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TRAGEDY OF ROMEO AND JULIET.
The story, which furnished the ground-work of THE TRAGEDY OF ROMEO AND JULIET, was exceedingly popular in Shakespeare's time; it had been made so to his hand, and of course it became more so in his hand. Mr. Douce has shown, that in some of its main incidents it bears a strong resemblance to an old Greek romance by Xenophon of Ephesus, entitled “ The Love-adventures of Abrocomas and Anthia.". The original author, however, of the story as received in the Poet's time was Luigi da Porto, of Vincenza, who died in 1529. His novel, called La Giulietta, was first published in 1535, six years after his death. In an epistle prefixed to the work, the author says that the story was told by “an archer of mine, whose name was Peregrino, a man about fifty years old, well-practised in the military art, a pleasant companion, and, like almost all his countrymen of Verona, a great talker.” Luigi's work was reprinted in 1539, and again in 1553. From him the matter was borrowed and improved by Bandello, who pub. lished it in 1554, making it the ninth novel in the second part of his collection. Bandello represents the incidents to have occurred when Bartholomew Scaliger was lord of Verona. And it may be worth noting, that the Veronese, who believe the tale to be historically true, fix its date in 1303, at which time the family of Scala or Scaliger held the rule of the city.
The story is next met with in the Histoires Tragiques of Belleforest. It makes the third piece in that collection ; and, as the first six pieces were rendered into French by Boisteau, it follows that this tale was translated by him, and not by Belleforest. The Histoires Tragiques were professedly taken from Bandello, but some of them vary considerably from the Italian ; as in this very piece, according to Bandello, Juliet awakes from her trance in time to hear Romeo speak and see him die, and then, instead of stabbing herself with his dagger, dies apparently of a broken heart ; whereas Boisteau has it the same in this respect as we find it in the play.
The earliest English version of the story, that has come down to us, is a poem entitled “ The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet,” written by Arthur Brooke, and published in 1562. This purports to be from the Italian of Bandello, but the French of Boisteau was evidently made use of by Brooke, as his version agrees with the French in making the heroine's trance continue till after the death of her lover. In some respects, however, the poem is entitled to the rank of an original work; the author not tying himself strictly to any known authority, but giving something of freedom to his own invention. We say known authority, because in his prose introduction Brooke informs us that the tale had already been put to work on the English stage. His words are as follows: “ Though I saw the same argument lately set forth on the stage with more commendation than I can look for, yet the samc matter, penned as it is, may serve to like good effect, if the readers do bring with them like good minds to consider it; which bath the more encouraged me to publish it, such as it is."
The only ancient reprint of Brooke's poem known to us was made in 1587; though it was entered a second time at the Stationers' in 1582. Malone set forth an edition of it in 1780; and in our own time Mr. Collier has given a very careful and accurate reprint of it in his Shakespeare's Library. In sentiment, imagery, and versification, the poem has very considerable merit. It is written in rhyme, the lines consisting, alternately, of twelve and fourteen syllables. On the whole, it may rank among the best specimens we have of the popular English literature of that period; being not so remarkable for reproducing the faults of the time, as for rising above them.
Of Brooke himself very little is known. In a poetical address " to the Reader," prefixed to the Tragical History, he speaks of this as “my youthful work,” and informs us that he had written other works in divers kinds of style.” We learn, also, from the body of the poem, that he was unmarried ; and in 1563 there came out “ An Agreement of sundry Places of Scripture," by Arthur Brooke, with some verses prefixed by Thomas Brooke, informing us that the author had perished by shipwreck. George Turberville, also, in bis Epitaphs and Epigrams, 1567, has one “On the Death of Master Arthur Brooke, drowned in passing to Newhaven;" and mentions the story of Romeus and Juliet as proving that he “ for metre did excel."
In 1567, five years after the date of Brooke's poem, a prose version of the same tale was published by William Paynter, in his Palace of Pleasure, a collection of stories made from divers sources, ancient and modern. Paynter calls it " The goodly History of the true and constant love between Rhomeo and Julietta.” It is merely a literal translation from the French of Boisteau, and by
no means skilfully done, at that; though even here the interest of the tale is such as to triumph over the bungling rudeness of the translator. This version, also, has been lately reprinted by Mr. Collier in the work mentioned above.
These two are the only English forms, of an earlier date than the tragedy, in which the story has reached us. But the contemporary references to it are such and so many as to show that it must have stood very high in popular favour. For instance, a brief argument of the tale is given by Thomas Delapeend in bis Pleasant Fable of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis, 1565; and Basnabe Rich, in his Dialogue between Mercury and a Soldier, 1574, says that the story was so well known as to be represented on tapestry. Allusions to it are also found in The Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions, 1578 ; in A Poor Knight's Palace of Private Pleasure, 1579; and in Austin Saker's Narbonus, 1580. After this time, such notices become still more frequent and particular; and the Stationers' books show an entry of “ A new Ballad of Romeo and Juliet,” by Edward White, in 1596 ; of which, however, nothing has been discovered in modern times. This popularity was doubtless. owing in a large measure to the use of the story in dramatic form. We have already found that Brooke had seen it on the stage before 1562. That so great and general a favourite should have been suffered to leave the boards after having once tried its strength there, is nowise probable : so that we may presume it to have been kept at home on the stage in one shape or another, till Shakespeare took it in hand, and so far eclipsed all who had touched it before, that their labours were left to perish.
Whether Shakespeare availed himself of any preceding drama on the subject, we are of course without the means of knowing: Nor, in fact, can we trace a connection between the tragedy and any other work except Brooke's poem. That he made considerable use of this, is abundantly certain, as may be seen from divers verbal resemblances set forth in our notes. That he was acquainted with Paynter's version, is indeed more than probable ; but we can discover no sign of his having resorted to it for the matter of his scenes, as the play has nothing in common with this, but what this also has in common with the poem. On the other hand, besides the verbal resemblances set forth in our notes, the play agrees with Brooke in divers particulars where Brooke differs from Paynter. The strongest instance, perhaps, of this is in the part of the Nurse, which is considerably extended in the poem : especially, she there endeavours, as in the play, to persuade Juliet into the marriage with Paris ; of which there is no trace in the prose version. Moreover, the character of the Nurse has in the poem a dash of original humour, approaching somewhat, though not much, towards the Poet's representation of her. As regards the incidents, the only differences worth noting between the poem and the play are in the death of Mercutio, and in the meeting of Romeo and Paris, and the death of the latter, at the tomb of Juliet.
The play was first printed in 1597, with a title-page reading as follows : “ An excellent-conceited 'Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet : As it hath been often, with great applause, played publicly, by the Right Honourable the Lord of Hunsdon his Servants. London : Printed by John Danter. 1597.” Here we have one point worth special noting: Until the accession of James, the company to which Shakespeare belonged were, as we have repeatedly seen, called “the Lord Chamberlain's Servants.” Henry Lord Hunsdon, Lord Chamberlain, died on the 22d of July, 1596. George, the successor to his title, did not immediately succeed to the office : this was conferred on Lord Cobham, who held it till his death, in March, 1597; and the new Lord Hunsdon did not become Lord Chamberlain till the 17th of April. It was only during this interval that the company in question were known as the Lord Hunsdon's Servants. Malone hence concludes that the play was first performed between July, 1596, and April, 1597; but this is by no means certain ; it merely proves that the play was printed during that period : for, however the company may have been designated at the first acting of the play, they would naturally have been spoken of in the title-page as the Lord Hunsdon's Servants, if they were so known at the time of the printing.
Another question, that may as well be disposed of here, is, whether the first issue of Romeo and Juliet was authentic and complete, as the play then stood; which question is best answered by Mr. Collier. « This edition,” says he, “is in two different types, and was probably executed in haste by two different printers. It has been generally treated as an authorised impression from an authentic manuscript. Such, after the most careful examination, is not our opinion. We think that the manuscript used by the printer or printers was made up, partly from portions of the play as it was acted, but unduly obtained, and partly from notes taken at the theatre during representation. Our principal ground for this notion is, that there is such great inequality in different scenes and speeches, and in some places precisely that degree and kind of imperfectness, which would belong to manuscript prepared from defective short-hand notes. We do not of course go the length of contending that Shakespeare did not alter and improve the play, subsequent to its earliest production on the stage; but merely that the quarto of 1597 does not contain the tragedy as it was originally represented.”
The next issue of the play was in a quarto pamphlet of 46 leaves, the title-page reading thus : “ The most excellent and lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, newly corrected, augmented, and amended : As it hath been sundry times publicly acted by the Right Honourable the Lord Chamberlain his Servants. London : Printed by Thomas Creede for Cuthbert Burby, and are to