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Three Sonnets in Romeo and Juliet

Updated on March 15, 2015
Jule Romans profile image

Jule Romans has been writing articles and academic papers since the early 1990s. She teaches English at a small rural high school.

John Gilbert's drawing of the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet
John Gilbert's drawing of the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet | Source

The Prologue to Act One of Romeo and Juliet Is a Sonnet

The very beginning of the play sets up the action, and even tells us that the ending will be tragic. As was common in Shakespeare's time, a single actor would take the stage at the beginning of a performance and lay out the basics of the story that was to come. Most of the audience members would already be familiar with the story. The prologue served to focus attention and prepare the crowd.

This prologue follows the 14 line, rhyming format of a sonnet. It also maintains iambic pentameter, another key element of the sonnet. We can see that it also contains a light change of meaning in the last two lines. This is known as a "turn."


Two households, both alike in dignity,--------------------------------A
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,--------------------------------B
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,-----------------------------A
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.-------------------------B

(Stanza 1)

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes-----------------------------C
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;------------------------------D
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows-----------------------------C
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.---------------------------D

(Stanza 2)

The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,-----------------------E
And the continuance of their parents' rage,-----------------------------F
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,---------------E
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;--------------------------------F

(Stanza 3)

The which if you with patient ears attend,-------------------------------G
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.-------------------G

(Couplet and "Turn")

No worries, there's a tutorial below

Do you know how to identify iambic pentameter?

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Ironically, this painting depicts the Cushman Sisters performing the roles in 1846. Yes, that is a woman dressed as Romeo.
Ironically, this painting depicts the Cushman Sisters performing the roles in 1846. Yes, that is a woman dressed as Romeo. | Source

Romeo and Juliet's First Kiss Is a Sonnet

This sonnet is unusual- It is spoken by two individual voices. But, it is a sonnet just the same.

Note that it follows the correct rhyme scheme, rhythm, and structure as a traditional Shakespearean sonnet. The only difference is that two characters speak in turns to create the sonnet. In all other respects, this is a typical sonnet. It even contains the required "twist" with the ending couplet.


If I profane with my unworthiest hand------------------------ A
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this: ----------------------B
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand----------------- A
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.------------ B
(Stanza 1)


Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,----------C
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;----------------------D
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,-----C
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.-----------------------D
(Stanza 2)


Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?------------------E


Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.-----------------F


O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;---------------E
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.--------------F
(Stanza 3)


Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.--------G


Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.---------------G

(Couplet and "turn")


Characteristics of an English Sonnet

Rhyme Scheme
Stanza 1- ABAB
Iambic Pentameter
Four stanzas
Stanza 2- CDCD
10 syllables per line
Builds dramatic tension
Stanza 3- EFEF
unstressed-stressed pairs
One couplet
Final couplet- GG
5 Pairs of syllables or "iambs"
Couplet changes meaning

The Prologue to Act Two of Romeo and Juliet Is a Sonnet

This third sonnet reviews the action of act one, and prepares the audience for act two of Romeo and Juliet. On the surface, it might seem to be less interesting than the first two sonnets in Romeo and Juliet.

A closer look reveals that this third sonnet is a very good example of a sonnet's structure. Take note that this sonnet has three distinct stanzas that each have a nearly complete meaning on their own. the three stanzas build upon one another to increase the tension and conflict. In the final couplet, there is a twist, or change in meaning. Hence, the words and meaning of this sonnet perfectly illustrate the prescribed structure.

Now old desire doth in his death-bed lie,--------------------------A
And young affection gapes to be his heir;-------------------------B
That fair for which love groan'd for and would die,--------------A
With tender Juliet match'd, is now not fair.------------------------B

Stanza One recaps Romeo's former love for Rosaline, and how he has exchanged that love for Juliet. (Note that all stanzas still have the rhyme scheme of ABAB, in iambic pentameter.)

Now Romeo is beloved and loves again,------------------------C
Alike betwitched by the charm of looks,--------------------------D
But to his foe supposed he must complain,---------------------C
And she steal love's sweet bait from fearful hooks:-----------D

Stanza Two describes the love Romeo now has for Juliet, and the fact that it must be secret. It hints at the conflict that will face the lovers, but does not give details.

Being held a foe, he may not have access-----------------------E
To breathe such vows as lovers use to swear;------------------F
And she as much in love, her means much less---------------E
To meet her new-beloved anywhere:-----------------------------F

Stanza Three elaborates on the conflict between the families and heightens the tension by describing how it affects these two young lovers. In some sense, it raises the question: what can they do? Seemingly, they can do nothing.

But passion lends them power, time means, to meet--------G
Tempering extremities with extreme sweet.--------------------G


Iambic Pentameter

Not sure what IAMBIC PENTAMETER means? Don't worry. Here's a quick tutorial.

Iambic Pentameter has 10 syllables per line

Each line has 10 syllables, divided into five sets. Each set of two syllables begins with one unstressed syllable. The first, unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable.

Thus, for example, the first line would sound like this when spoken aloud:


The capitalized syllables are given more stress or emphasis. If you notice, the emphasis can be made within a single word or between two different words. The important thing is the pattern.

Iambic Pentameter uses stress on syllables

Let's look at the poem again, with bold print for emphasis, and space between the pairs of syllables

Two house / holds, both / alike / in dig / nity,

It looks odd like that, doesn't it? But it does show how the rhythm is supposed to go.

In a Shakespearean sonnet, every line follows that same rhythm. Sometimes it is so subtle that we don't even notice it. But if it's a Shakespearean sonnet, the rhythm is always present.

This rhythm even has its own name. It's called Iambic Pentameter.

Why Iambic Pentameter is called "Iambic"

There is a name, in poetry analysis, for a set of two syllables that begins with one unstressed syllable that is followed by a stressed syllable. That name is an "iamb." An "iamb" is always a set of two syllables, with one unstressed followed by a stressed syllable. So, the rhythm of the Shakespeare sonnet is called "iambic" because it comes from, or is made up of, a series of iambs.

Why Iambic Pentameter is called "Pentameter"

The "pentameter" part is a little easier to figure out. "Pent" is a root word meaning five. There are five iambs in each line. These five iambs go together to create a rhythm, or meter. Hence, the term for this rhythm is pentameter, or "five-meter." When we put all these together, we get the term Iambic Pentameter.

All Shakespearean sonnets are written in iambic pentameter.


Rhyme Scheme

Not sure what "Rhyme Scheme" is? Don't worry. Here's a quick tutorial.

End Rhymes

We are all familiar with words that sound the same being used at the ends of lines. We don't think of it that way, but that is all an end rhyme is- at least as far as this study goes. The "end rhyme" is any set of words at the end of a line that sound the same.

The which, if you with patient ears ATTEND

What here shall miss, our toil shall try to MEND

Simple, right? Of course. But it can get much more complicated.

Rhyming Patterns

Sometimes, there will be four lines of poetry (or song) that rhyme in alternating lines. For example, we might say:

If I profane with my unworthiest HAND
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready STAND
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss

In this case, the words in all caps rhyme with each other. The words in bold print also rhyme. If we were to read more lines of this poem, we would quickly run out of ways to show which words rhyme. We can't use bold print and capital letters, it's too complicated, too limited, and it takes away from the poem. So, we use letters to show which lines rhyme. There are plenty of letters, so we should be able to make them work for ANY poem we read.

Rhyme Scheme

So, we use letters at the ends of lines to show which lines rhyme with one another. Then we can begin to see patterns:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand------------------------ A
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this: ----------------------B
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand----------------- A
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.------------ B

We want to have a name for this that sounds fancy, so we call it rhyme scheme. In the example above, the group of lines has an ABAB rhyme scheme.

Sonnet Rhyme Scheme

Shakespearean sonnets have a specific rhyme scheme. The structure of a sonnet requires 14 lines, in iambic pentameter, with a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.

In the last two lines, the sonnet usually also has a change in meaning or "twist" ending.

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  • ajwrites57 profile image

    AJ 3 years ago from Pennsylvania

    A beautifully presented, simple explanation to Shakespeare's play. poetry and sonnets! Brilliant! Shared Jule Romans