The Three Sonnets in Romeo and Juliet: Analysis and Explanation
Follow along with this article to study three sonnets in Romeo and Juliet. This article will also provide a complete review of rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter.
The prologue to Romeo and Juliet is the first sonnet the play.The dialogue that makes up the lovers' first kiss and the prologue to act II are also sonnets.
The Romeo and Juliet Prologue: A Sonnet
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-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
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 which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
The First Sonnet in Romeo and Juliet: Prologue to Act I
The prologue to Romeo and Juliet (Act I) is a sonnet.
The prologue to Romeo and Juliet follows the 14 line, rhyming format of a sonnet. It maintains iambic pentameter, another key element of the sonnet. We can see that it contains a light change of meaning in the last two lines. This is known as a "turn."
Let's just take a look at how the sonnet breaks down on the page, then we will look at the meaning of the words. You may notice the letters at the ends of each line. Those are the designations for the rhyme scheme. You will also notice that the prologue is divided into three stanzas, followed by a couplet.
 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)
The prologue opens by saying that two great households in the city of Verona have a long-standing feud, that will soon break out into violence.
 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)
The two feuding families both have children. Those children, Romeo and Juliet, are fated to fall in love. That love leads to tragic events that spring from misadventures and misunderstanding. The two young lovers will die, and ultimately end their parents' fighting.
[ 9] 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)
The prologue proceeds to explain that this play will show the story of these two lovers form beginning to end. It also says that the only thing that could end the fighting between the families is the death of Romeo and Juliet.
Couplet and Turn
 The which if you with patient ears attend, (G)
 What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend. (G)
In the last couplet, the meaning "turns" from talking abouthe content of the play to how it will be performed. This fits with the structure of a sonnet, where the last two lines change the meaning.
More About the Prologue
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.
This prologue served to focus attention and prepare the crowd.The very beginning of the play sets up the action, and even tells us that the ending will be tragic. For a more detailed discussion, read a line by line analysis of the prologue to Romeo and Juliet.
Characteristics of a Shakespearean Sonnet
Stanza 1- ABAB
Stanza 2- CDCD
10 syllables per line
Builds dramatic tension
Stanza 3- EFEF
Final couplet- GG
5 Pairs of syllables or "iambs"
Couplet changes meaning
Not sure what "Rhyme Scheme" is?
Don't worry. Here's a quick tutorial.
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.
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.
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
In the last two lines, the sonnet usually also has a change in meaning or "twist" ending.
The Second Sonnet in Romeo and Juliet: The Lovers' First Kiss
The Dialogue of 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)
Romeo is cleverly asking for a kiss. He says that if my chance his rough hands happen to scratch Juliet's skin, he will kiss away any annoyance. Sometimes, this scene is played with Romeo touching Juliet's lips with his fingers.
 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)
Juliet is equally clever here. She says his hands are beautiful and smooth. But,she also says that two hands can touch together as easily as two lips. In this, she places her palm against Romeo's palm, and says that this is a pure and holy way to kiss.
 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)
Romeo tries again, asking if saints also have lips. Juliet replies that those lips are meant for prayer. Romeo, not to be deterred, continues to beg for a kiss by saying- "Let our lips touch together just as our hands have touched." The wordplay is more complex than this, but this is the basic idea.
Couplet and Turn
 Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake. (G)
 Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take. (G)
With this final twist, Juliet says that saints remain still. So Romeo says that Juliet can choose not to move, and still grant his prayer. He leans in and kisses her, winning the battle of wits.
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:
Two HOUSEholds BOTH aLIKE in DIGniTY
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.
A video tutorial on iambic pentameter.
Prologue to Act II
Now old desire doth in his death-bed lie,
And young affection gapes to be his heir;
That fair for which love groan'd for and would die,
With tender Juliet match'd, is now not fair.
Now Romeo is beloved and loves again,
Alike betwitched by the charm of looks,
But to his foe supposed he must complain,
And she steal love's sweet bait from fearful hooks:
Being held a foe, he may not have access
To breathe such vows as lovers use to swear;
And she as much in love, her means much less
To meet her new-beloved any where:
But passion lends them power, time means, to meet
Tempering extremities with extreme sweet.
The Third Sonnet in Romeo and Juliet: Prologue to Act II
The Prologue to Romeo and Juliet, Act II, 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. This sonnet has three distinct stanzas that each have a nearly complete meaning on their own. Because the meaning is so complex, there will be additional notes after each stanza.
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)
This stanza recaps Romeo's former love for Rosaline, and how he has exchanged that love for Juliet. Take 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)
This stanza 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.
[ 9] 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)
This stanza 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.
Couplet and Turn
 But passion lends them power, time means, to meet (G)
 Tempering extremities with extreme sweet. (G)
This final couplet turns everything around by saying that the passion Romeo and Juliet have for each other will conquer all the obstacles. They will find the time and a way to meet in secret. The sweetness of their love will soothe them during their extreme distress.
© 2014 Jule Romans