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DATE, HISTORY, AND CHARACTERISTICS OF THE PLAY.
OMEO AND JULIET is the production of youthful genius. It is all redolent of youth in its subject, its style, and its spirit. It is a tale of mutually youthful love, impetuous, ardent, passionate, rapturous, yet tender, imaginative, idolatrous,-where each of the lovers is the sole object of the other's existence, and both of them reckless of all else, even of life itself. Into this one, engrossing, pervading feeling of the poem, the youthful author throws his whole soul; he pours forth his "thick-coming fancies" with the mounting spirit, the keen relish of existence of one to whom this world is still fresh and young. He does not anticipate the sad and bitter hours of the winding-up of the mournful tale he is about to tell, but luxuriates in the short-lived happiness of the lovers, and showers over them, and on all around them, the flowers and gems of poetical fancy, with a joyous, careless, extravagant wit. It is not until death is about to cast his mantle over the loves of the young and beautiful and brave, that the Poet suffers either his own mind or his reader's to repose from the constant excitement of passion, wit, or fancy. It is this buoyancy of spirit, this luxury of language and imagery, this fervid activity of intellect and of fancy, that mark ROMEO AND JULIET as a work of the great Poet when just arrived to the full possession and confidence of his strength, yet still immature in experience and knowledge; quite as much as the numerous "conceits depraving his pathetic strains" which Johnson censured, or those similar faults which youthful compliance with the taste of the age can best explain or excuse; and not less than the "absence (remarked by Hallam) of that thoughtful philosophy which, when it had once germinated in Shakespeare's mind, never ceased to display itself." Coleridge therefore pronounced this play to have been intended by the author to approach more to the poem than to the drama. I should rather say that it bears the internal evidence of having been written in the period of the transition of the author's mind from its purely poetical to its dramatic cast of thought; from the poetry of external nature, of ingenious fancy and active thought, to that of the deeper philosophy of the heart.
This drama is also remarkable in another point of view; as it not only exhibits to us the genius of the Poet in this stage of its progress, but it affords no small insight into the history of the progress itself. It was first printed in 1597, as having been before that time "often with great applause plaid publiquely." This edition, an original copy of which is now of great rarity and value, has been reprinted literatim by Stevens, in his edition of the original quartos of " twenty of the plays of Shakespeare." Although this first edition was probably one of those "stolen and surreptitious copies maimed and deformed by the hand which stole them," of which the old folio editions complain, yet it enables us, by the comparison of the play there given, with what was afterwards avowedly added, to trace the advance of the author's taste and judgment. It contains the whole of the plot, incidents, and characters of the play afterwards enlarged, with its sweetness and beauty of imagery and luxury of language, and almost all its gayety and wit. Its defects of taste are more conspicuous, because it contains, in a much smaller compass, all the rhyming couplets, the ingenious and long-drawn conceits, and the extravagances of fanciful metaphor, which are still intertwined with the nobler beauties of this play. In 1599 appeared a second quarto edition, "newly corrected, augmented, and enlarged," containing about one fourth more in quantity, partly from expansion of thoughts already expressed imperfectly, and partly by large and admirable additions. Among these are the several soliloquies of Juliet, and especially that before taking the sleeping-potion, and the last speech of Romeo at the tomb. These all breathe that solemn melody of rhythm which Shakespeare created for the appropriate vehicle of his own mightier thoughts; while, as compared with the earlier play, the passion becomes more direct and intense, and less imaginative, and the language assumes more of that condensed and suggestive cast which afterwards became habitual to his mind.
The original structure is the work of a poet, and arranged with the skill of a practised dramatist; yet it is also evidently the work of a man of genius whose powers were governed, controlled, and modified by the spirit and taste of the literature of his day, and it consequently partakes of the usual blemishes of the poetry and eloquence of that age. The additions and corrections are those of the same mind, with its mighty energies more developed, and now throwing off the influence of inferior minds, giving to itself its own law, and about to assume the sway of its country's language and literature.
The contrast between the revision and the original play, beautiful and glowing as that is, with all its extravagance of thought and defects of taste, is such that I fully agree with Mr. Knight's just and acute observation, that the development of power and judgment is too great to have taken place in the short period of two years, the interval between the dates of the first and second editions; and that therefore the ROMEO AND JULIET, when
published in 1597, being then a popular acted play, must have been originally written some years before. Mr. Hallam (Literature of Europe) judging from the evidence of style and thought, places its composition before that of the MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, which would make it, in its original form, the production of the Poet's twenty-seventh or twenty-eighth year; and this date corresponds with some slight points of circumstancial evidence collected by the commentators, such as the supposed allusion of the Nurse to the great earthquake of 1580 as having occurred eleven years before. The enlarged edition was the work of the Poet's thirty-fourth or thirtyfifth year. The third edition appeared in 1609, and this, says Collier, “ was printed from the edition which came out ten years earlier; the repetition, in the folio of 1623, of some decided errors of the press, shows that it was a reprint of the quarto, 1609. It is remarkable, that although every early quarto impression contains a Prologue, it was not transferred to the folio."
The first edition has also its value, as assisting to form a correct text, several difficulties in the later editions being cleared up by its aid, and the metrical arrangement especially has been thus preserved; Mercutio's “Queen Mab" speech, when improved in language, having been printed as prose in the enlarged edition, though correctly in the first. Otherwise, it is clear that the true text is to be found in the original enlarged editions, collated with each other, using the first only to correct accidental errors of the press or the copyist. But it is certainly not consistent with sound criticism to employ it, as several editors have done, to make up a text out of two differing editions, by inserting what the author had himself thrown aside, to substitute other words or lines. Wherever the text of the present edition differs from any in common use, as that of Stevens, the difference will be found to proceed from adherence to this principle, which is also followed by both Knight and Collier, the former of whom takes the folio of 1623, and the latter the 1597 quarto as the standard of his edition, a difference which does not lead to any very material variations.
SOURCE OF THE PLOT.
"When Dante reproaches the Emperor Albert for neglect of Italy,—
Thy sire and thou have suffer'd thus,
'Come, see the Capulets and Montagues,
The Filippeschi and Monaldi, man,
Who car'st for nought! those sunk in grief, and these
The Capulets and Montagues were among the fierce spirits who, according to the poet, had rendered Italy 'savage and unmanageable.' The Emperor Albert was murdered in 1308; and the Veronese, who believe the story of Romeo and Juliet to be historically true, fix the date of this tragedy as 1303. At that period the Scalas, or Scaligers, ruled over Verona.
"If the records of history tell us little of the fair Capulet and her loved Montague, whom Shakespeare has made immortal, the novelists have seized upon the subject, as might be expected, from its interest and its obscurity. Massuccio, a Neapolitan, who lived about 1470, was, it is supposed, the writer who first gave a somewhat similar story the clothing of a connected fiction. He places the scene at Sienna, and, of course, there is no mention of the Montagues and Capulets. The story too, of Massuccio, varies in its catastrophe; the bride recovering from her lethargy, produced by the same means as in the case of Juliet; and the husband being executed for a murder which had caused him to flee from his country. Mr. Douce has endeavoured to trace back the ground-work of the tale to a Greek romance by Xenophon Ephesius. Luigi da Porto, of Vicenza, gave a connected form to the legend of Romeo and Juliet, in a novel, under the title of "La Giulietta," which was published after his death in 1535. Luigi, in an epistle prefixed to this work, states that the story was told him 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." Bandello, in 1554, published a novel on the same subject, the ninth of his second collection. It begins "When the Scaligers were lords of Verona," and goes on to say that these events happened "under Bartholomew Scaliger" (Bartolomeo della Scala.) The various materials to be found in these sources were embodied in a French novel by Pierre Boisteau, a translation of which was published by Paynter in his "Palace of Pleasure," in 1567; and upon this French story was founded the English poem by Arthur Brooke, published in 1562, under the title of "The tragicall Hystorye of Romeus and Juliet, written first in Italian by Bandell, and nowe in Englishe by Ar. Br." It appears highly probable that an English play upon the same subject had appeared previous to Brooke's poem; for he says in his address to the reader :-"Though I saw the same argument lately set forth on the stage with more commendation than I can look for being there much better set foorth than I have or can dooe, yet the same matter penned as it is, may serve to lyke good effect, if the readers do brynge with them lyke good myndes, to consider it, which hath the more incouraged me to publish it, suche as it is." Thus Shakespeare had materials enough to work upon. But, in addition to these sources, there is a play by Lope de Vega in which the incidents are very similar; and an Italian tragedy also, by Luigi Groto, which Mr. Walker, in his Historical Memoirs of Italian Tragedy, thinks that the English bard read with profit. Mr. Walker gives us passages in support of his assertion, such as a description of a nightingale when the lovers are parting, which appear to confirm this opinion."-KNIGHT.
Although Shakespeare gives us scarcely any indications of familiarity with the higher Italian literature (such as abound in Spenser,) yet as some knowledge of Italian was in his age a common as well as fashionable acquisition among persons of cultivation, it is quite probable that at some (and that not a late) period of his life, he had learned enough of the language to read it for any purpose of authorship, such as to get at the plot of an untranslated tale. The evidence in support of this probability will be found in some of the notes and remarks of this edition, on other plays. It is also well argued by Ch. A. Browne, in his Essay on Shakespeare's Autobiographical Poems. It is therefore very probable that he had read or looked into all the books containing the subject of his intended play, so as to fill his mind with the incidents and accessories of the story. He had undoubtedly read either Boisteau's novel, or Paynter's inelegant translation of it, for he has taken from it at least one circumstance not found in the other versions of the plot. But he has otherwise made very little use either of Paynter or of the continental novelist, and has adhered closely to Brooke's poem. The commentators have been unjust to Brooke. His poem has been treated as a dull and inelegant composition, which it was a sort of merit for a Shakespearian critic to undergo the drudgery of reading. Mr. T. Campbell dismisses it contemptuously, as “a dull English poem, of four thousand lines." The reader who will turn to it, as reprinted by Malone, in the Variorum editions, or more accurately by Collier in his "Shakespeare's Library," will, after overcoming the first repulsive difficulties of metre and language, find it to be a poem of great power and beauty. The narration is clear, and nearly as full of interest as the drama itself; the characters are vividly depicted, the descriptions are graceful and poetical. The dramatist himself (though he paints far more vividly) does not more distinctly describe than the poet that change in Juliet's impassioned character, which Mr. Campbell regards as never even conceived of by any narrators of this tale before Shakespeare,-I mean her transition from girlish confidence in the sympathy of others, to the assertion of her own superiority, in the majesty of her despair. The language of the poem is of an older date than is familiar even to the reader of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and it is clouded, in addition, with affectations, like those of Spenser, of still more antiquated English. The metre, too, is unusual and unpleasing to the modern reader, being of alternated twelve and fourteen-syllable lines, with an occasional redundant syllable to the already overflowing verse—a rhythm which to modern ears is associated chiefly with ludicrous or humble compositions. It has, with all these accidental drawbacks to the modern reader, the additional real defect of partaking of the faults of its times, in extravagance of imagery and harsh coarseness of phrase. Nevertheless, it is with all these faults, a noble poem, which, either coming down from antiquity under a great name, or rewritten in modern days by Pope or Campbell, would not need defence or eulogy.
To this poem, Shakespeare owed the outline at least, of every character except Mercutio (what an exception! sufficient to have made a reputation as brilliant as Sheridan's, for an ordinary dramatist.) He owes to the story abundant hints worked up in the dialogue. Will not Shakespeare's readers agree with me in the opinion that this fact is, like many others, a proof of the real greatness of his mind? He had before him, or within his reach, materials enough for his purpose, in books not familiar to his audience; but he went to the best source, although it was one where every reader of poetry might trace his adaptations, while only the judicious few of his own day would note and understand how much of the absorbing interest of the plot, of the picturesque or minute description, of the towering magnificence of thought, the wit, of the passion and the pathos, belonged to the dramatist alone. He used what was best, and improved it. The author who borrows to improve, in this fashion, is no plagiarist. In the happy phrase of some French critic, who defends Molière against a charge of plagiarism, founded on a similar use of the ideas of a preceding novelist—“ Le plagiat n'est un vol que pour la médiocrité.” Malone has collected a number of minute circumstances that prove decisively that Shakespeare founded his play mainly on Arthur Brooke's poem. The following passages, pointed out by Collier, will show the nature of some of his obligations, and that they went beyond the mere plot, names, and characters. No doubt can be entertained by those who only compare a passage from a speech of Friar Laurence with three lines from Brooke's "Romeus and Juliet:"
Art thou a man? Thy form cries out thou art;
This is almost verbally from Brooke's poem :
'Art thou, (quoth he,) a man? thy shape saith so thou art;
It is also particularly worthy of remark, that Shakespeare has chosen to follow Brooke in his narration of the catastrophe from that of Bandello's novel, or what Brooke calls “Bandel's written story." According to Brooke and Shakespeare, Juliet, when she awakes from her sleep, finds Romeo dead; but in the "Giulietta" of Luigi da Porto, and in Bandello's novel, she recovers soon enough to hear Romeo speak, and see him struggle in the agonies of a painful death; then the Friar endeavours to persuade her to leave the tomb; she refuses, and determines on death, and after closing her husband's eyes, resolutely holds her breath (riccolto a se il fiato, e per buono spazio tenutolo) until, with a loud cry, she falls upon her husband's body and dies. Some of the critics (Skottowe and Dunlop) have regretted this as written in ignorance of the original story, and thus "losing circumstances more affecting and better calculated for the stage." Garrick thought so too, and remodelled the catastrophe upon the original plan, thus introducing a last interview between the lovers, which, however common-place in language or thought, is always painful in its effect. Sounder criticism, and the decision of a more cultivated public taste, has of