Brooke's Romeus and Juliet


The tragic plot of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1595-96) was by no means original. It was based on a famous folktale which appeared in many different versions in 15th- and 16th-century Europe. Arthur Brooke’s 3,020 line poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet (1562), is the first English translation of that tale, and it served as a key source for Shakespeare.

Set in the ‘fruitfull hilles’ of Verona, Brooke’s poem describes the ‘deadly’ feud between two wealthy, noble families – Capulet and Montague. Against this backdrop of ‘blacke hate’, he tells the ‘unhappy’ tale of a beautiful youth, Romeus Montague, whose heart is entrapped by the wise and graceful Juliet Capulet. (pp. 1v–2r).

On the title page, Brooke claims to have based his work on Matteo Bandello’s Italian Novelle (1554), though he actually seems to have used a French translation by Boaistuau (1559). In his letter ‘To the Reader’, Brooke also says he had seen a similar tale ‘lately set foorth on stage’ (p. iiir), perhaps referring to an earlier play about Romeo and Juliet, which has not been discovered.

How does Brooke’s version compare with Shakespeare’s?

Both Brooke and Shakespeare preface their works with sonnets (14-line poems) which summarise and foreshadow the tragic fate of the lovers. Unlike Shakespeare, however, Brooke also gives his ‘tragicall’ poem a gloomy, cautionary message. He warns us that if we give in to ‘lust’, and neglect the advice of our parents, we will hasten to an ‘unhappye deathe’ like these ‘unfortunate lovers’ (‘To the Reader’, pp. iiv–iiir).

Shakespeare squeezes Brooke’s nine-month story into only five days, intensifying its impact. He also reduces Juliet’s age, heightening concerns that she is too young ‘to be a bride’ (1.2.11). While Brooke’s Juliet is scarcely 16 (line 1860, p. 52v), Shakespeare’s is not yet 14 (1.2.9; 1.3.12).

Building on hints from Brooke, Shakespeare develops the key role of Tybalt, inserting a sword fight with Benvolio in the first scene, which foreshadows the fatal fights later. But Shakespeare also develops the parts of Paris, Mercutio and the Nurse, using comedy to offset tragic tension.

Full title:
The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet, written first in Italian by Bandell, and nowe in Englishe by Ar. Br.
Book / Octavo / Manuscript annotation
Arthur Brooke
Usage terms

The printed text is Public Domain.
The handwritten text is Public Domain in most countries other than the UK

Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

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