Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2007
[R]hetoric is like the air which ... exceeds and penetrates .. . and transforms itself into all things created here.Joan de Guzman, Primer a Parte de la Rhetorica (1589)
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet not only dramatizes a fiction but also transforms its rhetoric. In the process it reopens a book which writers of the previous generation had apparently closed. By the 1560s, when Brooke and Painter translated Boaistuau, the Romeo and Juliet narrative had become fixed in more than one way. Luigi da Porto's Historia novellamente ritrovata di due nobili amanti, . . . (c. 1530) set its format: a dozen events and as many characters organized in a tragic action. Matteo Bandello's version in his Novelle (1554) established its style, which invited the audience to judge the story as if they were participating in a rhetorical occasion. Typical of the period, this fiction depends on the forms of oration and dispute. Figures of repetition ornament the narrative while securing each event firmly in place.
Although numerous studies have traced Shakespeare's changes to the narrative's plot and characters, they have not examined his alterations of style. Yet analysis of the play's rhetoric in relation to that of the established fiction reveals an unexplored dimension of the later work; it brings the tragedy into focus like a print from a negative. In particular it shows how Romeo and Juliet deliberately complicates rhetoric by neutralizing argument and combining figures of ambiguity with other schemes.