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Sonnets in Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare, who had begun writing his sonnets sometime in the 1590's, decided that the form would be useful in Romeo and Juliet. In fact, he wrote four sonnets in the play. The first, spoken by a chorus, opens Act 1. The second appears in Act 1, Scene 5, and it is dialogue spoken by Romeo and Juliet. The chorus returns to open Act 2 with another sonnet. And the play closes fittingly with an abbreviated sonnet — the first two quatrains, like Romeo and Juliet, missing.

The opening sonnet, which gives away the plot including the ending before any characters even step onstage, does not appear in the 1623 First Folio edition. It only appears in the earlier quarto editions. Why was it cut from the Folio? For that matter, why did Shakespeare feel the need to reveal the plot and ending at the opening of the first performances of this play? Scholars can only speculate, so here is one theory. When Romeo and Juliet first appeared onstage about 1595, Shakespeare's early reputation was built on a handful of histories and comedies. His only tragedy to that date (and that's using the term loosely) was Titus Andronicus, which is more in the genre of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Audiences who enjoyed The Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Comedy of Errors, Love's Labor's Lost and perhaps A Midsummer's Nights Dream would have expected to see Romeo and Juliet end with at least one marriage. They would not have been prepared to see Mercutio's and Tybalt's corpses lying in pools of blood midway through the play, nor to witness Romeo and Juliet commit a double suicide in a dark tomb in the middle of the night at the end of Act 5. An audience has to be prepared for what it is about to watch. Four centuries later Stephen Sondheim learned this with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

The early out-of-town previews of Forum opened with a sweet love ballad, Love is in the Air. Audiences didn't like the play. Sondheim asked Jerome Robbins, with whom he had worked onWest Side Story, their modern version of R&J, for advice. Robbins told Sondheim to write a new opening song that told the audience they were about to see a vaudevillian burlesque comedy, not a love story. Sondheim wrote Comedy Tonight, a long hilarious song that ended with:

–No royal curse, no Trojan horse,
And a happy ending, of course!
Goodness and badness,
Panic is madness
This time it all turns out all right!
Tragedy tomorrow,
Comedy tonight!

The play became an immediate success.

Perhaps Shakespeare encountered a similar problem with Romeo and Juliet, so he wrote this sonnet to prepare his audiences for what they were about to experience comedy tomorrow, tragedy tonight. By the time the First Folio was assembled seven years after Shakespeare's death, Romeo and Juliet had been performed and published numerous times. In addition, all of Shakespeare's great tragedies were well established in the public mind. Finally, the First Folio actually grouped the plays, for the first time, as —Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Perhaps John Heminge and Henry Condell, who assembled the First Folio, felt this opening sonnet was superfluous and no longer served its original purpose.This, of course, is speculation. Some scholars believe that while printing the First Folio someone simply forgot to include the opening sonnet. Also speculation, but also possible.

In the second sonnet in Act 1 Scene 5, Shakespeare plays with the structure of the sonnet. Romeo and Juliet speak a sonnet in dialogue, slightly altering the rhyme scheme. Romeo speaks the first quatrain and Juliet the second. These two quatrains are cleverly linked. Rather than the normal rhyme scheme, ABAB CDCD, the quatrains rhyme ABAB CBCB. Juliet simply repeats Romeo's —this kiss rhyme, coquettishly tweaking —kiss metaphorically. They then alternate lines in the third quatrain after which each speaks one line of the closing couplet. And then he kisses her.

Romeo's reference to Juliet's person as —this holy shrine, contrasts with Juliet's later biting reference to Romeo as —this gorgeous palace, when she hears that Romeo has killed her cousin. Both metaphors are echoed about fifteen years later near the end of Shakespeare's career when Miranda in The Tempest speaks of Ferdinand in a similar figure of speech. Here Shakespeare's extended metaphor to a holy shrine, sin, devotion, saints, palms and palmers, prayers and faith is considered, in rhetorical terms, a conceit. And Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, probably loved the underlying irony of invoking all these spiritual references in the service of a sexual seduction.

Another standard sonnet opens Act 2, and serves as a transition between the two acts. And fittingly, Romeo and Juliet ends with an abbreviated sonnet — the first two quatrains, like Romeo and Juliet, are missing. The simplicity of the metaphor is strikingly beautiful. The dark night of this tragedy, the deaths of the two lovers in a tomb, gives birth as dawn breaks to a peaceful amity between their families, but it is a glooming morning peace.

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For more on how Shakespeare used sonnets in his plays during this period of his career, see the Blogpost and the Notes on Richard III's, —Now is the winter of our discontent.

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Two households, both alike in dignity

Read the Sonnet

If I profane with my unworthiest hand

Read the Sonnet

Now old desire doth in his deathbed lie

Read the Sonnet
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A glooming peace this morning with it brings

Read the Sonnet

Now is the winter of our discontent

Read the Sonnet