WRITING TRICKS FROM THE MASTER OF ENGLISH DRAMA
When Shakespeare sat down to write Romeo and Juliet around 1596, he wasn’t staring at an empty page. He didn’t suck the end of his quill, look out of his Elizabethan window and think: Now, how can I follow up Richard III?
Instead, he had open in front of him a copy of a tedious three thousand line narrative poem by Arthur Brooke called “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet.” By then it had been knocking around the book stalls in London for over thirty years.
Literary critics have described Brooke’s tome as:”prolix,” “leaden,” and “wearisome”. It was based on a French poem, which was based on an Italian story which was itself inspired by Luigi da Porto’s Giulietta e Romeo in 1530.
So how did Shakespeare turn this dross into gold?
One important step was to introduce a ticking clock. He gave Brooke’s ponderous story a sense of urgency.
Brooke’s poem has Romeo meet Juliet at the Capulet’s feast and then drearily pass by Juliet’s window “a weeke or two in vayne” before he speaks to her. But soft, what light from yonder window breaks: Shakespeare has his impetuous lovers meet, fall in love and resolve to marry all in the same night.
Brooke gives Romeus and his new paramour a honeymoon in Hawaii and time to look for a flat; Shakespeare turns over the egg timer right from the afterglow. Their first and only night together is intensified by the prelude to murder.
With Juliet’s cousin Tybalt dead at his hand, Romeo flees to Mantua. Immediately Juliet’s father insists on an arranged marriage to an aristocratic suitor, Paris, threatening to disown his daughter if she doesn’t marry by Thursday.
Shakespeare also restructured the beginning to reveal the true conflict that underpins the story; Romeo and Juliet opens with a brawl between the Montagues and the Capulets. The theme is expressed in exciting action.
Tybalt doesn’t appear in Brooke’s laborious poem until his fight with Romeo. Epic fail. Shakespeare introduces him in the very first scene, sword drawn; he is seen again at the Capulet’s feast, where he wants to attack Romeo on sight. By the time he enters in the third act we already know he hates the Montagues so much it makes his teeth ache, so there’s only one way this can end, right?
The second scene, in which Capulet invites Juliet’s suitor Paris to the feast is another Shakespeare invention; Brooke doesn’t introduce him until after Tybalt’s death.
And in “Romeus and Juliet,” Mercutio only appears very briefly as one of the guests at Capulet’s feast. But Shakespeare saw that Romeo needed a foil, a wit to offset his relentlessly earnest demeanor, a cynic to contrast his idealism, someone we might more easily love than Romeo himself. He knew that on his own Romeo is a bit of … well, he’s a bit of a twit, really. We love him because of Mercutio.
So Mercutio’s death is another Shakespeare invention and is critical to the dramatic success of the play; it motivates Romeo to murder Tybalt and catapults the action forward at precisely the time it might otherwise have bogged down.
(Mercutio may also have been the reason why Shakespeare changed Romeus’ name to Romeo; it rhymes.)
But perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest change was to the log line. Brookes, in the preface, condemns the lovers for indulging their unwholesome lusts and ‘for neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends.’ Shakespeare turned the entire concept around; his play became instead an anthem to unbridled passion, one that has echoed down through the centuries as a paean to romantic love.
We can grow dewy-eyed over Shakespeare’s use of language; because of this, his absolute mastery of solid story-telling technique is sometimes overlooked. Shakespeare plied his craft in the hardest school of them all; if he failed, he wouldn’t just get one star on Amazon, he’d have cabbages hurled at his head and then been sent back to play off off Broadway with the sheep in Stratford. So he learned very quickly what an audience needed to keep them involved and entertained.
If he was alive today, he would have been Spielberg.
Arthur Brooke didn’t live to see the play his poem inspired. He drowned at sea one year after publishing “Romeus and Juliet.” Perhaps it’s just as well; he would have disproved of Will’s take on the material and he may have found its resounding success distasteful.
Or perhaps he would have learned something about the craft of writing, from a genius of the dramatic form, as we now all have the opportunity to do. Because if you think Romeo was good – start breaking down Hamlet …
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