Shakespeare’s Narrative Sources: Italian Novellas and Their European Dissemination



Very little is known about the life of Arthur Brooke (d. 1563). He was admitted to Inner Temple at the recommendation of Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton, authors of Gorboduc, and possibly penned the masque of Beauty and Desire that accompanied the performance of that play during the Inner Temple’s Christmas revels in 1561-1562. He is best known for his long poem in poulter’s measure (3,020 lines) on the story of Romeo and Juliet, which he did not translate from Bandello’s Italian novella, despite the frontispiece’s claim, but from Boaistuau’s French rendition of it. He might have been influenced by a play “lately set forth on stage with more commendation than I can look for (being there much better set forth then I have or can do)”, as he writes in his prose address “To the Reader”. However, no other information about such a play has been passed down to us. Brooke’s poem is the main source of Shakespeare’s play and also inspired Bernard Garter’s “The tragicall and true historie which happened betweene two English lovers, 1563. Written by Ber. Gar., 1565. In ædibus Richardi Totelli”. Of protestant persuasion, Brooke appended to the poem a prose address “To the Reader” where he condemned the two lovers for “thralling themselves to unhonest desire, neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends” and the friar for being “superstitious” and helping them in furthering “their purpose”. However, this moralistic view is contradicted by the poem itself in which both the lovers and the friar are sympathized with and often commended. In 1563 the printer Lucas Harrison issued another translation of his, this time of a Huguenot prose work: An Agreement of sundry places of Scripture seeming in shew to Iarre, seruing in stead of commentaryes, not only for these but others lyke. Translated out of French and nowe fyrst publyshed by Arthure Broke (STC [2nd ed.] / 3811), now at the British Library. Apparently by then Brooke had died, as the printer says in his prefatory address “The Printer to the Reader” hinting at his voyage abroad when “the Realme thought good to commaund him” (<¶i.v>). Brooke passed on his way to Le Havre on board of the Greyhound which shipwrecked off Rye. In the epitaph George Turberville wrote for his death he praised his virtues, his poetic excellence (“Agréede (quoth I) for sure his Vertues were / As many as his yeares in number few”, 5-6), and referred to his voyage at the service of the Queen:

In proufe that he for Myter did excell
As may be iudge by Iulyet and hir Mate:
For there he shewde his cunning passing well
When he the Tale to English did translate.
But what? as he to forraine Realme was bownd
With others moe his soueraigne Quéene to serue,
Amid the Seas vnluckie youth was drownd,
More spéedie death than such one did deserue.
Aye mée, that time (thou crooked Delphin) where
Wast thou, Aryons help and onely stay,
That safely him from Sea to shore didst beare? (13-23)