Please Don’t Try This at Home—Reading Romeus and Juliet (Part 1 of 2)

Occasionally—only when dealing with matter other than the works of Shakespeare themselves—I adopt the motto “I read ‘em so you don’t have to.” Alas, sometimes I’m too late to save you from yourselves. Thus it was that my dear friend Peter King, professor of philosophy and medieval studies at the University of Toronto, asked me whether Shakespeare was really responsible for what I praised as his clever use of Friar Laurence to cover up a major plot hole—and before I could post, answered his own question by reading Arthur Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet (1562). Before any of the rest of you make the same mistake, this post provides you with as much about this, Shakespeare’s principal source, as you’ll ever want to know. Brooke’s 3,020-line poem is worth knowing about as a vivid case study in Shakespeare’s transmutation of his sources. Not even I have the cheek to call Shakespeare the Rumpelstiltskin of literature, but if you want to see him spinning dross into gold, look no further.

The Romeo and Juliet story originates in folklore, but narrative versions can be traced back to fifteenth-century Italy. The introduction to the stand-alone Oxford edition gives an account of the Italian novelle that relate the tale and that Brooke drew upon. (Brooke’s poem is the first version of the story in English; William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure, on which Shakespeare also drew for other plays, came some years later.)

We know nothing about Brooke except that he published Romeus in 1562 and died in a shipwreck a year later. Romeus contains pretty much everything you would read in a synopsis of Romeo and Juliet, but it all comes down to the details.

The first obstacle to overcome if you actually try, against all my entreaties, to read Romeus is the style. We’re used to blank verse, the unrhymed iambic pentameter of Shakespeare and Marlowe, because pretty much everything we still read from the Elizabethan period (let alone later) was written in it, but it was not the only verse form popular at the time. In particular, Romeus is written in a form called “poulter’s measure,” consisting of alternating lines of iambic heptameter (so-called fourteeners, with seven feet and fourteen syllables) and hexameter (six feet, an alexandrine). This page has examples and a good explanation of the various forms, including poulter’s measure, related to the “common measure” used for hymns.

But since you’ll be very hard put to find anything recent written in poulter’s measure, here is the opening of Romeus:

There is beyond the Alps, a town of ancient fame,
Whose bright renown yet shineth clear: Verona men it name;
Built in a happy time, built on a fertile soil
Maintained by the heavenly fates, and by the townish toil
The fruitful hills above, the pleasant vales below,
The silver stream with channel deep, that thro’ the town doth flow,
The store of springs that serve for use, and eke for ease,
And other more commodities, which profit may and please,–

I think this gives a pretty clear sense of how alien this verse form feels to us modern readers. We are not used to alternating lines of different lengths (yes, I know about The Star-Spangled Banner) and I, at least, experience them as having a distracting start-stop quality. I kept getting thrown on the short line expecting the extra foot and vice versa. That meant that I kept counting syllables, which was even more distracting.

Go ahead and chalk that up to my failings as a reader. That doesn’t change the fact that Brooke is a terrible versifier. Look at that opening again:

There is beyond the Alps, a town of ancient fame,
Whose bright renown yet shineth clear: Verona men it name;

The man is shameless, or clueless, enough to torture the syntax into “Verona men it name” just to get the rhyme with “fame”—and this is only the second line of the poem. I’m not going to belabor these formal features (not even “profit may and please” to rhyme with “ease” at the end of this excerpt). Just take my word for it that they don’t get any better, and that they make for an extremely trying read.

More important, of course, is Brooke’s version of the story. How does it compare with Shakespeare’s? What did Shakespeare take from it and what did he add? Consider the half-dozen or so most striking things we have seen about Romeo and Juliet:

  1. The atmosphere of Verona, a town without pity whose combination of gang violence and family tyranny is as oppressive as its externalization, the August heat;
  2. The great set pieces between Romeo and Juliet—the balcony scene, the Aubade, the tomb;
  3. Juliet’s evolution from child to something more than woman, and her glorious soliloquies;
  4. Mercutio and the Nurse;
  5. The electrifying shift from comedy to tragedy that pivots on the duel;
  6. Friar Laurence’s delusions of grandeur and his farcical attempts to manipulate the action.

These are at least some of the features that make Romeo and Juliet what it is. Would you believe that none of them can be found in Brooke’s poem in recognizable form?

Consider Brooke’s description of his romantic pair in an introductory prose statement of purpose that conveys how different from Shakespeare we can expect his poem to be. For Brooke, Romeus and Juliet are

 a couple of unfortunate lovers, thrilling themselves to unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends; conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips and superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity); attempting all adventures of peril for th’ attaining of their wished lust; using auricular confession the key of whoredom and treason, for furtherance of their purpose; abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage to cloak the shame of stolen contracts; finally by all means of unhonest life hasting to most unhappy death.

Those repetitive moralizing “un-“s (unfortunate, unchastity, unhappy, the most awkward of the bunch, “unhonest,” twice) signal that this is not going to be an entertaining story. Indeed, there is no intentional humor anywhere in the poem, nor is there any wordplay; certainly nothing like the bawdy punning of Sampson and Gregory to introduce the pressure cooker that is Shakespeare’s Verona. Though the Montague-Capulet feud exists, it’s about as weighty as the rivalry between the Yankees and the Mets; nobody really expects to get hurt. Although
“not a Montague would enter at [Old Capulet’s] gate,/(For as you heard, the Capulets and they were at debate)” (165-66), Romeus can do so with impunity:

The Capulets disdain the presence of their foe,
Yet they suppress their stirréd ire, the cause I do not know:

There’s certainly no Tybalt at the party to stir up trouble; in fact Tybalt doesn’t appear at all until just before he’s slain by Romeus. Thus one of Shakespeare’s principal sources of dramatic tension in the first half of Romeo and Juliet, the loose-cannon cousin, is missing here.

Even more glaring is the absence of the motor of the first half of the play, Mercutio. A character named “Mercutio” does appear at the Capulet banquet, and only there, but with a different, almost creepy role: getting among the “bashful maids” like a “lion would among the lambs,” he sits on Juliet’s right, Romeo on her left, and they both hold her hand. Mercutio’s hand, however, is icy:

A gift he had that Nature gave him in his swathing band,
That frozen mountain ice was never half so cold,
As were his hands, though ne’er so near the fire he did them hold.

And it is this cold that drives Juliet to Romeo (“Mercutio’s icy hand had all-to frozen mine” (289)). In Brooke, then, Mercutio is Romeus’s rival for Juliet’s hand (literally!), only instead of the fiery wit and extravagant spirit we prize in Shakespeare, we get a cold, repellent handshake. I glanced at Professor Weis’s introduction (the book arrived while I was writing this post—kudos to The Book Depository) and note that he says “the seeds of Shakespeare’s Mercutio are unmistakably there” (48); although he manages to make something of the handholding, Brooke’s depiction is an acorn next to Shakespeare’s mighty oak. Not only the language but the very idea of giving Mercutio the Queen Mab speech is utterly beyond Brooke’s ken.

The most vivid distinction between Brooke’s and Shakespeare’s Mercutios is the fact that Mercutio meets Juliet at all. You’ll remember that I didn’t think much of the apocryphal saying attributed to Dryden that Shakespeare had to kill off Mercutio or be killed by him—but that I do think Shakespeare had to kill off Mercutio before he had a chance to meet Juliet, because Romeo wouldn’t have stood a chance if Mercutio decided to pursue her. Shakespeare’s Mercutio, for all his sexual ambivalence, truly would have been a lion among the lambs, but Brooke has a chance to show him at work, and the result is, as the kidz say today, meh.

So: no simmering Verona background (point 1) and no Mercutio as we know him from Shakespeare (point 4). No Mercutio, no duel as we know it: no shattering intervention of contingency, of the brutal reality of death into what had been a comic world—the formal and tonal shift that must have flabbergasted the world premiere audience and that remains the true secret of Romeo and Juliet’s greatness (point 5). Again, no Tybalt until the duel itself, meaning that Shakespeare is solely responsible for this major source of dramatic tension. (Though Tybalt’s name is the occasion for one of Brooke’s worst rhymes, after the duel: “The Montagues do plead their Romeus void of fault;/The lookers-on do say, the fight begun was by Tybalt” (1043-1044).)

No Nurse either, at least not the character we know from Shakespeare. I’ll confine myself to one example. You’ll recall how we learn everything we need to know about the Nurse in Act I scene iii, when she tells and retells the story of the babe Juliet hurting her head, to which the Nurse’s husband says “You’ll fall backward when the time comes” and the girl, unknowing, replies “Ay.” Here is Brooke at the same point in the story:

“A pretty babe,” quod she, “it was when it was young;
Lord, how it could full prettily have prated with it tongue!
A thousand times and more I laid her on my lap,
And clapped her on the buttock soft, and kissed where I did clap.
And gladder then was I of such a kiss, forsooth,
Than I had been to have a kiss of some old lecher’s mouth”

Shakespeare’s Nurse might have appreciated the ass-kissing image, given her turncoat behavior, but look how much more Shakespeare does; one anecdote serves to draw three characters—and without intrusive authorial commentary, as opposed to Brooke’s next stanza:

And thus of Juliet’s youth began this prating nurse,
And of her present state to make a tedious, long discourse.
. . .
But when these beldames sit at ease upon their tail,
The day and eke the candle-light before their talk shall fail.
And part they say is true, and part they do devise,
Yet boldly do they chat of both, when no man checks their lies.

Again, I’ve got to give Brooke his due; there’s something to that image of old women (“beldames”) gossiping “upon their tail[s]”; apart from the misogyny, it feels taken from life. But Shakespeare’s Nurse is larger than life and contains Brooke’s beldam; I, at least, can only picture the latter because I know the former.

(To be continued . . .)

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