narrative I move away from Pietro now and again, but Pietro’s experience is ours, and we can watch in his growth, feel pride in his achievements, and share his disillusionments.
But there was another element missing. If the idea for the feud was going to become the subplot, a crucial but subdued backdrop, where was my plot? What was my spine? The book seemed to be writing itself, everything falling into place, and still I didn’t know what Pietro’s goal was.
All good actors, when they are lost, return to the text. That goes for directors and, it seems, writers. I sat down and once again poured through the story of the star-cross’d lovers.
Then it came, the answer. In my mind, the Bard of Avon chuckled as he met Dante’s son and gave him his raison d’etre. I had come full circle, the best of all possible worlds.
Mercutio. Of course, Mercutio. Referred to as both a cousin to the Prince, and ‘the Prince’s near ally,’ Mercutio was in some way tied to the della Scala family. The pivotal figure of Romeo & Juliet would be only a newborn babe when my story began. We couldn’t follow him, not from the outset – following the adventures of a toddler in fourteenth century Italy is not what I call exciting. But following the trials and tribulations of his protector, young Pietro Alighieri – that had promise!
All at once it was Mercutio’s story. The possibility of creating from Shakespeare’s text and real history the tale of this marvelously troubled young man was just too tempting. I could explain the darkness in the Queen Mab speech, from his disdain of love and his homoerotic tendencies to his fear of war drums and his foul images of childbirth. Shakespeare’s Mercutio has a wealth of possibility, and if I could tap even a little of it, I had the makings of a great story.
Moreover, bringing it back to Shakespeare led me to look at the phrase ‘star-cross’d,’ which carries elements of both prophecy and futility. Looking closely, Mercutio is the agent of the stars, because his death is what leads the young lovers to their fate. So Mercutio is a tool of the heavens.
Dante uses prophecy often. The Inferno begins with a retooling of an ancient one regarding the mythical Greyhound, a man who will save Italy and take it into another age. I knew from my reading that scholars have often speculated that Dante was referring to Cangrande – but what if he meant someone else?
Here I was faced with a decision – can I bring the prophecies of Shakespeare and Dante together, roll them together, and slap them on a defenseless child still in his crib? Am I that cruel?
Turns out I am. Researching astrology and numerology, I came up with a prophetic doom revolving around Dante’s Greyhound that all my characters could struggle against, in vain. With the advantage of hindsight, I can say that the ‘new age of man’ alluded to in the Greyhound prophecy was the Renaissance.
The stars aligned, the story poured out. A year for the first draft, then six months for the next, and the next. Once into the thick of it, I started seeing connections with the Bard's other Italian plays. Characters and events from The Taming of the Shrew are actually mentioned in R&J, so Kate and Petruchio make cameo appearances. There are characters from Two Gentlemen of Verona, of course, but others as well – Shylock, Don Pedro of Aragon and his nasty bastard brother. The Duke from Measure for Measure (also an Escalus) is mentioned in passing. And what Italian story can miss references to Caesar and Cleopatra? I even manage a thinly veiled Mac reference. The original idea of the Montague/Capulet feud blossomed into a panoramic story about Shakespeare’s characters living in Dante’s world.
It's a world I look forward to sharing.