Monday, December 12, 2011
(Engraving of Verona, Italy, the home of Romeo and Juliet,
by an unknown artist, from The Illustrated Shakespeare,
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) so perfected the English sonnet that it carries his name. His fame in this regard rests largely on the 154 love sonnets published in his life time. His sonnets are divided into three quatrains in abab, cdcd, efef rhyme, concluding with an epigrammatic or pointed couplet in gg rhyme.
But Shakespeare also includes sonnets in the scripts of his plays. The romance of Romeo and Juliet is introduced by a prologue in sonnet form setting out the family feud that will lead to tragedy.
CHORUS. Two households, both alike in dignity¹,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean².
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Do 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 stage³;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
¹ dignity – status or rank
² civil blood makes civil hands unclean – the bloodshed from strife soils the hands of the citizens
³ two hours’ traffic of our stage – the expected length of this play
(The first meeting of Romeo and Juliet, at
a ball, by Edwin Austin Abbey, 1852-1911,
American artist and illustrator)
The two protagonists, Romeo of the Montagues and Juliet of the Capulets, first meet at a ball. They immediately fall in love. They speak a mere fourteen lines before they kiss, fourteen lines of a shared sonnet echoing the pattern of rhyme and rhythm established by the ominous sonnet in the prologue.
ROMEO. If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
JULIET. Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
ROMEO. Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
JULIET. Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
ROMEO. O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray — grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
JULIET. Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
ROMEO. Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.