Shared universes are all the rage in Hollywood these days. I’ll admit to being a huge Marvel fanboy (but then, I won a No-Prize as a kid, and have all the original issues of Not Brand Echh, so I was on board at Tony Stark’s ringtone).
But now everyone’s trying to build a multi-character franchise. The MCU. Universal’s Dark Universe (is that still happening?). Sony’s, uh, Venom-verse, I guess. And then there’s the (ahem) DCEU. Oh, but there Arrowverse is fun!
We all get why they do it. It’s the same reason comics do crossovers, and actors from one TV show have cameos on others. The producers are shouting, “Hey! You like this one thing? Here’s something kinda related to it! Like it too!”
Done right, it’s a natural sell. I’m not a huge Ant-Man fan, but I’ll go along with the fun heist flicks because, a) Paul Rudd, and b) they’re part of the MCU. Whereas if they weren’t, I might not go. Love Will Smith, but I skipped Suicide Squad entirely.
Now, franchises are nothing new. Basil Rathbone made 12 Sherlock Holmes movies, and there were 6 Thin Man films, let alone the Bond franchise. But everyone seems to think this “shared universe” idea is something new. It’s not.
Like everything else in modern storytelling, Shakespeare did it first, and better.
There’s a secret built into Shakespeare’s Italian plays. He gives hints at relationships between them all. In Romeo & Juliet, for example, there are two explicit references to The Taming Of The Shrew. After Romeo crashes the party in a mask, Capulet asks a relative when the last time they went masked to a party:
Nay, sit, nay, sit, good cousin Capulet;
For you and I are past our dancing days:
How long is ’ t now since last yourself and I
Were in a mask?
Second Capulet (sometimes Old Capulet) tells Cap it’s been thirty years since they crashed a party in masks. Cap disagrees:
What, man! ‘ tis not so much, ‘ tis not so much:
’Tis since the nuptial of Lucentio,
Come Pentecost as q uickly as it will,
Some five and twenty years; and then we mask’d.
So Capulet and Old Capulet were at Lucentio and Bianca’s wedding (which raises its own problem, seeing as those two were wed in secret). Then, as Romeo is being dragged from the party, Juliet asks the Nurse who he is, pointing to the boys leaving. As the Nurse names various young men of Verona, she identifies one as ‘young Petruchio’. Petruchio and Kate’s son?!?
So Shakespeare snuck a reference between two Verona shows, letting us know it’s been 25 years since the events of Shrew.
But that’s not all! When Romeo reads the list of those invited to Capulet’s ball, he comes across several names, including his current love, Rosaline. He also comes across his friend Mercutio, “and his brother Valentine.”
Valentine, of course, is one of the two leads of - wait for it - Two Gentlemen Of Verona! Morever, he starts off performing the same function as Mercutio does in R&J, mocking love and lovers for all their worth.
Then there’s the weirdness with Measure For Measure, which is set in Vienna. Or is it? Modern scholars seem to think that it was originally set in Verona, a favorite locale for Shakespeare. I’d pass over that, save for one fact. The duke’s assistant is named Escalus — the same as the name of the Prince in R&J, based on this rulers of Verona in the 14th Century, the della Scala family, whose symbol was a ladder.
But wait! There’s more! Launcelot Gobbo is a character in The Merchant Of Venice, a fool who quits working for Shylock to work for Bassanio, while taking care of his aged father. I posit he’s the same Launce who works for Proteus in 2Gents! Same character, only now he’s lost his dad and bought a dog.
Verona and Padua show up again and again. “Verona for a while I take my leave,” says Petruchio, “to see my friends in Padua.” Benedick in Much Ado is from Padua, marking him a something of a wit. The notable judge Bellario whom Portia invokes to enhance her disguise is likewise from Padua, and it’s the University at Padua that draws Lucentio there to study. Speed even once accidentally mentions Padua, when he clearly meant Milan.
This is all without the connections of the various Antonios in Shakespeare — there’s Antonio in Merchant, who is pining for Bassanio! And Antonio the Pirate from Twelfth Night is another fellow entirely (though, interestingly, also pining for a handsomely romantic man). And the Antonio who is the father of Proteus in 2Gents!
Shakespeare delighted his audiences with these shout-outs between his various Italian plays. For him, I’m sure they were throw-aways, little Elizabethan easter eggs for his returning patrons.
400 years later, I took them and built upon them, creating an entire Shakespeare Shared Universe.
When I started my Star-Cross’d Series of novels, it was to set down once and for all my idea for the origin of the Capulet-Montague feud in R&J. Writing Lord Capulet and Lord Montague as young men, I was searching for their peers when I realized Shakespeare had already given me their names: Petruchio! Lucentio! Shylock! Benedick! History gave me more, including the poet Dante, who was in Verona in the early 14th Century, and who mentions the Capulets and Montagues in his Divine Comedy!
Thus did Shakespeare and history combine to create some wonderful historical fiction.
Star-Cross’d is very much the story of Mercutio. But the series also cross-pollinates characters from all of Shakespeare’s Italian plays: Petruchio teaches young Mercutio the art of falconry — who better? Valentine starts as a callow youth, running around in Mercutio’s shadow. Lucentio goesto school in Pisa with Dante’s son Pietro, while Shylock lends young Pietro money to attend law school with the famous Bellario. Even a certain Signor Benedick appears, himself being a gentleman of Padua. All of Shakespeare’s Italian characters are here (except Othello — his play has to be set later, during the late 15th/early 16th centuries), playing off each other as well as the real, historical figures of the time, and having a blast.
As I launch into writing the fifth volume of the Star-Cross’d Series, and finish recording the audiobook for the second, it’s on my mind that there’s a terrific shared universe already available to Hollywood within Shakespeare’s plays. I’d happily offer them a guidebook!
For more about the Star-Cross’d world, visit my website at www.davidblixt.com. And if you join Audible today, you can download a free copy of the first book in the series, The Master Of Verona, by clicking here!