“Two families, of similar status,
In beautiful Verona where the play is set
What began as an old problem, has led to new fighting breaking out
With lots of bloodshed including normal citizens.
From these two families a son and daughter were born
Who having fallen in love, unavoidably take their own lives.
Their unfortunate circumstance and issues
Ends the conflict between the families, as a result of their deaths.
The incidents that lead to their love (a love destined to end badly)
As well as the angry battle between their two families,
Which could only have been ended by the death of their children,
Is what you’re about to watch for the next two hours,
Which, if you listen carefully,
Any gaps we missed out here, we’ll work hard to fill in.”
In this opening prologue, one of the (if not the) most famous of all time, the audience learns what is to come in the play.
However, Shakespeare does not use prologues in all his plays, so why here?
Firstly, it introduces the prominent theme of fate, the sense that what is to come is inevitable. It gives it a power as, with each new significant event, the audience is willing the tragic end not to come, but is powerless to stop it. It also gave an audience of the time, who wouldn’t have known the story, a framework so that it could be more easily understood. Everyone knows the story of Romeo and Juliet now- so why do directors not cut it? It can be argued that it sets up a challenge to the audience. To be told that fate is responsible for the deaths of these two lovers, is to relieve everyone else of responsibility.
Perhaps Shakespeare wants us to try and spot whether fate is purely responsible after all.
The prologue takes on a sonnet format, similar to Shakespeare’s poetry.
- It has strong iambic pentameter running through it, so long as “piteous” (line 7) is read with two syllables and “continuance” (line 10) with three syllables.
- It is neatly comprised of an ABAB rhyme scheme with a couplet at the end. But it is worth picking up on the rhyme scheme: though it is regular, difference in syllables weakens it (“scene”/”unclean”), there is half-rhyme on “mutiny” and “dignity”, and “love” and “remove” barely rhyme at all.
- The volta also comes earlier than expected between the fourth and fifth lines (rather than the eighth and ninth). This is not an accident; Shakespeare includes these details to make the prologue jar slightly, a hint at the unsettling plot to come.