‘Two households, both alike in dignity’: so begins the Prologue to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. What is less well-known is the very specific poetic form Shakespeare chooses for the Prologue: a form he goes on to use later in Romeo and Juliet. (We have analysed the play as a whole here.)
Let’s take a closer look at the famous ‘Two households’ speech, offering a summary and analysis of its meaning as we go – and, of course, let’s take a look at that distinctive form Shakespeare chooses to employ.
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.
The Prologue tells us the setting of the play: we are to be transported to the beautiful (‘fair’) Italian city of Verona, where the ensuing action takes place. There, a long-standing feud between two well-respected households or families, a grudge which goes way back, will violently break out again.
The line ‘Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean’ takes a bit more unpicking: ‘civil’ here refers to ordinary citizens (as opposed to soldiers: hence the word ‘civilians’ or ‘civvy’ used for non-combatants in a war situation). The word also carries a related but slightly different sense: ‘civil’ as used in such phrases as ‘civil war’ or ‘civil strife’, i.e., conflict between persons of the same nation (or, as in this case, the same city).
But ‘civil’ also means ‘courteous’ or ‘polite’, which clearly cannot be possible in the face of such ‘mutiny’ or violence between the ‘two households’. So ‘civil hands’ cleverly conveys both meanings, and the line means both ‘where violence between families makes ordinary citizens’ hands dirty with blood’ and ‘where violence between families makes otherwise friendly and non-violent hands violent’.
However, there’s yet another sense to the line, too, which relates to the double meaning of ‘blood’: both violence (as in the phrase ‘bad blood’ between two people) and kinship or family. So, ‘civil blood’ can also mean ‘the blood, or family loyalty, tying citizens together’.
In other words, it is ‘blood’, or family, that is the problem: the Montagues and the Capulets cannot really pick a side based on political allegiance, but are bound to continue their feud (indeed, their blood feud) by virtue of which family they belong to. As Juliet will later famously ask Romeo, ‘wherefore art thou Romeo?’ If only he had been born of different blood, there wouldn’t have been a problem.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
Two doomed children from these feuding families fall in love with each other and take their own lives. They are ‘star-cross’d’ because it is destined by the stars that their love for each other will be thwarted. There are many astrological references in Romeo and Juliet to the idea that the stars govern human fate: Romeo will later defy the stars, and elsewhere he will observe that ‘my mind misgives / Some consequence yet hanging in the stars’.
However, the Prologue goes on to reveal (giving a fair few spoilers as to the details of the play that hasn’t been staged yet) that the two lovers’ ‘misadventured piteous overthrows’ will, through their two deaths, succeed finally in convincing their parents to put the feud behind them and live in peace with each other.
The word ‘overthrows’, as a noun, means a successful coup, such as overthrowing a corrupt military leader or politician; ‘misadventured’ relates to the idea of an unfortunate accident (Romeo and Juliet cannot help falling in love with each other, if it’s written in the stars!); and ‘piteous’ obviously means ‘deserving of pity’.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d 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 doomed love between Romeo and Juliet and how it came about, and the way their parents persisted in their anger towards each other (which nothing except the deaths of their own children could put to an end), will now constitute the business of the play that follows for the next couple of hours. (As a point of interest, love and remove may have been more than eye-rhymes in the time of Shakespeare.)
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
In other words, ‘If you listen to the following play patiently, whatever shortcomings you as an audience may feel the following play has (i.e., whatever you feel it is missing or lacking), our actors will attempt to fix through their performances.’
And so concludes the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet; the play itself, thumb-biting and all, then gets underway.
But we mentioned something notable about the form Shakespeare uses for the ‘Two households’ speech. What is it? You may have noticed that we divided the Prologue’s fourteen lines up, in the analysis above, into four sections: three four-line sections (or quatrains) and a concluding two-line section (or couplet).
In other words, Shakespeare writes the ‘Two households …’ prologue in the form of a sonnet: specifically, an English or Shakespearean sonnet, rhymed abab cdcd efef gg. Sonnets have long been associated with the courtly love tradition: male admirers gazing longingly upon a beautiful but unattainable woman and waxing lyrical about her beauty. Romeo is such a figure, desperate to fall in love (first with Rosaline, and then, truly, with Juliet); when he and Juliet first meet and converse at the ball, their exchange takes the form of another sonnet, while there is also a second ‘Chorus’ in sonnet form between the first and second acts of the play.
So, Shakespeare’s decision to use the sonnet form at several points in a play in which unattainable love will, against the odds, be attained – albeit only for a short while – is entirely in keeping with the mood and themes of Romeo and Juliet as a whole.