Analysis of the "Romeo & Juliet" Prologue Sonnet
Many people shy away from reading Shakespeare because of the complex sentence structure, language variances and mix of prose and verse. Understanding and analyzing Shakespeare doesn't have to be painful; readers need only follow certain steps to gain a thorough understanding of the prologue in "Romeo and Juliet." In order to analyze the prologue, it is important to understand its purpose and format, the denotation of each word and how the words create the meaning of the piece as a whole.
The Purpose of the Prologue
Containing 14 of the most important lines in the play, the prologue of Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet" is one of the most well-known sonnets in Shakespearean drama. William Shakespeare used the prologue at the beginning of the tragedy to set the stage for the story to come. The stage directions indicate that the Chorus will recite the prologue; the “chorus” is a single actor, not a group of singers. The prologue establishes the setting of the play (Verona), introduces the primary players (Montague and Capulet families) and their ongoing feud with each other, tells of the doomed love between Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet and, finally, explains that the only way to stop the fighting was through the deaths of both Romeo and Juliet.
The Sonnet Form
Shakespeare wrote the prologue of "Romeo and Juliet" in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet, which means that the prologue is a poem with 14 lines written in iambic pentameter. The sonnet also contains a specific rhyme scheme (abab cdcd efef gg) and can be broken down into three quatrains and a final rhyming couplet. In a Shakespearean sonnet, the first quatrain gives introductory information, the second quatrain elaborates on the details given in the first, the third quatrain introduces conflict and shifts in tone or setting and the rhyming couplet at the end concludes the poem.
A basic and yet important step in Shakespearean analysis is to understand the denotation of Shakespeare's diction. The prologue contains several words that may leave readers guessing. For instance, the first line, “Two households, both alike in dignity,” simply means that this play is about two families who are of equal status. “From ancient grudge break to new mutiny” introduces the recent fighting that began with the old feud; likewise, “civil blood makes civil hands unclean” refers to the good citizens of Verona who are fighting against each other for reasons unknown. Romeo and Juliet are born from the “fatal loins” of their parents, and thus they are doomed to die. This theme of doom stretches into the following lines with words like “misadventured" and "star-cross’d” -- both Romeo and Juliet often seem controlled by fate and not by logic.
The prologue ends with a statement that foreshadows the ending before the play has begun: “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.” In other words, this two-hour-long play will show that the only thing that could stop the parents’ fighting was the deaths of their children. Finally, the rhyming couplet at the end begs the audience to be patient and to pay attention to the play, because if they do not quite get it from the prologue’s explanation, the “toil” of the actors will surely clear up any misunderstandings.
Elizabeth Jamison is a published writer, composition teacher and PhD candidate specializing in rhetoric/composition. She holds a master's degree in English education from Georgia State University. With more than 15 years experience, she has been published in magazines and journals.