Romeo, that ill-starred scion of the Montagues, is best known as a lover; but he was also keen to impress himself upon us as a man at the cutting edge of sixteenth-century fashion, particularly in literary matters. The first time we encounter Romeo – at this point, still enamoured of the mysterious Rosaline – he walks in on the aftermath of a street fight between his family and the Capulets. Like any self-respecting adolescent in love, he swiftly manages to work the conversation around from a lament for this senseless violence, to the more pressing issue of his own heart. A modern audience is always amused by his self-regarding and speedy segue from political concerns to the pangs of romantic love:
O me, what fray was here? Yet tell me not for I have heard it all: Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love. Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate! O anything, of nothing first create! O heavy lightness, serious vanity, Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms, Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health, Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is! This love feel I, that feel no love in this. Dost thou not laugh?
If most of these lines were not so often cut in contemporary performances (he does go on) the audience would also be struck by the long series of increasingly desperate oxymorons which pattern Romeo’s speech: leaden feathers, bright smoke, sick health. For Shakespeare’s original audience, these impossible contradictions were part of the joke. Romeo’s language announces him as one of the great stock characters of the Elizabethan stage: from his vocabulary to his attitudes of love and despair, he is the quintessential Petrarchan lover.
As a disciple of Francesco Petrarca (anglicised as Francis Petrarch) of Florence, Romeo is not alone. The academic young men of Love’s Labour’s Lost, the narrators of romantic sonnet sequences from Astrophil and Stella to Zepheria, even the seductive Satan disguised as a snake to tempt Eve in Paradise Lost all speak the language of love as codified by Petrarch in his great fourteenth century verse sequence, the Canzoniere. These poems were characterised for the renaissance reader by Petrarch’s habit of coupling opposites: Romeo’s oxymorons derive from Petrarch’s frequently invoked images of a beloved enemy, peaceful wars, and icy fires. In Petrarch’s hands, these contradictions probed profound truths about human emotion: it is, after all, perfectly possible in the throes of love to burn with desire in the same moment as you freeze with fear. In the hands of Petrarch’s army of imitators, the same literary trick could explore further avenues of psychological experience, or could merely be a badge of allegiance: Romeo’s sorry litany is the Renaissance fanboy’s equivalent of a T-shirt bearing the name of a favourite band. Later in the play, he will learn the truth of the clichés he has been brandishing: in his encounters with Juliet, all of Petrarch’s metaphors will come to be embodied in him as he discovers what it is really to love an enemy and to die on a kiss. Shakespeare might have started off by mocking Petrarch’s youthful followers, but Romeo and Juliet as a whole is a tribute to the Italian poet’s insights into the processes, the joys, and the agonies of love.
The joke about Romeo’s literary style only worked because everyone in the original audience knew their Petrarch. They may not necessarily have read the Italian poems for themselves, or even the growing number of English translations and imitations, but the Canzoniere had given rise to a pervasive cultural phenomenon. Just as today you do not have to have read a word by JK Rowling to recognise the name of Harry Potter, or even to identify a Gryffindor scarf on the street, so the tropes of Petrarchan love were accessible everywhere in the sixteenth century: in city processions and royal triumphs, in tapestries and portraits, and even on the plate from which you ate your dinner. This represented a significant change in Petrarch’s image. He had been warmly received from the start – within only a few years of his death, Chaucer was translating one of his sonnets and putting it into the mouth of another doomed lover, the Trojan Troilus in Troilus and Criseyde. However, it was not until the sixteenth century, and the widespread availability of his works in print, that his popularity really took off. For Chaucer and his contemporaries, Petrarch was primarily a respected writer on moral philosophy – the Canzoniere was not widely read in late medieval England. By the 1530s, it had become the most popular text. Queen Katherine Parr’s elaborately bound copy can still be seen in the British Library; Henry VIII had another version, printed in Milan in 1512; courtiers like Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard were producing translations for the court. The fashion continued, and throughout the early-modern period, Petrarch’s sonnets permeated boundaries of nation and language. Throughout the early-modern period, they permeated boundaries of nation and language. The Irish Dánta Grá tradition is marked by petrarchism, and the Westmeath man Richard Nugent published a series of Petrarchan sonnets – Cynthia – in 1604. There are Petrarchan poems in French and Spanish and Polish and Neo-Latin. Petrarch’s name became a byword for a particular way of writing about romance. He was, however, more than a love poet. He was an ethicist and an archaeologist. He was praised for his innovations in vernacular verse, but he considered his more important works to be those in Latin, the language of his epic poem Africa and his major prose pieces. His religious authority was so great that he appears in the marginalia of the Protestant Geneva Bible along with the Doctors of the Church. Generations of scholars have credited him with the invention of the Renaissance. It is little wonder that the susceptible Romeo was an admirer.
For all his stature, however, Petrarch is no longer instantly and widely recognisable. Romeo’s speech cannot now be relied upon to elicit a laugh. When modern readers reach for a great Florentine poet, their hands tend to light on a volume of Dante. Dante had been enormously popular in the late middle ages, and if his overtly Catholic subject matter made him less visible during the English Renaissance, his great revival in the nineteenth century assures his fame in modern times. There is even a computer game based on the Inferno. Petrarch is less accessible: a considerable number of his works, including his Penitential Psalms and many of his letters, have never been translated into English. He survives most prominently as an adjective attached to sonnets by the great writers of the sixteenth century, but the term “Petrarchan” only acknowledges the tradition which built up around the love poetry and ignores the bulk of Petrarch’s achievement. And yet, he is ubiquitous in early-modern literature – a knowledge of Petrarch has the power of bringing a host of more familiar works suddenly into focus. From throwaway jokes about young lovers to political iconography in paintings of Elizabeth I, his writing is one of the keys to reading the Renaissance.
All of this is not to say that Petrarch is neglected. The tradition of scholarship around his works, which began even before his death, continues today. The seven-hundredth anniversary of his death in 2004 saw a number of important international conferences, and their proceedings join other recent books in re-evaluating and celebrating his legacy. These publications, however, constitute a professional literature: the British Academy’s excellent collection of essays, Petrarch in Britain, sells for around €95, which is quite an obstacle in the way of the general reader, no matter how interested he or she might be. This is where the new Cambridge Companion to Petrarch, edited by AR Ascoli and Unn Falkeid, and retailing at closer to €20, comes in.
The Companions are now a well-established series from Cambridge University Press. Their five hundred titles cover a dizzying range of major authors and literary topics, from August Strindberg (ed M Robinson) to Modern Irish Culture (eds J Cleary and C Connolly); they also extend into other fields in the humanities and social sciences, so that you can find a Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop jostling with handbooks on Calvin and Wittgenstein. The format, a wide-ranging series of short essays (around the ten-page mark) by well-known authorities, is clearly a winner, as testified not only by the continuing expansion of the list, but also the appearance of imitators like the Blackwell Companions. A few caveats are in order, however. For instance, the publicity material suggests that these books are for everyone, but this is not quite the case: despite the charming photograph of a PhD student telling us that she is eagerly quoting Cambridge Companions in her thesis, in almost every case these are introductory works. They contain useful summaries of existing arguments in their fields, but no original research: for this, the reader must look to the helpful bibliographies and, more to the point, the books and articles which the Cambridge Companions authors have all published elsewhere (thus, incidentally, qualifying themselves for inclusion in this series). Undergraduates in need of a quick hit of information before a lecture, or other readers looking for an overview of an unfamiliar topic, will be grateful for these succinct and reliable maps to new intellectual territory. PhD candidates should already pass for natives of these parts.