Prologue in Sonnet Form

Romeo and Juliet, as we noted in last week’s plot synopsis , begins with a Chorus that speaks the introduction in fourteen lines of iambic pentameter:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

But it’s not just fourteen lines, it’s that intricately rhymed 14 lines that we like to call a sonnet. The octet (first eight lines) deal with the story, and the sestet (the final six lines) deal with the play.

The first four-line quatrain [ABAB] sets up the general concept: we’re in Verona, and we have two distinguished families who in the past have had a conflict that has recently re-erupted. Metrically, it’s standard-issue iambic pentameter save for two feet: the nice spondee to kick off the first line (and thus the play) — TWO HOUSEholds… — and the trochee in the midst of line three, to emphasize the BREAK.  The last line of the quatrain is of note for its double use “civil,” a word with multiple meanings in the contemporary era:

  • Of or belonging to citizens; consisting of citizens
  • Of or pertaining to the whole body or community of citizens
  • Civic, municipal
  • Having proper public or social order
  • Civilized
  • Refined, polished, ‘polite’
  • Non-religious, non-sacred, secular (all Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0])

It could be as simple as citizens’ blood makes those citizens’ hands unclean. However, it could also foreshadow the deaths of Paris and Mercutio, meaning the blood of “municipal” leadership is on the hands of the citizens; or on the other hand, the blood of the citizens is on the hands of the government. It might also mean that the individual citizens’ blood is on the hands of the collective community–that we’re all responsible. Given that Verona was the setting not only of the play but for Leonardo Da Vinci and Catullus, it could also mean symbolically that non-religious and non-sacred hands has spilled the blood of the refined and civilized (and this could then be a more global religious statement).

The second quatrain (CDCD) takes us from the beginning to the end: the children of these families will not only die, but commit suicide. These children will be not just individuals, but a pair of lovers, and they will be defeated (“overthrows”, OED), and this defeat will be both unfortunate (“misadventured”, OED) and lamentable (“piteous”, OED). Though the defeat their love is lamentable, it does bring forth a positive result: their deaths end the feud. Again, this section is regularly iambic, save for a trochee in that eighth line, emphasizing the BURy-ing of the strife.

The third quatrain (EFEF) takes us out of the story and into the concept of the theatrical production itself. The play (“traffic of our stage”) will take two hours. In these two hours, though, we’ll see the passage their love–as we noted last week , this idea that their love was “death-marked” could mean either that their relationship was marked for death by the fates, or that their love is marked by death (and not just theirs)–and the families’ feud–that only their children’s deaths could end. This section is kicked off by the trochee “AND the…” in line nine, and we also get a trochee in line 12 with the emphasized “NAUGHT”.

The final regularly iambic couplet (GG) continues this discussion of the production itself. Much like Puck asks for “pardon” (MND: V.i.422) and applause (MND: V.i.429) at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this Chorus asks for patient listening from the audience. If the audience does listen, he promises that what goes wrong in the plot, the actors’ play will try to set right in the audience’s mind and soul.

that use of “mend” really IS reminiscent of Puck’s speech , isn’t it? … yeah, I’m glad I put these plays back-to-back and in this order…

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