Romeo and Juliet Reading Notes: Prologue (#moocspeare)

Fate and star-crossed lovers

The mysteries of Romeo and Juliet deepen—as does my perception of the play itself—every time I read it. And those mysteries begin to reveal themselves in the first lines of the prologue, with the description of Romeo and Juliet as “a pair of star-crossed lovers.”

How star-crossed? How are we to understand the grip of fate in this play? To be sure, people in Shakespeare’s time typically believed more literally in fate and astrology and were, on the whole, a significantly more superstitious lot, than the average reader today (see “Superstition, Folklore, and Astrology in Shakespeare’s Time”).

On the other hand, Shakespeare’s other plays don’t—and this is all subject to my amateur understanding and memory—treat fate as the kind of immovable, inescapable force one might expect based on the explicit phrase “star-crossed,” the general feelings in the culture at the time, and the end of Romeo and Juliet in this particular play. Hamlet, for example, clearly changes in the play from feeling buffeted by the ineluctable winds of fate to taking action and thereby taking his future into his own hands. Perhaps Hamlet’s death is subject to fate, but the manner of getting there is up to him…should he choose to exercise his will. Even Macbeth, where fate is so explicitly invoked, it is also questioned. Macbeth may be fated to be king, it is his character that determines how he’ll get there.

The Sonnet Prologue

Why open with a sonnet? The primary source for Shakespeare’s play—Arthur Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet—starts with one, but I like to think that Shakespeare was more thoughtful than to simply take on the received form. The sonnet was a typical form for writing about and expressing feelings of love…and while Shakespeare doesn’t use the Petrarchan form, the plot of the play w/r/t Romeo and Juliet (and even Romeo and Rosaline) is Petrarchan.

And why not maintain the sonnet prologues through the play? Does the orderly, structured sonnet break down under the fight against fate? Does the play just get too wild and defies convention?

The Chorus

Why have a chorus? How does it relate to the tradition of the chorus in Greek drama (if it does)? Why does the chorus appear before only the first two scenes? It’s not as if the drama particularly needs the context-setting or the plot synopsis. I guess it emphasizes the presence of fate, that the story about to be presented has already unfolded because the entire plot is summarized.

Death-marked love

Is there any Shakespeare play in which the imagery of Death is as vivid?

Hints of Themes to Come

A few things struck me in the Prologue that become recurring themes later:

The opening word, “two,” is a literal invocation of the recurring theme of dualities and binaries—love/hate, light/dark, fate/will, etc.

“Civil hands” is the first of many references to hands. Bloody hands. The hands of marriage. Saints’ hands. “Let lips do what hands do.” And that’s not even to get into all the fingers!

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