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Romeo and Juliet was, before Shakespeare's time, one of the most popular of love stories. In 1562—two years before the birth of Shakespeare--Arthur Brooke published a poem on the “Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, containing a rare example of love constancie; with the subtill counsels and practices of an old Fryer, and their ill-event.” In the preface to his poem, Arthur Brooke spoke of a previously existing play. “Though,” he says, “I saw the same argument lately set forth on the stage with more commendation than I can look for (being there much better set forth than I have, or can do), yet the same matter, penned as it is, may serve the like good effect.” Neither of the play so referred to, nor of any other play upon Romeo and Juliet, before Shakespeare's, has any copy been preserved.
The tale of Juliet was first told by an Italian, Luigi da Porto, of Vicenza, who died in 1529, six years before the printing of it—at Venice, in 1535--as “The Story of Two Noble Lovers, with their piteous death, which happened in the city of Verona in the time of the Signor Bartolomeo Scala.” Luigi da Porto said that he had it at the baths of Caldera from a talkative archer of Verona, Captain Alexander Peregrino, a man fifty years old. But he might have got the suggestion from a tale of Sienna, clearly the same, the thirty-third of the “Novellino” of Masuccio di Salerno, published in 1476. In 1554 the story was printed again at Lucca, as re-told by Bandello. It was soon afterwards told again in French, with variations, by Boisteau, from whose novel it was shaped into English verse, with further
alterations and additions, by Arthur Brooke, in 1562. Boisteau's novel was translated by William Painter for the second volume of his collection of novels published in 1567 as “ The Palace of Pleasure." The story as told in “The Palace of Pleasure" was certainly known to Shakespeare, and is given, with contraction only of some long, elaborated speeches, as an appendix to this edition of Shakespeare's play. There is no doubt that Shakespeare also found some part of the material for the play of Romeo and Juliet in Arthur Brooke's poem. For example, a part of Friar Laurence's expostulation with Romeo upon his passion in the cell (Act III., Sc. 3) is directly paraphrased from Arthur Brooke.
These are Brooke's lines :
“'Art thou,' quoth he, 'a man? Thy shape saith so thou art;
Thy crying and thy weeping eyes denote a woman's heart.
These are Shakespeare's :“ Art thou a man? Thy form cries out thou art, Thy tears are womanish; thy wild acts denote The unreasonable fury of a beast." A history of Verona, to the year 1560, by Girolamo della Corte, places the story of Romeo and Juliet in the year 1303. Dante's “Divine Comedy,” dating in 1300, names the Capulets and Montagues among the quarrellers of Verona, who represented the fierce spirit that made Italy savage and unmanageable. The Scalas then ruled in Verona, and the time of Bartolomeo Scala was that assigned to the story by Luigi da Porto. Scala became, in the several versions of the tale, Escala, and, as in Shakespeare, Escalus, the prince's name.
There were two plays on this popular love story in Spanish literature, one by Lope de Vega, and one by Francisco de Roxas.
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was first published in quarto in 1597. · That first quarto of 1597 is without bookseller's name upon the title-page, and its types show that it was produced hurriedly by the joint work of two separate printers. There was a second quarto in 1599, and a third in 1609, all being without the author's name upon the title-page : but there seems to have been also an undated quarto that appeared before the play was included among Shakespeare's works in the first folio of 1623.
The 1597 quarto prints Romeo and Juliet as acted by the players of Lord Hunsdon. Shakespeare's company were “servants of the Lord Chamberlain,” and Henry Lord Hunsdon died in the office of Lord Chamberlain on the 22nd of July, 1596. His son George, who succeeded to the title, did not succeed to the office of Lord Chamberlain until the 17th of April, 1597, Lord Cobham intervening. It has been inferred that the description of the company not as the Lord Chamberlain's, but as Lord Hunsdon's, signifies that it was remaining in the service of George Lord Hunsdon during the months between his father's death and his own succession to the office of Lord Chamberlain. This may or may not be so. In any case we may say that Romeo and Juliet was not written later than the end of the year 1596, and it is among the plays of Shakespeare named in 1598 by Francis Meres in his 6 Palladis Tamia.”
In Shakespeare's treatment of the story, the most striking feature is the swiftness he gives to the time of action. Other noticeable changes are in the development of Mercutio, and bringing in of Paris at the end to be slain at the grave of Juliet. In the stories there was no more said of Paris after his part had been played as the lord whom Juliet was to marry at her father's castle of Villa Franca, or Freetown.
The swiftness of the action is an essential part of
Shakespeare's conception of the poem. In the older forms of the tale its movement was not so rapid. In the version here given from Painter's “Palace of Pleasure" it will be seen that months were spent by Romeo in seeking for a lady who could cause him to forget his hopeless love for Rosaline. Christmas is given as the date of the festivity in the house of the Capulets, at which Romeo first met Juliet; lapse of time after this is occasionally marked, and the marriage of Juliet with Paris is fixed for a day in the following September.
Shakespeare turns all into an image of the impulse of young life, joining hot love of Italy with the hot weather of July. There is the same rashness of hot blood in the quarrels of the Capulets and Montagues. Mercutio is as nimble for a fray as Romeo for a love passion.
The action of the play does not extend over a week. It begins on a Sunday. Juliet takes her sleeping draught only two days after first soeing Romeo, that is to say, on Tuesday night, and the end among the tombs follows on Thursday night. When Sunday morning dawns Romeo is deep in a love passion for Rosaline. On Thursday night he dies for love of Juliet; and Juliet is a fortnight and odd days short of fourteen.' We know that the first day of the action is Sunday, because the second day is, in the fourth scene of the Third Act, named as Monday. In the fifth scene of the Third Act, where Romeo leaves Juliet's chamber, it is therefore Tuesday morning; and it is on Tuesday morning that Juliet in the first scene of the Fourth Act visits Friar Laurence in his cell. She is to be married to Paris on Wednesday, and on Tuesday night she takes the potion which shall make her seem as dead for two-and-forty hours. On Wednesday she is laid in the tomb of the Capulets, and the time of her awakening will depend upon the time at which she took the draught, if we take forty-two hours as an exact statement of time. The action is in what are spoken of as “these hot days,” which the calculations of