The primary source for Shakespeare’s beloved tragedy Romeo and Juliet is usually said to be Arthur Brooke’s 1562 narrative poem A Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet. Indeed, the works are very similar. Shakespeare’s 1590s version of Romeo and Juliet adds the character of Mercutio, leavens the tragic story with comic interludes, and compresses the timeline of the action to a few days. However, it retains the same core characters and plot structure found in Brooke’s poem.
It might appear that Shakespeare borrowed from Brooke, but matters are not so simple. Brooke was the first borrower! He based his poem on a stage play he had recently seen and admired, as he explains in a preface: “I saw the same argument lately set forth on stage with more commendation than I can look for, being there much better set forth than I have or can do.” This lost play Romeus and Juliet is therefore the true source for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
There are many reasons for identifying Thomas Sackville as the most likely author of the 1562 play Romeus and Juliet. To begin, he and Arthur Brooke were friends—Sackville and his friend Thomas Norton, co-author of Gorboduc, co-pledged Brooke into the Middle Temple (one of London’s four Inns of Court) on December 18, 1561. Less than two months later, Brooke was allowed to switch from the Middle Temple to the Inner Temple on February 4, 1562 without paying a fee because he had helped with their Christmas revels plays, Gorboduc among them. The stage where Brooke saw the play version of Romeus and Juliet presumably belonged to the Inner Temple, since England did not yet have a public theatrical tradition in 1562. Furthermore, Arthur Brooke described the author of the 1562 play Romeus and Juliet as an excellent playwright. In addition to being Brooke’s friend, Sackville was the greatest English poet and playwright between Chaucer and Spenser.
Another reason to suspect that Sackville wrote the 1562 play Romeus and Juliet is its innovative quality. This play is believed to be the first English dramatic work based on a contemporary Italian story. Sackville was an exceptionally innovative poet, as evidenced by the many “firsts” found in Gorboduc, his Mirror for Magistrates poems, and even Sacvyle’s Olde Age—the first Horatian verse epistle (philosophical letter composed in verse) in the English language. He also had a strong interest in Italy and Italian literature. Within a year or two after Romeus and Juliet was performed, Sackville visited the fabled land where Julius Caesar was stabbed and Romeo and Juliet fell in love. Two decades later when the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno visited the English court, he mentioned that Thomas Sackville was “very well-versed in Italian literature.”
The author of the 1562 play Romeus and Juliet took his plot from the novella Giulietta e Romeo by Matteo Bandello, a popular Italian author who died in 1562. Bandello is one of the Italian writers whom Sackville definitely enjoyed reading. In a 1571 letter to his friend Thomas Heneage, Sackville makes an off-hand reference to a story about an ape and a friar—an allusion to Bandello’s tale The Mischievous Ape, in which an ape dresses up in the clothes of a recently deceased lady and lies down in her bed looking like the picture of the dead woman. The woman’s family, believing the ape to be the devil in disguise, sends for a friar to conjure the devil out of their home. After the friar throws holy water in the ape’s face, the misunderstanding is cleared up to general merriment.
Like Sackville, Shakespeare enjoyed Matteo Bandello’s stories. He based three of his plays on them (Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing in addition to Romeo and Juliet) and consulted Bandello when writing Othello. He had certainly read Bandello’s story of The Mischievous Ape, since he glancingly alludes to it in Romeo and Juliet. When Mercutio becomes annoyed with Romeo for paying no attention to him, he begins to conjure images of the lovely Rosaline (whom Romeo has been fantasizing about before meeting Juliet) out of his friend’s mind in the same way that the friar tries to conjure the devil out of the ape:
He heareth not, he stirreth not, he moveth not.
The ape is dead, and I must conjure him.--
I conjure thee by Rosaline's bright eyes,
By her high forehead and her scarlet lip,
By her fine foot, straight leg, and quivering thigh,
And the demesnes that there adjacent lie,
That in thy likeness thou appear to us.
Yet another clue that Thomas Sackville wrote the 1562 play Romeus and Juliet is that Arthur Brooke’s poem Romeus and Juliet is indebted to Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde. Juliet tears her golden locks as Criseyde did; Romeus laments, becomes angry like a bull, acts like a “madman,” and rails on his birth as Troilus did. Since Brooke based his poem on the play Romeus and Juliet, the Chaucerian influence detectable in Brooke’s poem might derive at second-hand from Chaucer’s influence on the play’s author. Sackville considered Chaucer to be his “guide and master” and his “pen’s lodestar”; referred to Chaucer as “thou Troilus”; and mentioned Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde in two separate unpublished manuscripts written between ~1560 and ~1574 (as detailed in a separate chapter on Troilus and Cressida). For these reasons, Sackville is the most likely English poet to have written a play partly inspired by Chaucer’s Troilus and Crisdeyde in 1562.
A final argument for Sackville’s authorship of the 1562 Romeus and Juliet comes from his own description of his youthful poetic interests. In Sacvyle’s Olde Age, composed around 1574, he mentions the many years he spent writing about “Mighty Love” and the “sweet complaints of woeful lovers wronged.” Since Sackville had a penchant for writing woeful love stories, one of Sackville’s early works might well have been an early version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
An underlying theme of Romeo and Juliet is that the sweets of life turn bitter with time. This idea is characteristic of both Thomas Sackville’s and Shakespeare’s writings:
Our sugared sweet that did so late abound
With bittered taste is turned into gall… (Sacvyle’s Olde Age)
Now seeming sweet, turn to bitter gall… (Romeo and Juliet)
Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour… (Richard II)
The sweets we wish for turn to loathed sours… (The Rape of Lucrece)
It is fascinating to contemplate the possibility that Thomas Sackville wrote a 1562 version of Romeo and Juliet, then returned to this haunting story to perfect it as a mature poet at the height of his powers in the late Elizabethan age.