Prologue of Romeo and Juliet: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

We will look at the prologue of ''Romeo and Juliet'' in this lesson and discuss the basics of Shakespeare's use of a prologue. Then we will look at what this particular prologue is saying.

Background and Important Terms

William Shakespeare did not just depend on traditional theatrical standards, but transformed them. He used some of the ideas of Greek drama from two thousand years before his time, intertwined it with sixteenth-century English dramatic ideas, and improvised even more. One of the Greek theatrical devices that Shakespeare uses and transforms is the prologue. In Greek drama, a prologue gives background information that is essential for the audience to understand the play as it unfolds. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare gives some background information in his prologue, but generally uses it to give the reader an overview of what is going to happen. This allows the audience to watch as the events lead up to the anticipated end.

The sole character in the prologue to Romeo and Juliet is the chorus. In Greek drama, the chorus consists of a group of people who serve to narrate throughout the play; they provide more details of what the characters are thinking or feeling, and they often sing and dance. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare designates a single person (rather than a group of people) as the chorus. The individual only appears before the first and second acts to tell the audience how the play is going to end. In similar fashion to the singing Greek chorus, Shakespeare's chorus speaks in a poetic sonnet.

Prologue Structure

The structure of the prologue in Romeo and Juliet is an Elizabethan/Shakespearean sonnet. There are different types of sonnets. An Elizabethan sonnet is a fourteen-line poem that is split up into three quatrains (stanzas--groups of poetic lines--of four lines) and a couplet (stanza of two lines). The rhyme scheme of this type of sonnet is abab cdcd efef gg. Elizabethan sonnets typically have the same topic in the first two or three quatrains, followed by a volta or ''turn'', which marks the transition to another related topic. In this prologue, as we will discuss later, the volta occurs after the second quatrain. There it marks the transition from telling the background and the outcome of the play to laying out its major events and letting the audience know the play is about to begin.

Play Background: Quatrains 1 and 2

The first quatrain provides a significant amount of background detail for the play--all in four lines. The chorus explains in this quatrain that there are two ''households'' or families that are ''both alike in dignity,'' meaning they are similar in terms of socio-economic status. The chorus wants to point out that one family is not higher ranking than the other, which could otherwise be a possible cause of their conflict. We find here that the play is set in Verona, Italy and that the ''ancient grudge'' that these two families have had is erupting with renewed violence among otherwise ''civil'' people.

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