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
- Held by
- British Library
- Article by:
- Michael Donkor
- Tragedies, Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage
Michael Donkor studies the characters of Romeo and Juliet in Act 2, Scene 2 of the play – otherwise known as the ‘balcony scene’.
- Article by:
- Kim Ballard
- Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage, Tragedies
A number of Shakespeare's plays show daughters negotiating the demands of their fathers, often trying to reconcile duty with a desire for independence. Kim Ballard considers five of Shakespeare's most memorable literary daughters: Juliet, Desdemona, Portia, Katherina and Cordelia.
- Article by:
- Penny Gay
- Language, word play and text, Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage, Tragedies, Poetry
Over the course of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet goes from being a sheltered child to a young woman passionately in love. Penny Gay considers how this transformation, and its tragic consequences, are accompanied by Juliet's development as a poet.
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