A literary analysis of the opening prologue to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Image via Wikipedia
A Perfected Prologue
The prologue to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is widely known as having some of the most memorable lines throughout his collected works. With the use of bold words, a smooth-flowing beat, and an opening plot summary that can send a chill throughout ones body, it is easy to see why the prologue is so important to many readers of Shakespeare. However, while the prologue appears to be simplistic and straight-forward in its attempt to give a brief explanation of the play to the casual reader or audience member, underneath its surface the prologue to this remarkable tragedy is in truth full of hidden relationships that can be exposed by analysis of the poetic structure and diction.
When first glancing at the prologue within a book, one may not notice that it is in fact a sonnet. The prologue does indeed have fourteen lines, an ABAB rhyme pattern within the first three quatrains and a CC couplet at the end, and the poem also falls under the category of iambic pentameter1. The previous description makes this sonnet an English sonnet; yet, having any type of sonnet represent the prologue seems quite strange upon first glance for the reason of what topics sonnets usually cover. Within this particular sonnet, there is a great deal of talk about killing, such as in line four with “civil blood makes civil hands unclean,” strife as in line eight, and death as in lines eight and nine instead of speaking about a god- or goddess-like beloved and pursuit of love with him or her. However, even with that gaping difference, a sonnet is very fitting to open the play on another level. Romeo and Juliet did fall in love, but their love serves as an example of the unrequited love that is mentioned in sonnets. The couple never achieved their goal of having a happy life together, as is usually the case in the courtly love of the sonnet.
Looking at the poem from another angle, one can observe the stressing of certain syllables to learn where Shakespeare put emphasis. Following in the mold of a traditional sonnet, the “house” portion of the word “household,” “fair,” and the “star” of “star-cross’d” are all stressed thereby putting importance on the words associated with love and marriage. It is also vital to bring attention to the fact that most of the violent words, while extremely poignant, are not stressed throughout the poem. The act of not making sadistic remarks emphasized in the poem leads one to believe that Shakespeare knew the aggressive words, such as “mutiny” in line three, “blood” in line four, and even “rage” in line ten, would automatically have drawn attention because of the strong connotations of the words, and he played on that idea by allowing them to be unstressed within the sonnet so as to show that while the audience may be naturally drawn to the conflict part of the play it is the lovers that are truly the heart of the story. The previously-mentioned theme is visible not only in the prologue but throughout the entire play means of the couple themselves because while a double exists for every character on each side of both the Capulet and Montague families, such as Mercutio and the Nurse for close best friends to the main characters and Rosaline and Paris for other lovers. Romeo and Juliet as a couple are without compare which makes most of the attention go toward their relationship.
Shakespeare also uses other literary devices to draw the audience’s attention within this sonnet. In line four, it is important to point out the repetition of the word “civil.” This particular line is well known to anyone who has read Romeo and Juliet because of how civil is repeated and the implications it brings. “Civil” is actually a very interesting word on the basis of phonetics, mainly because of the beginning (sĭv) contains that illustrious “s” sound that is popular for tongue-twisters throughout English language. Having a slight remnant of a childhood language game, the repetition of “civil” draws a great deal of attention that might seem to lead the audience into a false sense of security where they believe the play before them could possibly be a comedy instead of a tragedy since comedies usually concern middle class matters (civil) while tragedies are supposed to only be about royalty.
Along with the repetition of a word in line four, Shakespeare decides to use the repetition of a particular sound in the next line, creating alliteration. The letter f at the beginning of a word has always been known to be very harsh sounding, especially when the word beginning with f is followed by another word of the same nature. The alliteration in line five is not only the repetition of f-sounds but of bold words. “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes” contains two aggressive words that begin with f as well as one word (“forth”) that tends to be used as a word of initiative, whereby Shakespeare could be playing upon the idea that the storyline is already set and must “go forth” as perhaps fate already arranged it (Prologue 5). With the use of enjambment, Shakespeare also draws attention to line five in a different way. A line full of hard-sounding f’s and words of enmity is pushed up against line six that seems to be more woeful than brutal which speaks of the eminent death of the young lovers that were supposed to be enemies. This enjambment embraces the fundamental nature of the play—harshness and violence shoved against love and inevitable tragedy.
The diction used throughout the poem is just as important as the poetic devices. However, instead of presenting main themes, the chosen words seem to show more about the different levels of the play—both in association of the play to itself as a story and the play to an actual theater. The words that particularly speak to the double meanings within the play are in line three with “mutiny” and “fatal” in line five.
In line three where it is explained that an “ancient grudge break to new mutiny,” the surface meaning is simply stating that because of an old grudge the two families are now openly fighting because the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) explains that “discord or quarrel” is the first definition for “mutiny.”2 Yet, it also says that a second definition of the word is “revolution or rebellion.” With two slightly twisted meanings, Shakespeare can address the fact that the families are indeed quarrelling with each other and that in their quarrelling they might be forming their own rebellion as they take justice into their own hands instead of abiding by legal impartiality to their disagreement, which is shown by their open hostilities in midst of the public as shown by the setting of Act 1, Scene 1 and somewhat disregard for the proclamations of the Prince as seen by Tybalt killing Mercutio and Romeo killing Tybalt in 3.1.85-93 and 3.1.131.
With the word “fatal” mentioned in line five, it appears on the surface to simply mean “allotted by fate,” which is the first definition of the word according to the Oxford English Dictionary The two children were fated to be a part of the family unto which they were born, and it does not necessarily apply a negative interpretation even though most people of the present age would feel it would be bad because it is usually viewed as death—such as a fatal wound. Yet, with thought about the entirety of the play and even with the rest of the sonnet, it seems the word’s second meaning (“doomed”) would be a more appropriate for “fatal” in this particular line. Romeo and Juliet were indeed fated to be born in opposing families, and they were doomed to die in order for their families to be at peace with each other.
Near the end of the poem, Shakespeare steps outside the storyline to mention that this is in fact a mere play and he hopes the audience understands and appreciates the tale. However, it is interesting that he should use the word “toil” to describe the actions of the actors on stage. While the OED does say the second definition of the word is a “laborious task,” like many would assume would be the particular meaning of actors performing their craft, the first is actually a definition of “verbal contention, dispute, and controversy.” 4 With the word “toil,” Shakespeare has made a connection between the story within the play and the play itself. He is comparing the struggle of the actors to fight fantasy against reality with the battle between the Montagues and the Capulets. This clash within the theater can cease by means of the same end as the conclusion of the play—an understanding by both opposing forces.
The prologue of Romeo and Juliet tells the main plot points of the tale and more. With poetic techniques and even the form of the poem itself, the prologue puts forth evidence that the true meaning of the story is supposed to be love even in the midst of great violence. The diction of this sonnet allows for different interpretations of the play by using words with more than one meaning than can alter how one views the story as well as link the struggle between two similar yet quarrelling families with the battle actors face daily in their work to merge real life and make-believe. In a mere fourteen lines, Shakespeare is able to compress everything he feels this play should represent—only the Bard could complete such a daring feat.
Image via Wikipedia