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In my opinion, the prologue is a striking and extremely effective introduction to one of the greatest tragedies ever written. One of the most unusual things about the Prologue is its structure; the fact that it is written in the sonnet form is very significant. The sonnet form of poetry is perhaps the most demanding and challenging poetic form that exists. For hundreds of years the sonnet (of which Shakespeare wrote 154) has been recognised as a structure that is only attempted by the greatest of poets such as Shakespeare or Wordsworth.
It is often associated with love poetry and the fact that Shakespeare chooses the sonnet format to open Romeo and Juliet suggests his motive to prepare the audience with the love story to come. The sonnet is made up from 3 quatrains each consisting of 4 lines, with the rhyme scheme a,b,a,b, each quatrain telling us something different about the forthcoming play. The sonnet is finished by a rhyming couplet- a pair of lines that have the rhyming scheme c,c.
Some might question why Shakespeare chose such a difficult poetic structure to open the play however it is clear to me that he chose the sonnet to grab the audience’s attention but also to demonstrate his showcase of literary talent. The sonnet reveals to the audience the degree of Shakespeare’s poetic genius to create a language – which in all its diversity can capture the most beautiful love story of all time. The first quatrain explains the background and setting to the play, explaining that the play is set in Verona, Italy.
Shakespeare chose Italy as the setting for a number of his plays; although it is thought that he never actually travelled to the country, it was regarded in Elizabethan times to be a country of wealth and romance. It is entirely fitting that an immortal tragedy should take as its backdrop ‘fair Verona’ (line 2 Prologue) in one of the homes of classical civilisation. In Elizabethan times Italy was thought of as a country full of sexual and social intrigue; where often men fell in love with wealthy heiresses.
The Nurse’s observation to Romeo, ‘he that can lay hold of here / Shall have the chinks’ (Act1 Scene 2 lines 116-117) suggests a common motive for love at that time. In the first line of the prologue, we are told that the house of Montague and Capulet are ‘both alike in dignity’, meaning that they both have equal yet important stature within Verona. It is significant that Shakespeare chose to base the plot of the play around two affluent families, proving that the greatest of tragedies can still occur within aristocratic families with the greatest wealth.
We are not only told that there is nothing to choose between the families but also that there is only one heir of each household, creating a balance within the play but also an idea of opposites. In line three of the Prologue, Shakespeare explains to the audience that there is an ‘ancient grudge’ between the houses. We are told that this feud has been apparent for so many years that it is now self-perpetuating and of the cause no-one is really sure.
In Act 1 Scene 1 line 80, the Prince exclaims that the feud has been ‘bred of an airy word’, meaning that the everlasting hostility between the two houses has no remembered cause. However Shakespeare catches the audience’s attention and creates suspense by using the phrase, ‘break to new mutiny’. We are warned of a new more violent generation of Montagues and Capulets who are willing to kill and take the quarrel to a different more violent level. This ‘new mutiny’ is definitely exacerbated by Tybalt – an aggressive, vindictive youth of the Capulet house who says (Act 1 Scene 1 line 61), ‘…peace? I hate the word, As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee. ‘
Tybalt is described as ‘fier’ and a ‘Prince of Cats’, all implying his volatile and fearsome temper. He represents the ugliness that lies below the divided society in Verona but also is determined to keep it that way. In the forth line of the Prologue, the audience are informed about the civil side of the brawl, ‘Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean’. This phrase is important for it demonstrates the vast scale of the grudge – even the citizens of Verona are now becoming involved.
In Act 1 Scene 1, the Prince calls the Montagues and Capulets, ‘Profaners of this neighbour-stained steel’ as their swords are stained with the blood of their innocent neighbours who have no reason to become involved in the conflict. However it is clear that the two houses will not end the feud until the Lords of the households condemn the fighting (which they clearly do not do). In Act 1 Scene1 there is a public scuffle and Capulet exclaims, ‘Give me my long sword’ and likewise Montague shouts, ‘thou villain Capulet!…let me go. ‘
The elder generation of Montagues and Capulets constantly fuel the feud and encourage it by setting a poor example. In the second quatrain, Shakespeare tells the audience about the lovers. We are told that they are from “fatal loins”- signifying death and already indicating their tragic fate. The idea of fate is one which Shakespeare experiments on throughout the whole play. Within the Prologue, we are given an interesting glimpse of the experiment Shakespeare conducts with destiny and fate.
The audience are told that the lovers are “star-crossed” which not only indicates their catastrophic fate but speaks of the fact that the lovers were destined to acquire it. The next part of the Prologue is often puzzling for Shakespeare tells the audience that the lovers are going to die – some might say he is ‘letting the cat out of the bag’. However the knowledge that the lovers ‘misadventured piteous overthrows doth with their death bury their parents strife’ adds pathos to our view of events and the audience is allowed an overview of the lover’s actions.
We see Romeo and Juliet struggling to attain happiness and know that they are always doomed to fail. In the play, we are presented with Romeo in a way that makes us believe that he is always a victim of fate. Friar Lawrence, whose role in the play is to try to unite the feuding families by strategically marrying Romeo and Juliet (thereby bringing peace to the streets of Verona) tells Romeo that he is, “wedded to calamity”. This again emphasises the strong prominence of fortune in the play, which Shakespeare cleverly gives us a taster of in the Prologue by calling the lovers “star-crossed” and their parents’ loins “fatal”.
In Act 3 Scene 1, Romeo proclaims that he is ‘fortune’s fool’ and also puts himself in the hands of fate in Act 1 Scene5 by saying, “He that hath the steerage of my course, direct my sail! ” Again Shakespeare presents to the audience the idea of fate and that it is almost leading Romeo in the wrong way. However later in the play we see a defiant Romeo who has learn of Juliet’s death and attempts to defy his destiny by exclaiming (Act 5 Scene1), “I defy you stars”.
Nevertheless we are told that a consequence of the deaths of the two lovers will be that they will “bury their parents’ strife”. This means that by the end of the play the feud between the families will have been resolved. We definitely see this new family alliance at the end of the play for Lord Montague and Lord Capulet shake hands and Lord Capulet expresses his sorrow saying, “O brother Montague, give me your hand”. The shaking of hands signals the end of the feud, securing what the Friar had always sought to achieve, ‘To turn (their) households’ rancour to pure love’ (Act 2 Scene3).
Fate itself is seen to be the result of divine workings: as the play nears its conclusion, Friar Lawrence reports that he has begged Juliet to leave the vault and ‘bear this work of heaven with patience’ (Act 5 Scene3) , whilst the Price echoes the sentiment in his final rebuke to the families that ‘heaven finds means to kill your joys with love’ (Act 5 Scene3). In Act 5 Scene 3, the Friar says that “A greater power than we can contradict hath thwarted our intents” – meaning that God had already decided that the cruel fate of the lovers. Yet again, there is a strong emphasis of fate and destiny but also of religion.
It is not surprising that Shakespeare was so fascinated with the idea of fate – for he lived in a time of little scientific discovery in which religion ‘filled in’ any gaps of knowledge. In a wider sense, the play may be viewed as a dramatic representation of the perpetual conflict between love and hatred which enmeshes a pair of unfortunate lovers. However, also evident at the end of the play is the Christian concept of dying for ones sins – Romeo and Juliet are sacrificed to end the constantly intensifying feud between the two families.
We are next presented with the third quatrain, in which Shakespeare overviews the plot of the play to come. The chorus explains to the audience that they will see how the lovers meet, love and die in the play, “The fearful passage of their death-marked love… ” He again speaks of the evitable sacrifice of the lovers’ lives in order to end their parents’ strife, “and the continuance of their parents’ rage, which but their children’s end nought could remove”.
In this quatrain we also see the practical side of Shakespeare who tells the audience that the play is two hours long, “is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage”. The completion of the sonnet form is in the presence of the final rhyming couplet; which in this case tells the audience to listen to the forthcoming play if they missed any of the Prologue. It is a simple yet self-explanatory rhyming couplet, which speaks of the actors jobs as to “strive to mend” what the audience has missed – thus telling one of the most beautiful love stories of all time, Romeo and Juliet.