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The legend of Romeo and Juliet had been popular for more than 100 years by the time Shakespeare wrote his play. The seed for the story had appeared as far back as 1476 in the Italian book, Il Novellino, by Masuccio Salernitano. This told of secret lovers, a killing, banishment, a helpful friar, and a marriage rival.
In 1530, Luigi da Porta retold the story. He named Verona as the setting, and gave the characters Italian names. Da Porta also added the lovers' suicide.
Other versions appeared in France and Italy, but an important step was taken in 1562 when Arthur Brooke (or Broke) made it into a long narrative poem, in English, called The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet. This is the poem from which Shakespeare worked. Compared to Shakespeare's play, Brooke's language was monotonous and dry. He includes a Preface that tells the "pious reader" to note what comes of unholy passion and secret love, of disobeying the law and parents' advice. Although the Preface is stern, Brooke takes a sympathetic view of the lovers. In his poem, they are older, less innocent, more willful and glad to disobey their parents.
Here are descriptions of Romeo and Juliet from Brooke's poem.
One Romeus, who was of race a Montague, Upon whose tender chin, as yet, no manlike beard there grew, Whose beauty and whose shape so far the rest did stain, That from the chief of Veron youth he greatest fame did gain At length he saw a maid, right fair of shape Which Theseus or Paris would have chosen to their rape, Whom erst he never saw, of all she pleas'd him most.
Within himself he said to her, 'Thou justly mayst thee boast Of perfect shape's renown and Beauty's sounding praise, Whose like nor hath, nor shall be seen, nor liveth in our days.' And whilst he fix'd on her his partial pierced eye His former love, for which of late he was ready to die, Is now as quite forgot, as it had never been.
Whilst Juliet (for so this gentle damsel hight) From side to side on everyone did cast about her sight At last her floating eyes were anchored fast on him, Who for her sake did banish health and freedom from each limb. He in her sight did seem to pass the rest as far As Phoebus' shining beams do pass the brightness of a star.