Romeus and Juliet

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University

This narrative poem, first published in 1562 and the key “source” for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, can be found complete as:

Brooke’s ‘Romeus and Juliet’ Being the Original of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Newly Edited by J.J. Munro. 1908. Rpt. NY: AMS Press, Inc., 1970.
or chopped down as
The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet. In The Sources of Ten Shakespearean Plays. Ed. Alice Griffin. NY: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1966. 3-43.

The original publication title page reads only The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet, written first in Italian by Bandell, and nowe in Englishe by Ar. Br. Very little is known about Arthur Brooke, who is later credited with the work: although see Nina Green, “Who Was Arthur Brooke?” The Oxfordian 3 (2000): 51-70. An Arthur Brooke existed, born about 1544 and drowned early in 1564 on his way to help Protestant forces in France, but many Oxfordians consider this poem a youthful composition by de Vere, who later expanded and revised the story for the stage. See Paul H. Altrocchi, MD, “Shakespeare, Not Arthur Brooke, Wrote Tragicall Historye of Romeus & Juliet.” Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter 43.1 (Winter 2007): 22-26.

Ponderous amounts of source study and comparisons can be found in the Introduction in the 1970 Munro edition listed above; most pertinent involves Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (stylistically also detectable in uses of such archaisms as the verb prefix “y-” and words such as “eke,” “eyne,” “cleped,” “maugre,” “hight,” etc.).

The poem is a “cautionary tale for young lovers” (Farina 177) and is faulted for its (a) excessive alliteration; (b) frequent classical allusions; (c) a curious form of ‘unnatural’ natural history … ; (d) didactic harangues; (e) lengthy soliloquies; (f) balanced antithesis; (g) extravagant description and artificial sentiment” (l-li). The “dullness” of this “long, moralising poem” is supposedly “undisputed” (Farina 175).

It is written in poulter’s measure (rhyming couplets of first six and then seven beats), the from used in the “Golding” translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and in other suspected early de Vere works.

“To the Reader”
With disapproving moralism, the poet warns us about “unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends; conferring … principal counsels with drunken gossips and superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity,” and other aspects of “lust,” “whoredom and treason” (lxvi) — all condemnations of the young lovers in the story. He then provides a short poem serving as an invocation to his muse, and then a sonnet summarizing “The Argument.”

A hefty introduction to the topography of Verona precedes the declaration of Boccaccio’s superiority to our present poet’s “rude tongue” (16). Similarly in a somewhat Chaucerian vein:

Within my trembling hand, my pen doth shake for fear,
And, on my cold amazéd head, upright doth stand my hair.

After another invocation to the muses, we hear of “two ancient stocks” (25)

Whose praise with equal blast, Fame in her trumpet blew;
The one was clepéd Capulet, and th’ other Montague.

Romeus’ courtly love interest before Juliet remains unnamed (57), as does his friend who scolds him for pining (101). Romeus resolves:

Wherefore henceforth I will far from her take my flight;
Perhaps mine eye once banishéd by absence from her sight,
This fire of mine, that by her pleasant eyne is fed,
Shall little and little wear away, and quite at last be dead.

Absence will make the heart grow numb. The unnamed friend discourages Romeus’ current fixation: “In that thou lovest such a one, thou seem’st thyself to hate” (114). This friend also tries to bolster Romeus’ self-confidence: “Who hath a sweeter face? / By painful studies’ mean, great learning hast thou won” (118-119). Following this guy’s sometimes Pandarus-like advice (137ff), Romeus goes masked to the Capulet banquet and is struck by the sight of a girl who drives away all thought of his former love, “as out of a plank a nail a nail doth drive” (207; cf. TGV I.iv, and Cor. IV.vii). Romeus finds himself “in this new tempest tossed” (211) when Love personified shoots his arrow which pierces Romeus’ eye and lodges in his heart (234). At the end of the evening he has not learned her name, but instead like Troilus naively blames Fortune (327).

Juliet finds out that Romeus is a Montague and has a dramatic fit: “What, am I weary of my weal? What, do I wish my woe?” (358). But she is in love too, and so suffers insomnia and the standard catalogue of afflictions: “And now for fear she shivereth, and now for love she burns” (370; cf. “Thule”).

Romeus decides to consult Friar Laurence (558), and the introduction of such a character prompts another Chaucerianism: “For he of Francis’ order was, a friar, as I rede” (566). This friar knows the secrets in Nature’s works (569) and says they can be “shrived and marriéd” on Saturday (634). Juliet’s “prating nurse” (659) is in on the scheme and expresses regret at the year she lost between sexual maturity at 15 and mating at 16 (695ff). The secret wedding takes place and Romeus arranges for a rope ladder to visit Juliet (a la TGV). The narrator waxes Chaucerian with this central Troilus and Criseyde borrowing:

I grant that I envy the bliss they livéd in;
Oh that I might have found the like, I wish it for no sin….

The lovers are compared to the gods, and the marriage is consummated in language cruder than a similar image in Lucrece:

And now the virgin’s fort hath warlike Romeus got,
In which as yet no breach was made by force of cannon shot….

Some time later, Juliet’s cousin Tybalt instigates a brawl with the Montagues and Romeus is compared with a forest boar in an epic simile (1023ff) just before he kills Tybalt with a thrust to the throat. Verona’s Prince exiles Romeus, and Juliet sinks into an inconsolable misery until the nurse mentions visiting Friar Laurence.

Romeus is also in woe and rails, like Chaucer’s Troilus, at Fortune: “he called her deaf and blind, / Unconstant, fond, deceitful, rash, unruthful, and unkind” (1343-1344). Duh! But Romeus is counselled that crying is womanish (1352-1353) — a claim made repeatedly in Shakespeare’s works — and finally:

If thou wilt master quite the troubles that thee spill,
Endeavour first by reason’s help to master witless will.

References to Fortune’s wheel (1470-1471) and to tempests (1521f) reappear, and Romeus and Juliet are able to meet once more at night, at first standing mute for “the eighth part of an hour” (1535). They review their options and dismiss most of them. Suicidal impulses are overcome for the time.

Romeus leaves for Mantua while Juliet gives the impression that her grief is for Tybalt. But her parents cite a Twelfth Night bit of reasoning — “He is in bliss, ne is there cause why you should thus lament” (1796). In short, they say she needs to snap out of it and get married to County Paris (1882). Juliet tells her mother, “will I pierce my breast with sharp and bloody knife; / And you, my mother, shall become the murd’ress of my life” (1915-1916). But the day is set: September 10th (2072). The Friar concocts a magical potion — we even get some procedural details of the recipe (2128ff) — and Juliet keeps this until the right moment, telling her family that her consultation with the Friar resulted in her compliance with their wishes:

By strength of arguments he changéd so my mind,
That, though I sought, no sure defence my searching thought could find.
So forced I was at length to yield up witless will….

She adds, “For if I did excel the famous Grecian rape, / Yet might attire help to amend my beauty and my shape” (2237-238) — calling Helen of Troy, in her capacity of the most beautiful woman, a “rape”!

Not in the source material, the Nurse encourages Juliet to forget Romeus and now praises Paris. It’s the night before the wedding, so Juliet secretly prepares the drug: “She pouréd forth into the vial of the friar / Water, out of silver ewer that on the board stood by her” (2339-2340). Although she dreads “serpents odious / And other beasts and worms that are of nature venomous” (2365-2366) and the smell of tombs, she takes the drug, dismaying her family with her apparent death (2423) and prompting another Chaucerian reference to “doubled sorrows” (2458). Friar Laurence then sends a letter to Romeus in Mantua to inform him of the secret doings, but Friar John (named Anselm in the source) who is to carry the message is put in quarantine. While Verona mourns Juliet’s death, the marriage feast serving instead as funeral food (2513f) — a reversal of the conflation in Hamlet — Romeus hears of the death. He “wand’reth up and down” (2563) until visiting an apothecary to buy poison. Romeus writes out an account of his love and subsequent actions.

In Verona, Romeus gets his servant Peter to help him roll back the stone of the tomb. He sees and feels the dead Juliet and downs the poison. He apostrophizes to Tybalt’s corpse and dies. Juliet awakens (2706). Friar Laurence is there now and points out Romeus’ corpse, saying she could go into religious seclusion for the rest of her life (2717f). During some melodrama, the Friar and Peter hear noise and flee. Juliet takes Romeus’ dagger and kills herself.

The Friar and Peter are arrested as murderers, and the Friar, “set to the show upon the open stage” (2826), is left to yammer on in explanation to the families. His lengthy discourse includes a discussion of iron’s uses (2877ff), the insistence “I feel no worm that gnaweth me, / And from remorse’s pricking sting I joy that I am free” (2895-2896), and a more pertinent explanation for his marrying the young lovers: “For like they were in nobleness, age, riches, and degree” (2928). The documentary evidence in Romeus’ own hand is produced, and the Friar is acquitted. Butthe nurse is banished; the apothecary hanged (such distribution of “justice” reminds one of Chaucer’s Prioress’ Tale). The young lovers are memorialized with a stately tomb in Verona:

The bodies dead, removed from the vault where they did lie,
In stately tomb, on pillars great of marble, raise they high.
On every side above were set, and eke beneath,
Great store of cunning epitaphs, in honour of their death.
And even at this day the tomb is to be seen;
So that among the monuments that in Verona been,
There is no monument more worthy of the sight,
Than is the tomb of Juliet and Romeus her knight.