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INTRODUCTION TO ROMEO AND JULIET. "HE tragic and impassioned story of Romeo and Juliet is of
Italian origin and ancient date. The primal source was probably the classic fable of Pyramis and Thisbe, but it is said to have originated in its present form with a Neapolitan, Massuccio, about the year 1470. It was afterwards related by a gentleman of Vicenza, Luigi da Porto, who died in 1529, but his tale was not printed until 1539, when it appeared under the title of La Giulietta. In 1554 Bandello published a novel on the same subject. It was then rendered into French by Pierre Boisteau ; and in 1562 an English poem, professing to be taken from Bandello's novel, but considerably altered, was published by Arthur Brooke. In Paynter's Palace of Pleasure, 1567, a prose translation from the French of Boisteau was published, entitled Rhomeo and Julietta. References to the story occur in other works, and it had been brought on the English stage early in the reign of Elizabeth, for Arthur Brooke, in an address ‘To the Reader,' states that he had seen the argument set forth on the stage with more commendation and greater ability than he could look for or command. Of this old play, praised by a competent judge, Shakespeare may have availed himself, but it has not come down to us, and Arthur Brooke's own poem seems to have formed the chief groundwork of Shakespeare's drama. Malone has enumerated the points of resemblance.
"1. In the poem, the Prince of Verona is called Escalus ; so also in the play.-In Paynter's translation from Boisteau he is named Signor Escala; and sometimes Lord Bartholomew of Escala. 2. In Paynter's novel, the family of Romeo are called the Montesches; in the poem and in the play, the Montagues. 3. The messenger employed by Friar Laurence to carry a letter to Romeo to info him when Juliet would awake from her trance, is in Paynter's translation called Anselme; in the poem and in the play, Friar John is employed in this business. 4. The circumstance of Capulet's writing down the names of the guests whom he invites to supper, is found in the poem and in the play, but is not mentioned by Paynter, nor is it found in the original Italian novel. 5. The residence of the Capulets, in the original, and in Paynter, is called Villa Franca ; in the poem and in the play, Free-town. 6. Several passages of Romeo and Juliet appear to have been formed on hints furnished by the poem, of which no traces are found either in Paynter's novel, or in Boistean, or the original ; and several expressions are borrowed from thence.' One instance of the latter may be cited. In Brooke's poem, the friar remonstrates with Romeo :
'Art thou, quoth he, a man? Thy shape saith so thou art;
If thou a man or woman wert, or else a brutish beast.'
‘Hold thy desperate hand :
The unreasonable fury of a beast.' The outlines of Shakespeare's incidents and characters were all etched in, as it were, by Brooke. His Juliet is right fair of perfect shape,' and
‘Beside her shape and native beauty's hue,
She won the hearts of all.'
And whilst he fixed on her [Juliet] his partial, pierced eye,
And Mercutio, 'courteous of his speech and pleasant of device,
‘Even as a lion would among the lambs be bold,
Such was among the bashful maids Mercutio to behold.' From this hint Shakespeare drew one of his most original and delightful portraits. “The jocund levity of Mercutio,' says Schlegel, 'is associated with, and opposed to, the melancholy enthusiasm of Romeo. Mercutio's wit is not the cold offspring of intellectual effort, but flows spontaneously out of his incessant vivacity of temper. That same rich measure of fancy, which, in Romeo, joined with deep feeling, engenders an inclination to romance, in Mercutio, amid the influences of a clear head, takes a turn towards pleasure. In both the very highest point of life's fulness is visible; in both appears also the swift transiency of whatever is most exquisite, the perishable nature of all blossoms, over which the whole drama is one tender strain of lamentation. Mercutio, as well as Romeo, is doomed to early death. He deals with life as with a sparkling wine, which men drink off hastily ere its lively spirit evaporates.' Dryden mentions a tradition that Shakespeare had declared, that he was obliged to kill Mercutio in the Third Act, lest he should have been killed by him.' But it is obvious that the continued existence of the gay and gallant wit would have been incompatible with the tragic progress of the drama. Friar Laurence, in the poem, as in the play, is a reverend and learned personage :
“This barefoot friar girt with cord his grayish weed,
By magic arts most men suppos’d that he could wonders work.' Hence his possession of the medicine, capable of producing an appearance of death, is reconciled to the imagination of the reader and spectator. Shakespeare uniformly draws the clerical character as venerable and engaging, and he omits (as he does