The Meaning of "Two Households, Both Alike in Dignity"

Updated on April 8, 2018
Jule Romans profile image

Jule Romans is a retired English teacher and college instructor. She has taught Shakespeare and advanced literature for over 25 years.

The Capulets and the Montagues are the two households in Romeo and Juliet.
The Capulets and the Montagues are the two households in Romeo and Juliet. | Source

Are you studying Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in school? Have you heard this line somewhere, but you don't quite know what it means?

Follow along with this explanation to discover the deeper meaning of the first line of the prologue to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

Looking for a line-by-line analysis of the prologue?

The First Line in the Prologue to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

"Two households, both alike in dignity"

This line is the very first line of the prologue Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Its meaning is significant to the play because it sets up the conflict between two very respected families. That conflict ultimately leads to tragedy for the two young lovers who are caught up in the strife.

This line introduces the important concepts of "household" and "dignity" in the context of the play. It also lays the groundwork for understanding the Montague and Capulet families.

In this article, we will work together to closely examine this famous line from one of Shakespeare's three best-known plays. We will consider the Montagues, the Capulets, and the background of the conflict between the two families. As part of this discussion, we will also take note of the importance of wealth and standing in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

Servants from the Capulet household  "bite the thumb" to taunt the Montagues
Servants from the Capulet household "bite the thumb" to taunt the Montagues | Source

What Does "Two Households, Both Alike in Dignity" Mean?

This famous line appears in the prologue to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. These are the very first words spoken on stage. The words "two households, both alike in dignity" refer to the Montagues and the Capulets- two noble families in the fictional city of Verona.

Shakespeare uses the prologue to provide a complete summary of the action that is to come. Laying groundwork for that action, he states that there are two noble families that exist, and that both are of equal standing.

This line is a critical part of understanding the conflict that leads to the tragedy of the play.

Paraphrase of "Two Households, Both Alike in Dignity"

"Two households" means "two families."

The definition of family is broad, and includes servants and friends in addition to family members. That is why the word "household" is used.

The idea of this larger group was common and familiar to Shakespeare's playgoers. It is meant to include servants and friends. The combination of family, friends, and servants creates a group which is known as a household.

"Both alike in dignity" means "Both families have equally high status."

In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, both the Montague and Capulets are dignified, noble families. They both have a great deal of money. They both hold high status in Verona, where the play takes place. Their status is equal. One family is not greater than the other.

This is important because the two wealthy and powerful families hate each other intensely. That conflict, which is developed later in the play, will ultimately involve servants and friends as well as family members.

Friar Laurence, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet
Friar Laurence, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet | Source

Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona where we lay our scene-

The Concepts of Household and Dignity

First, we began with the general summary, which is likely to be sufficient for most casual readers. This explained the basic idea of the two households and their status. However, there is much more meaning buried within this line.

Next, we will consider the more complex concepts concepts of "household" and "dignity" in the context of the play. This discussion may be useful for those who are studying the prologue of Romeo and Juliet in more depth.

Understanding the Deeper Meaning

In order to better understand the deeper meaning behind the line "two households both alike in dignity," it will be important to also consider:

  • The concept of "household" and how it applies to the two warring families of Montague and Capulet.
  • The concept of "dignity" and why it is an important part of the conflict in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

For additional discussion, readers can refer to a line-by-line analysis of the prologue to Romeo and Juliet. This will help to explain how the line fits in the context of the prologue to Romeo and Juliet.

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Juliet and her nurse
Juliet and her nurse | Source

The Meaning of "Two Households" in Romeo and Juliet

Households Are Extended Families

In Shakespeare's plays, there are are many concepts related to home and family life that may seem unfamiliar to contemporary readers. Shakespeare wrote his plays in the late 1500s. This tie frame is known as the Restoration Period, or 16th century, in England. At that time, the social structure was entirely different than it is today.

During that time, family was one of the most important social units. Groups of individuals were connected by their blood relations and close associations within the home.

Some families were smaller, with fewer members and less financial power. Other families grew large and powerful, gaining influence as they increased in size. Both groups could be referred to as "households" because their primary center was the home.

Smaller Households Had Fewer Resources

Smaller families might include parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and a few cousins. These smaller families held very little property. A home might be comprised of one small dwelling with a little land, and perhaps some livestock or other valuable items. There might be a few servants or friends who shared their land and resources.

The entire group of people, property, and valuables were connected under one broad category. That category became known as a household. For smaller families, the household was not very complex.

Larger Households Gained More Power

Larger families could include many more members, including associations by marriage and a large network of servants or helpers. Some families were large enough that they would also include doctors, priests, tailors, and even military guards. All of these people would be considered a part of the extended family. Likewise, all of their property, valuables, and even their children became part of the home unit.

These extended groups could contain hundreds of members and quite a bit of wealth. Members of the group could fill several different dwellings and maintain tremendous amounts of property. This complex, powerful group of people would also be known as a household. In this case, the name of the household would be the name of the main or most powerful family at the center of the network.

This type of larger household would carry a great deal of power and have great influence in any town.

Two Powerful Households in Romeo and Juliet

In summary, the concept of household refers to a complex network of people and property all gathered under a single family name.This concept is critical to understanding the conflict in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

In Romeo and Juliet, the Montagues and the Capulets are both very large households with a great deal of influence in the fictional town of Verona. Because the two powerful households are in conflict, almost every person in the town is affected by their feud. This includes servants, friends, and extended relatives.

The conflict between the two households causes the most tragic events of the play, and is responsible for much death and suffering on both sides.

The Meaning of "Alike in Dignity" in Romeo and Juliet

As we've learned, wealthy families developed into households that held a great deal of power and status. The power these households wielded went far beyond money

Noble Households

A successful household could control significant events within a smaller town. For example, the members of a household could determine political alliances, marriages, building projects, and physical security throughout a wide network.

Describing these families as simply rich or wealthy would not be enough. To truly show the meaning of this type of strength, a different word was needed. The term "noble" came into being because of this need.

Many household members took this responsibility seriously. They did not use their influence to harm those less fortunate. In fact, they considered it their duty to live up to their wealth by behaving in completely honorable ways. They tried, in essence, to be noble and dignified in every way. Thus, these wealthy families became known as "nobles" or "the nobility."

Households with Dignity in Romeo and Juliet

The word noble is also a synonym for the word dignified. Families, or households, with this kind of power became known as "noble" families. They were households with great dignity.

In Romeo and Juliet, the Capulets and Montagues are both noble families. They hold status, power, and influence in the fictional town of Verona. The two families are equal in their power, and have an equally high amount of respect within the town.

A Tragic End for Two Households

This is why both families are referred to as households that are "alike in dignity." Sadly, both households also come to an equally tragic end. Only the death of Romeo and Juliet can bring an end to the powerful clash of two rival households.

The war between the Montague and Capulet  families comes to a sad end.
The war between the Montague and Capulet families comes to a sad end. | Source

© 2018 Jule Romans

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