Shakespeare is on everyone’s mind at the moment — with his 400th death anniversary having just passed — so it’s a good time to float a somewhat unorthodox Shakespeare theory: he wrote a sequel to Romeo and Juliet.
Not a direct sequel, like Henry IV, Part 2 — but two characters from Romeo and Juliet reappear in Two Gentlemen of Verona. Which, under the circumstances, qualifies.
I should say it’s not generally accepted that these repeat characters are repeat characters. In fact, so far as I can tell, anyone who has noticed the appearance of a couple of names in both Romeo and Two Gentleman has chalked it up to Shakespeare reusing names, which he does often. But I suggest they are meant to be the self-same fictional characters making cameo appearance in each others’ plays. Let me explain:
The two characters in question are Valentine, one of the two titular Gentlemen, and Friar Laurence, who marries Romeo to Juliet, and suggests she fake her death. In R&J, Valentine is named as Romeo’s best friend Mercutio’s brother; Romeo mentions that Valentine is attending the Capulet party where he meets Juliet. Though Valentine doesn’t have any lines. Likewise, Friar Laurence doesn’t have any lines in Two Gentlemen. In fact, he doesn’t even appear on stage. But he’s mentioned, by the Duke of Milan, who says his daughter and a friend are on their way to “that peasant Valentine”. He goes on: “’Tis true; for Friar Laurence met them both, as he in penance wandered through the forest.”
Laurence isn’t mentioned again, and no one explains what it is that he’s wandering in penance for. Perhaps for marrying two teenagers whom he accidentally tricked into committing suicide?
Needless to say, everyone who reads Two Gentlemen notices Friar Laurence, and wonders what he’s doing there. The explanation generally given is that Shakespeare used Arthur Brooke’s The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet — his main source for Romeo and Juliet — as one of his minor sources for Two Gentlemen, because each features a character helping his beloved escape her father with a rope ladder. For some reason, perhaps because Brooke’s Tragical History was on his mind, Shakespeare decided to toss Friar Laurence in along with the rope ladder. Later (says this conventional wisdom) the Friar Laurence borrowed from Brooke would inspire the creation of Shakespeare’s own Friar Laurence in R&J.
This is perfectly plausible. Really, in some ways, it’s more plausible than my theory, because what I’m proposing makes sense only if Two Gentlemen and Romeo were written at the same time, or if Romeo was written first. Everyone — myself included — agrees that the Romeo we have is a later play than Two Gentlemen, because Romeo is brilliant and Two Gentlemen is terrible. (That is, it’s immature.)
Dating Shakespeare’s plays usually involves guesswork. Most experts place Romeo in 1594 or 1595, whereas Two Gentlemen is dated to sometime between 1590 and 1593. There is, however, a credible theory that says Shakespeare’s first draft of Romeo was an earlier work, later revised: Juliet’s Nurse mentions that Juliet was weaned on the day of an earthquake, which is thought (by many) to have been a reference to the Dover Straits earthquake of 1580, one of the largest in British history. Says the Nurse, “’Tis since the earthquake now eleven years,” which — plausibly — dates a Romeo draft to 1591.
Which makes the timeline work out, giving you a chance to imagine that Shakespeare was simultaneously working on Romeo and Two Gentlemen around 1591, and decided, for fun, to shoehorn a character from each into the other. This makes sense for Friar Laurence, but it’s a little thin for Valentine; it fits, but there’s no particular reason to believe it. Unless you consider another strange thing that happens in the Capulet-party scene where the unspeaking Valentine appears. Another so-called ghost character appears at the party, says nothing, and leaves: “What’s he that now is going out of the door?” asks Juliet. Her nurse answers, “Marry, that, I think, be young Petruchio.” That is, the star — or at least, someone with the same name as the star — of Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare’s third Verona play — which was also written circa 1591.
So, to circle back, here’s my proposal: Shakespeare wrote drafts for three Verona plays around 1591, and decided to use a few of their main characters to tie the three together. That would give the plays an internal chronology setting Two Gentlemen shortly after Romeo, and Shrew after them both (since in Shrew, Petruchio is no longer “young Petruchio”). And that would, technically, give Romeo and Juliet — perhaps the best-known and best-loved play ever written — two hitherto undiscovered sequels.