Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona (where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-marked 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 stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend. (Prologue, 1-14)

Why start like this? The speaking of a Prologue is conventional, even if many don’t survive; that this one relates so closely to the play’s action, rather than the occasion of its performance, probably helped to ensure that it did. It’s a sonnet, and sonnets and their associations (with love, with Italy, with youth) will be important in the play. It introduces some tropes or terms that, like the sonnet, will return: blood, the stars. And it sets out the plot, giving the play’s ‘argument’ in advance: there will be, apparently, no surprises here.

A sonnet looks like a discrete unit, and here it has a single speaker, but it’s also a form that embodies and exists in a state of constant tension. Fourteen lines, not seven+seven, but four+four+four+two, and also eight+six; there’s an asymmetry, a dynamic pull: does the firmer closure of the final couplet give the sestet a weight equal to the neat, resigned alternate rhymes of the octave? Yet the couplet undermines its own ponderous finitude: it shifts to the conditional (‘if you’), and the final avowed intention ‘to mend’ is just that, a promise of striving, and an admission, therefore, that such restoration and wholeness might not, in the end, be possible.

Its rhymes and metre make it binary (the latter again asymmetrically so: the unstressed/stressed pulse of the iamb, the five-foot line), and in fact it begins with an inverted foot, keeping the audience on their toes. And ‘Two’, the sonnet begins; it’s interested in pairs and pairedness, in its vocabulary (Two, both, two, pair, two), things that come in pairs (hands, loins; lovers, parents) and in its paired and balanced figures (ancient grudge/new mutiny; civil blood/civil hands). It hints at the oxymoron (fatal loins, when they should be generative) and yokes together, in its rhymes, dignity and mutiny, life and strife – and also, through their proximity, love and rage.

The Prologue is interested in the collective as a larger context for both the individual and the couple or pair. It speaks, on behalf of a company of actors, as we, in the first person plural, rather than singular; it invokes households, the city of Verona, and the plural you of the audience. So this single sonnet contains multitudes. It’s repeatedly, emphatically binary; it is full of pairs that pull apart even as they cling together; it presents the possibility of the unified whole at the same time as it undermines it: the lovers have but a single life to take.

It’s a good place to start.

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