Love at First Sight in Sonnet Form

Yesterday, we talked about how Romeo and Juliet begins with a Prologue in sonnet form .  It’s not the only time Shakespeare uses the sonnet format in the play. He uses it again with the Chorus at the beginning of Act Two, but before that, and even more importantly, he has the titular characters speak their first lines to each other in that particular rhyme scheme:


ROMEO
If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

JULIET
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.

ROMEO
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

JULIET
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

ROMEO
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

JULIET
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.

ROMEO
Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.

— I.v.i94-107

Romeo’s opening four-line speech here is the first quatrain [ABAB], a single sentence, putting forth the supposition that he wishes to kiss Juliet’s hand (under the pretense of “smoothing the rough touch” of his own hand upon hers. The use of sound here is interesting: Note the repeated short “i” vowel sounds in the second line “sin is this” and the repeated soft “u” vowels in line four–“rough touch”.. these back-to-back vowel sounds almost give the impression of stuttering… like that of an unsure young lover.  Metrically, the opening “if” could be emphasized to make the foot a spondee, but it’s probably a simple iamb, with Romeo assuming that his touch DOES “profane” her “holy shrine” of a hand. The only other metric deviation from iamb comes in the fourth line of is speech, a trochee emphasizing the “TOUCH with…” (and thus further emphasizing that stuttering assonance).

Juliet’s initial response, again a quatrain (CDCD), and again a single sentence, is a coy one: she refutes his “profane” supposition, instead putting the touch in a more holy setting–a “palmer’s kiss” of palm touching palm. Remember, the setting is a Renaissance dance… could Romeo’s touch be that of a male dancer taking his partner’s hand in an offer to dance? Then, Juliet’s response might be accompanied by a movement into the dance, in which the dancers both hold their hands up vertically, pressed together palm to palm.  While Juliet’s meter is rock solid iambic pentameter, her diction, too, implies a shy stuttering with the repeated plosive alliteration of “palm to palm is holy palmer’s…” in her fourth line. Notice the way, their connection is being built subtly: they share the same words as their even-numbered line-ending rhymes (this, kiss).

The third quatrain (EFEF) is shared between the two lovers-to-be. When Romeo hears Juliet use the word “kiss” herself, he takes the initiative with his next line, a question hinting at more; while Juliet was only talking of hands and touching, Romeo returns the rhetoric to lips–Juliet’s “saint”-ly lips, and Romeo’s “palmer” lips.  Juliet responds that both saints and palmers have lips, but for use in prayer (the coy implication is that kissing is out of the question, but as it’s unsaid, it’s even more coy that we can imagine); she also goes along with Romeo’s original implied analogy: his is the “pilgrim” to her saint.  Again, Romeo sees the rhetorical opening she has left for him (her position as saint), and he pounces with a two-line response. Now, if you’ve been reading the blog for long, you know we’ve spent quite a bit of time on the concept of rhyme .

which I did just there… time/rhyme… get it?

So you know there’re quite a few reasons for it , but here I want to focus on the concept of rhyme as answer .

Romeo, by using a two-line response, one that completes his own ninth line as well as Juliet’s tenth line, completes his own thought and answers (and tops) hers:

  • Both the saint and the pilgrim should put their lips together like the palm-to-palm kiss;
  • His lips have just spoken a prayer and he wants her (as saint) to grant the prayer

This quatrain deepens and complicates the subject matter started eight lines earlier, and its meter mirrors the complication: every line of the four has some deviation from the regular iamb.

ROMEO
 ~    \    \     \     ~   \ ~  \  ~    \
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

JULIET
 \   \   ~    \     ~    \   ~    \  ~   -\-
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

ROMEO
~    \     ~   \      ~   \    \   ~   \     \
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
~    \     \     ~    ~     \    \    ~  ~   \
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Romeo’s first line of the quatrain puts a spondee in the second foot, emphasizing both SAINTS and LIPS. Juliet responds with an opening spondee, emphasizing the opening agreement (AY); her line also ends with an elision, a slurring of the two-syllable PRAY-er to a one-syllable PRAY’R. This could be played as her quickening of the pace with Romeo (reaching toward a crescendo or climax?), or even as Romeo cutting off her line with his response. Either way, it pushes the pace.  Romeo’s next line has two deviations: a trochee in foot four (DO what) and a spondee in the last (HANDS DO). His fourth line has two more deviations, trochees in feet two and four. In this quatrain, the meter breaks down, mirroring the growing (uncontrolled? ungoverned?) passion.

Like the third quatrain, the final resolving couplet (GG) is shared between the two speakers. Juliet says that saints do not take the initiative on their own (“move”), but rather grant the wishes of those who pray. Again, Romeo answers (and tops) her rhyme, saying then that she should not pull back (“move”) while he makes his own prayer come true. Metrically, Juliet’s line kicks off with a trochee (emphasizing SAINTS), and in contrast to her previous line, she does not elide the word “prayer” thus cementing the connotation of a person who prays (a pray-er), rather than the prayer itself. Romeo’s final line is a rock-solid, non-deviating iamb line (with the elision back on “prayer” (sending the connotation back to the wish rather than the wisher). The regular iamb shows that he is calm enough now to do what he has wanted to do for more than a dozen lines now: kiss the girl.

One last note: the Pelican Shakespeare has the lovers’ first kiss coming after the NEXT line in the text: “Thus from my lips, by thine my sin is purged” (I.v.108). However, I believe the kiss should come at the end of the sonnet, as it is the logical physical conclusion to those fourteen lines; the line’s content works after a kiss just as well.

and as you’ll see tomorrow, there’s another reason for this disagreement with the Pelican stage direction… ohhh, foreshadowing!

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