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The Prologue is in the form of a sonnet, a type of poem that was popular in Elizabethan times. A sonnet has very strict rules: it must have 14 lines, have five accented syllables and five unaccented ones per line, and a consistent pattern of rhyming.
Throughout the play, we will see that Shakespeare uses different types of poetry to make special moments stand out.
The Prologue does three important things: 1) it tells us what events will happen in the play; 2) it makes us curious about why and how these events will happen; and 3) it introduces us to themes that will become important.
1. THE EVENTS
Two dignified families have been quarreling for a long time. From these families come two children who are destined to become lovers and to kill themselves. This is the only way the quarrel can end, we're told, and this is the story we're about to see.
It seems odd, doesn't it, that Shakespeare gives away the ending to the story before he even starts telling it! But in Shakespeare's time-much like today-the story of Romeo and Juliet was already famous. People might not have been able to tell you the whole story, but they could probably have said: "Romeo and Juliet? It's a story about two kids who kill themselves."
Also, fate plays a big part in the lovers' doom. It was normal in a tragic story to tell the fate of the hero at the beginning, and then tell the story of how this comes about.
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare uses the fact that we know the plot to make us his fellow conspirators. He makes the story revolve around characters who do what they think is best, unaware of their tragic fate. They don't know the real circumstances-only we do. This sets up comedy: for example, Romeo thinks that his crush on Rosaline is the end of the world.
This seems funny to us, because we know his crush isn't important-the story isn't about Romeo and Rosaline, it's about Romeo and Juliet. It also sets up tragedy: for example, it's great news to Lord Capulet that Juliet and Paris will be married. But it's terrible news to us, because we know that she's already married to Romeo. Over and over throughout the play we think, "if only they knew!"
2. THE PROLOGUE MAKES US CURIOUS
The Prologue leaves out more information than it gives us. Who are these lovers? What makes them "star-crossed"? Why do they kill themselves? Why is this the only way to end the feud? These questions make us want to read on!
Romeo and Juliet is a play about paradoxes. In other words, we find out that things seeming to be opposites are actually linked to each other. In the Prologue, Shakespeare talks about "fatal loins." We are conceived and born in the loins; "fatal" is something that kills you. How can the same thing cause your life and your death? The play resolves this paradox. Besides life and death, the Prologue tells us that the play is about youth and age, love and hate, fighting and peace. And since Shakespeare mentions these paradoxes so early, we will be wise to watch for other paradoxes that will be used as themes.
Notice how the lovers are called "star-crossed." Astrology was a popular science then, and some people believed that your fate was revealed by the positions of stars and planets. Star-crossed could simply mean that the stars will make Romeo and Juliet's paths cross and their lives intertwine. Or it can mean that the stars have it in for them; they're doomed from the start. One theme is the exploration of this very question: what makes the play end the way it does? Do the lovers die because they're star-crossed by Fate and cursed by bad luck? Or is there a power above Fate (usually called Providence) that is making this all work for the good-to end the feud? Or are the lovers free to act for themselves, to decide to take their own lives? We'll see that there is evidence to support each possible answer-it is up to you to choose the answer you think is best at the end of the play.