Although Shakespeare gives us scarcely any indications of familiarity with the higher Italian literature (such as abound in Spencer,) 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 has 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 Shakespearean 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 points 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 additions, with affections, 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 of 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 form cries out thou art;
It is also a particularly worthy remark, that Shakespeare had 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 Badello'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 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