Summary: the Adaptation of Romeo and Juliet

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In the present day in the United States, Shakespeare and his literary works have become ubiquitous over the years. Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s most popular pieces of literature, thus school curriculums of various levels incorporate it in English courses. Shakespeare however took the idea of Romeo and Juliet from Brooke’s poem, The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet, and Brooke sources his writing from an old Italian story, The story of Giulietta and Romeo Montecchi by Luigi da Porto and Matteo Bandello, and they from the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe.

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Although there is a plethora of similarities between Shakespeare’s play and its source, there are conspicuous differences made by Shakespeare. Analyzing Shakespeare’s work as an adaptation amongst a long line of adaptations presents itself as unoriginal at first. Despite having several parallels with Brooke throughout the plot, I perceive Shakespeare’s ability to manipulate his primary source to create something far better respectable. In Brooke’s poem he writes a prologue explaining his reasons for writing and has a consequential tone behind it suggesting a moral lesson; this moralistic outlook cannot be found in the play. Shakespeare drastically decreases Brooke’s nine-month tragedy into a few days, focusing on the intensity of the story by utilizing haste. When writing the play, Shakespeare made miniscule changes to the plot compared to Brooke’s poem. These changes involve him utilizing time to create haste, thus adding intensity, his neglect of a “moral” outlook like Brooke’s poem, a theatrical stand point, and the most drastic would be the way he includes new characters and develops his characters more fully than Brooke.

Shakespeare’s play appeals to the audience because his characters are flawed but likeable, unlike Brooke’s who in his prologue already passes judgment on Romeus, Juliet, the Fryer, and the Nurce. Brooke uses strong language to pass judgement upon Romeus and Juliet stating that their love is not love but is lust with the line, “The glorious triumphe of the continent man vpon the lustes of wanton fleshe”. After he speaks of their selfish lust and their disobedience, Brooke states in the final line of his prologue that because of this behavior they were punished with “most vnhappye death”. Brooke writes his poem solely to set an example for the reader, and shows a distaste towards Roman Catholicism, and this is notable in the characterization of the Fryer and the Nurce when he states they are the “naturally fitte instruments of vnchastitie”. Throughout the poem Brooke puts these characters under a dark light, but Shakespeare does not seem to care much to cast judgment. Shakespeare uses his theatrical experience to emphasize the action of the play and develops the characters he has presented to complete this. Brooke demoralizing the characters he presented and focusing on his religious views makes the reader have distaste for the characters, thus more attention is devoted to his moral theme. Brooke is blunt about his objective for writing the poem in his prologue as an author; Shakespeare again however cares little and includes a chorus to summarize the plot in an unbiased manner. Shakespeare does however cast judgement on the feuds but not the characters individually like Brooke does. These differences would be the reason we read of Romeo and Juliet and not The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet.

In Brooke’s adaptation he allows his story to span over nine months, but Shakespeare’s story compresses the play to just a few days. This change in pace makes every decision in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet rasher and more intense. In Shakespeare’s play, after Mercutio and Romeo attend the Capulet’s party, Romeo goes directly to the garden where he sees Juliet. After expressing deep emotion with each other they decide to be wed the next day. Brooke instead prolongs this encounter stating Romeus passes her home with “a week or two in vayne” . They finally meet also deciding to be married. The difference in pace here would be that the Fryer convinces Romeus to wait “a short day and a night” . Another example would be how major plot events follow each other very closely. Romeo and Juliet were able to spend only one night together as husband and wife-the night he slays Tybalt and the death of Mercutio by Tybalt. Brooke extends the lovers encounter stating in the Argument that Romeus enjoys himself for three months with “cheefe delight”. Finally, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet the bodies of Romeo and Juliet are discovered that same night that they commit suicide and the play abruptly ends. Brooke however addresses their deaths differently where the watchmen keep the Fryer deep in a dungeon that night because his was believed to be the “murthrer”. The decisions the characters make are impulsive because of how little time there is between them. Every decision happens unexpectedly fast making the romantic tragedy thrilling in the play. Brooke’s version has the events paced out unlike Shakespeare. This proves that Brooke is not concerned about the plot duration. Because of this, Brooke’s poem is hard to stage and it is difficult to digest the action due to the plot being spread thin. Shakespeare being dramatist, he understood his audience would be more engaged if there was more intensity, and he did this by shortening the source material.

Theatrically it is no surprise the poem contains minimal excitement. Shakespeare provides multiple events to give the play life and to incorporate action. For an example he opens his play with a fight scene to display the aggression of the families, but Brooke begins the story with boring descriptions of Verona and the characters that live there. Intensity demonstrated by Shakespeare is found when Romeo attends the party and Tybalt sees him. Romeo’s presence infuriates Tybalt enough for him to say “This by his voice be a Montague. Fetch me my Rapier, boy. Come hither, covered with an antic face, To fleer and scorn at our solemnity? Now y the stock and honour of my kin, To strike him dead I hold it not a sin.”  Tybalt wishes to kill Romeo, but is stopped by Capulet and told to “be patient and take note of him”. This however does not stop Tybalt from sending a letter of challenge to Romeo which ultimately leads to Tybalt’s death. Brooke does nothing to build Tybalt’s character in this respect and Shakespeare utilizes this opportunity to create intensity while developing a character.

Shakespeare converting pitifully dry scenes presented by Brooke is a work a literary prowess. The major turning point in both works is when Romeo  fights Tybalt because it ends in the death of Tybalt and the banishment of Romeo (Romeus), but in the play there is no doubt it is a more climatic scene. Romeo initially avoids Tybalt’s challenge now that they are kinsman by marriage, however after the slaying of Mercutio he is overcome with rage. Shakespeare creates this intensity by having Tybalt’s death be a cause of vengeance. Having “fire-eyed fury” be Romeo’s conduct and yet Romeo still showing subtle gentleness saying “Away to heaven, respective lenity” perfectly portrays the split between Romeo’s love and anger. Shakespeare perfectly dramatizes this, but Brooke fails to mention Mercutio.Unlike Brooke who seems to develop his action separately from his characters and having him fit the judgement he cast upon them, Shakespeare devises scenes to allow for character development and action simultaneously. Shakespeare’s character although very rash, are more realistic than Brooke’s lifeless characters. Shakespeare improves a great deal on the characters Romeo, Juliet, Friar Laurence, and the Nurse.

Any action involving Romeo in both works is relatively the same but referring to the time span again makes Romeo seem more impulsive than Romeus. Another difference between Romeo and Romeus is when they first lay eyes upon Juliet at the party. When Romeus enters the room, he scanned the women in the room and then “At length he saw a mayd, right fayre of perfect shape Which Theseus, or Paris would / haue chose to their rape. Whom erst he neuer sawe, / I of all she pleasde him most: Within himself he said to her, / I thou iustly mayst thee baste. Of perfit shapes renoune, / and Beauties sounding prayse:”  Romeus evaluation of Juliet is self-contained, but Romeo’s evaluation is more descriptive and seems more romantic, “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear; Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.”  Romeo’s romantic slang is Shakespeare’s creation and is far better than what Romeus conveys. This makes Romeus indeed a weaker character compared to Romeo.

One of the main differences of Brooke’s Juliet is that she is more control in the poem. When she first meets Romeus at the ball, she is between Romeus and Mercutio. She makes the first major move when “She with tender hand / his tender palm hath prest”. Romeus being not as confident as Shakespeare’s Romeo does not speak, and since Juliet wants him to say something, she speaks first: “And her desire of hearing him, I by sylence dyd encrease. At last with trembling voyce I and shamefast chere, the made Vnto her Romeus tournde her selfe, I and thus to him she sayde. O blessed be the time I of thy arriual here.” In the play Juliet lets Romeo confront her initially during the party and does not openly accept him the way Brookes Juliet does saying, “Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hands too much, Which mannerly devotion shows in this, For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch, And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.” This shows how in the play Juliet is not as forward and seems to be skeptical of Romeo’s approach, whereas in the poem Juliet takes the initiative.

 Shakespeare does not target a specified audience unlike Brooke. Shakespeare manipulates the story and creates something that is centralized around love, thus allowing for more people to take interest in the story. Utilizing time to create haste, thus adding intensity, his neglect of a “moral” outlook like Brooke’s poem, a theatrical stand point, and new characters and develops his characters more fully than Brooke is why his variation of the tale persists today.



Works Cited

  1. Brooke, Arthur, and Matteo Bandello. Romeus and Juliet. Imprinted at London: In Fletestrete Withi Teple Barre, at the Signe of the Hand Starre by Richard Tottill, 1567
  2. Shakespeare, William, James C. Bulman, and Richard Proudfoot. The Arden Shakespeare: Third Series. Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, an Imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2016.

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