1. The anonymous tragedy Romeus et Julietta is preserved as part of British Museum MS. 1775 (fols. 242 - 50), a commonplace book which also contains Richard Corbett’s “Grave Poem” about King James’ 1615 visitation to Cambridge, and this establishes both the play’s provenance and the terminus post quem of the date of its writing. In 1906 William F. A. Axon published a transcript of the text, NOTE 1 marred by many misreadings, and in introducing this he diagnosed the ms. as incomplete authorial foul papers (the play’s beginning and end are lost), heavily revised and emended, of a work-in-progress. This understanding is impossible to accept. Overall, the surviving portion of the play is written in sound enough Latin, but is studded by many gross errors of a kind that nobody at home in that language could conceivably commit. The only rational explanation for this seeming paradox is to think that it is a copy of a text written by a competent Latinist, executed by somebody who was considerably less so. His workmanship as a copyist was also quite slovenly. Upon inspection, the vast majority of lines written marginally scarcely look like alternative readings or after-the-fact improvements, but rather serve to complete or elaborate on some thought in the text, and some are necessary to complete the syntax. Far likelier these are lines that the copyist originally skipped out of carelessness and added marginally after he noticed his mistakes. In the same way, quite a few lines are incomplete (some but scarcely all of these were noted by Axon), which may best be understood as ones in which the copyist accidentally omitted one or more words. The evidence of the text altogether fails to support the idea that we have the author’s work-in-progress and can look over his shoulder as he writes, and this in turn permits us to question the assumption that we are dealing with unfinished work.
2. At least at first sight, the play’s real problem does not have to do with its text, but rather its structure. It is undivided into the numbered Acts and scenes that were standard for English academic drama, and it contains an abnormally large number of choral intrusions. Its surviving portion is written in fourteen scenes (I have numbered these, reckoning as a “scene” an acted episode and an immediately following chorus, if there is one, although these are not demarcated in the manuscript and only some of them are prefaced by a list of the speaking parts they contain). The transitions from one of these to the next are often quite abrupt, we are provided with little if any information provided about each one’s location, and new characters are often not properly introduced. The result is that in its present form the play produces an unsettling herky-jerky or even dreamlike effect as we are hustled from episode to the next, often without adequate textual notice. If there is any argument to be made that what we have is unfinished by its author, it should be based on these structural observations. One might think that he has only gotten so far as to block out (maybe in a preliminary way) the scenes necessary to tell his story, without yet having determined how they will fit into the architecture of his finished play, or adding connective passages to improve its flow. Likewise, many scenes are largely devoid of the lush Seneca-imitating rhetorical elaboration one normally encounters in English university plays, and one might imagine he intended to flesh them out.
3. Such an understanding may not be out of the question, but an alternative, and I believe superior, interpretation deserves to be advanced. To do so, we must first take account of another play. In the Renaissance, the near-universal architecture for both tragedies and comedies involved organizing them in five Acts, subdivided into numbered scenes, done in imitation of the way Seneca’s tragedies and the comedies of Plautus and Terence are preserved in manuscripts. NOTE 2 For a long time, Greek tragedy, which provides an alternative paradigm for imitation, was insufficiently known to exert any influence on playwrights. Indeed, it is highly significant that in his Latin translation of Antigone, printed at London in 1581, Thomas Watson both added a Prologue and imposed a five-Act structure so as to give Sophocles’ play a Senecan look. At the same time, English theater audiences appreciated length no less than English congregations liked long sermons, so many plays of the period, both popular and academic, tended to be long-drawn-out affairs, considerably fleshed out by such things as rhetorical bombast, sub-plots, comic scenes, and (at least in the case of university plays) interludes of song and dance. The terse economy of Hellenic drama was contrary to the dramatic tastes of the times (indeed, Watson extended the length of his Antigone translation by tacking a series of Pomps and Themes onto its end).
4. The dominance of this paradigm was challenged in the tragedy Adrastus Parentans sive Vindicta, written ca. 1621 by Peter Mease of Jesus College, Cambridge and preserved in British Library manuscript. Add. MS. 10417. This is remarkably short play of slightly over a thousand lines, undivided into Acts, that can be analyzed into eleven episodess. The Chorus remains onstage throughout, sometimes engaging in dialogue with the actors, and it makes so intrusions into the action that the percentage of choral lines in the play is extraordinarily high in comparison with the general run of academic drama, in which choral passages are normally found only at the ends of Acts. The play’s overall brevity is achieved by the extreme economy with which its scene are written, sometimes carried to the point that the audience is given little more than the bare-bones information necessary to follow the story, and at the expense of any appreciable amount of character-depiction. The luxurious Senecan rhetoric normal in academic tragedies is replaced by epigrammatic terseness, carried to such a point (by, for example, the omission of verbs, left to the individual spectator to supply for himself) that comprehensibility is jeopardized. In all these ways, it looks very much as if Mease was systematically implementing a program of substituting Hellenic tragedy for Seneca as his model for imitatio. This was doubtless done primarily for literary reasons, but he may have had a secondary motive: such economy was appropriate for Jesus College, which lacked the human, financial, and physical resources available to such larger and wealthier institutions as Trinity, Queens’, and St. John’s Colleges, Cambridge, and Christ Church, Oxford, where the entertainments were sometimes far more elaborate.
5. The observations just made about Adrastus Parentans equally apply to Romeus et Julietta. The manuscript preserves a play of about 800 lines, consisting of fourteen extant scenes likewise interrupted by an unusually large number of choral passages. Probably no more than a single page is missing from either end of the play, to that the length of the entire thing would probably have been approximately the same as that of Adreastus Parentans, and the same observations (and attendant criticisms) about the brevity of its scenes. the relative terseness of its writing, and the sketchiness of its characterizations) apply. I would not care to argue that it too was written by Mease, for it lacks such idiosyncracies of his Latin style as verbless sentences and an excessive fondness of verbs ending in -erim/s/t, and the choral passages of Romeus et Julietta are not as long But these two plays have a sufficient number of features in common that one is strongly tempted to conclude that our play is complete as written, and that it was composed at about the same time by some like-minded Cambridge contemporary of that playwright, possibly another member of Jesus College faced with the same need to cope with limited resources, participating in the experiment of devising a new kind of austere Hellenizing university drama.
6. There is plenty of evidence that Shakespeare was a figure well known to Cambridge audiences: he is mentioned by name in the comedy The Second Part of the Return from Parnassus, NOTE 3 produced at the end of the sixteenth century or the very beginning of the text, and some Cambridge plays, or at least of individual scenes within them (such as the anonymous 1605/6 comedy Zelotypus, George Ruggle’s comedy Ignoramus, acted in 1615, and most likely John Hacket’s comedy Loiola, produced in 1623 but written considerably earlier, depend for their effect on the audience’s knowledge of some of his plays. It is therefore rather surprising that our author does not provide any sign at all of having read Romeo and Juliet or wishing to capitalize on its success. Rather, his play is entirely based on Arthur Brooke’s poem The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet (1562, reprinted 1585 — the 1908 London edition by J. J. Munro can be read here), which was also Shakespeare’s main source. As is abundantly shown in the commentary notes given here, he closely follows his model, to the extent that many passages in Romeus et Julietta are little more than straightforward Latin translations of Brooke’s English (this is particularly true of the speeches Booke put in the mouths of his characters). He appears to have assumed that his audience shared his familiarity with The Tragicall Historye, and could therefore supply information from its recollection of Brooke that he himself was therefore free to omit for brevity’s sake. Thus, to cite one example, the allusion to a garden at line 173 would be entirely baffling for someone who had not read Brooke’s episode at Tragicall Historye 449ff., which is carefully located in the garden in which Juliet was wont to walk.
NOTE 1 William F. A. Axon, in an appendix to his article “Romeo and Juliet Before and in Shakespere’s Time,” Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature second series xxvi (1905) 121 - 144. For the play, see most recently Martin Wiggins and Catherine Richardson, British Drama 1533 - 1642: A Catalogue VI.461f. with earlier references listed.
NOTE 2 Some modern scholars have expressed skepticism about the validity of this way in which Roman plays are organized in the manuscripts, such as Mason Hammond in his edition of Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus and Richard J. Tarrant in his edition of Seneca’s Agamemnon.
NOTE 3 Text in James Blair Leishmann (ed.), The Three Parnassus Plays (London, 1949).