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The fable of this admired tragedy, however romantic it may appear, is founded on real events, which took place in Verona, at the beginning of the fourteenth century.
Mr. Malone says, that “ Breval, in his travels, on a strict inquiry into the histories of Verona, found, that Shakspeare had varied very little from the truth, either in the names, characters, or other circumstances of this play.”
Such an extraordinary and affecting story as that of Romeo and Juliet soon became the subject of poems, novels, and other literary works, all over Italy, and from thence found its way into other countries.
A poem, from this little Italian history, by Mr. Arthur Brooke, is supposed to have been the production from whence Shakspeare formed the present drama.
The following title, according to the fashion of those distant days, was affixed to that poem :
“ The tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, containing a rare Example of true Constancie: with the subtill Counsels and Practices of an old Fryer, and their ill Event.”
Shakspeare has produced, from this “ Tragical History,” one of his most admirable plays: Yet, had the subject fallen to Otway's pen, though he would have treated it less excellently, he would have rendered it more affecting.
“ Romeo and Juliet” is called a pathetic tragedy, but it is not so in reality. It charms the understanding, and delights the imagination, without melting, though it touches, the heart.
The reason that an auditor or reader cannot feel a powerful sympathy in the sorrows of these fervent lovers is, because they have witnessed the growth of their passion from its birth to its maturity, and do not honour it with that warmth of sentiment as if they had conceived it to have been of longer duration; fixed by time, and rendered more tender by familiarity.
The ardour of the youthful pair, like the fervency of children, gives high amusement, without much anxiety that their wishes should be accomplished they have been so suddenly enamoured of each other, that it seems matter of doubt whether they would not as quickly have fallen in love a second time, or as soon have become languid through satiety, if all obstacles to their bliss had been removed. Shakspeare has shown himself versed in the passion of love beyond other dramatists, by giving it this wild, vehement, yet childish tendency.
The illustrious author of this drama well knew, that the passion of love, in the young, is seldom constant, as poets describe it, but fickle as violent. In his just
knowledge of the human heart, then, he has given, in the original play, a less stable character to this soft passion than is even here described ; for, in the original, Romeo commences the tragedy with sighing for Rosaline, and ends it by dying for Juliet. Such was Shakspeare's respect for the consistency of a lover.
The play is certainly made much more interesting by the alteration, which omits all mention of the beloved, and then forsaken, Rosaline; yet surely, by the exclusion of that circumstance, an incident but too natural, is lost.
As Shakspeare found those hasty, inconsiderate, lovers, unable in themselves to protect his drama, he provided ample means of support in the additional characters. In these he has combined the most varied excellence;—the mirthful elegance of Mercutio, the comic humour of the Nurse, the
sage reasoning of the Friar, together with a whole group of no less natural, though less prominent, persons.
The events which he caused to arise from his plot, the numerous and important occurrences that are perpetually diversifying the scene, and aiding the effect of the characters and fable, united with them, have drawn from his great commentator the declaration, that “ this play is one of the most pleasing of our author's performances."
But, with all the genuine merit of this play, it seldom attracts an elegant audience. The company, that frequent the side-boxes, will not come to a tragedy, unless to weep in torrents--and “ Romeo and
Juliet” will not draw even a copious shower of tears.
Garrick altered the play to its present state, and himself performed Romeo, but with no impressive talents. Mrs. Cibber's Juliet was held superior. Love, in Garrick's description, never seemed more than a fabulous sensation.
It is said, in the “Roscius Anglicanus," that James Howard, Esq. made alterations in this drama previous to Garrick's; and that, being of a compassionate disposition, he preserved the lives of both Romeo and Juliet, and ended the play happily. It is also added, that when Sir William Davenant was manager of the theatre, he had the original and the altered play alternately performed for several nights together; thus consulting the different tastes of the auditors for joy or for sorrow.
The Italian author, who first related the sad story on which this drama has been founded, gives the following account of the punishment inflicted on those persons, who acted as accomplices in the unfortunate death of these lovers.
“ Juliet's female attendant (Shakspear's Nurse) was banished for concealing the marriage.
“ The apothecary, for selling the poison, was tortured, condemned, and hanged.
“ Friar Lawrence was permitted to retire to a hermitage, near Verona, where he ended his days in penitence; while Romeo's servant was set at liberty, because he had only acted in obedience to his master's orders."