Romeo and Juliet: The Prologue

 [continued from the end of this post, where the reader was left waiting for the world premiere of Romeo and Juliet to begin. Other posts in which I’ve talked about Romeo and Juliet are here, here, and here. ]

The actor strides to the very edge of the apron. He looks straight at you and declaims beautifully:

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,
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth 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.

This is the Chorus. You (back in real time, reading this in 2011 or later) remember him from Shakespeare in Love, where the actor’s stammering during rehearsal was fodder for both comedy and dramatic tension—until, with everything on the line, he delivered a letter-perfect recitation. No such backstage drama at the actual world premiere, as far as we know; but ignore the gigantic spoiler and pay attention to the ends of the lines. If you’ll let me take you back to high school for just a bit, you’ll notice that the rhyme scheme is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. That means that this prologue is a sonnet.

It was not at all unknown for a play to have a prologue. Christopher Marlowe used them. Here is the beginning of the Chorus of his most famous play, Doctor Faustus:


Not marching in the fields of Thrasimen
Where Mars did mate the warlike Carthagens;
Nor sporting in the dalliance of love
In courts of kings, where state is over-turn’d;
Nor in the pomp of proud audacious deeds
Intends our Muse to vaunt his heavenly verse.
Only this, Gentles—we must now perform
The form of Faustus’s fortunes good or bad.

Sonnets were not at all unknown, either. There was a craze for them throughout the 1590s; Shakespeare probably wrote some of his own around this time, for private circulation. But as far as I know (and readers, please enlighten me if I’m wrong), nobody before Shakespeare had ever put the two together; nobody had started a play with a prologue in sonnet form before. Why did Shakespeare do it? Partly, no doubt, he was showing off (although this accusation is more fairly made against Love’s Labour’s Lost, where, as we will see, the sonnet thing gets a little out of hand). Partly too, it’s out of evident sheer exuberance; Romeo and Juliet is the work of a man positively drunk on language. But mainly he does it because it serves the drama. He could perfectly well have set the scene with a prologue in blank verse, as Marlowe did (the form, now familiar thanks to Shakespeare, had only been invented in English thirty or forty years earlier). We might need to be told today, but his attentive listeners (that means you) would have noticed the sonnet. This unusual, if not unprecedented, beginning would have tipped them off that something very special was about to happen. And they would have been especially alert to Shakespeare’s use of language as a means of characterization and dramatization.

In this next series of posts I want to take you very carefully through the opening of Romeo and Juliet up to the balcony scene and show you how Shakespeare’s use of language makes crystal clear what kind of people we are dealing with and what kind of place Verona is. As I’ve said, the balcony scene is so familiar it’s hard for us to get beyond the cliched idea that Romeo and Juliet is nothing but a Tragic Tale of Young Love. But I believe that careful attention to Shakespeare’s language—the kind of attention his first listeners would have paid—will show us exactly how high the stakes are, and recapture the urgency that a thousand parodies may have dissipated.

To see what I mean, why don’t we go out with one of those parodies, a Warner Brothers cartoon from 1959 entitled “A Witch’s Tangled Hare”?

I believe this may be the only meeting of those two titans of Western culture, Shakespeare and Bugs Bunny, and it does have a parody of the balcony scene, which begins at about 4:40. You may want to skip ahead, because this is not one of the great Bugs cartoons by a long shot. Nonetheless, I must have seen this one as a child and it stuck with me. Until I began researching what would become this blog, in fact, I misremembered Bugs as Juliet and thought Elmer Fudd was Romeo. Obviously memory had mixed up “A Witch’s Tangled Hare” with the greatest of all Warners cartoons, “What’s Opera. Doc?” By the way, if you don’t agree that the best Warners cartoons, mostly but by no means all directed by Chuck Jones, are among the supreme achievements of indigenous American art, on a level with jazz and The Great Gatsby, then you really need this blog. So prepare for the opening of Romeo and Juliet proper in the next post, with the entry of the spear carriers Sampson and Gregory.

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