What methods does Shakespeare employ to engage interest of the audience in the Prologue and Act 1, scenes 1, 2 and 3 in Romeo and Juliet?
Romeo and Juliet is a romantic tragedy set in the great city of Verona in Italy. The play concerns two noble but feuding families, the Montagues and the Capulets. Their feud has become so intense in the time of the play that bloody brawls are fought in the usually quiet and peaceful streets of Verona. These brawls involve even the servants of the rival families who cannot pass each other in the street without drawing swords! Within these two families are the two title characters that fall deeply in love which other. Romeo of the Montagues is a young man who is unable to get over his last love, Rosaline. This changes when he sees his love of first sight, Juliet of the Capulets. Juliet’s parents have plans for her to marry a wealthy young man named Paris, yet Juliet does not love him and has already married Romeo in secret. Romeo is banished from Verona and his plans to unite with Juliet go horribly wrong, ending with the deaths of the two lovers. The play ends with the two families uniting.
Throughout the play Shakespeare uses a wide range of dramatic devices to engage the interest of his audience. This was important if only to overcome the physical discomfort for the audience as the theatres in Shakespeare’s day were far from how they are today and the audience’s interest could therefore easily be lost. A story of “star-crossed lovers would not have been new to an Elizabethan audience. The tragedy itself was also unusual in that it did not involve heroic figures such as kings and emperors; instead, it involved people in a provincial city. In addition, Shakespeare could not rely on special effects or extra lighting. He therefore had to use changes in language and form that would hold the audience’s attention and heighten their expectations for the tragedy to come.
Shakespeare’s originality in using language and form to hold his audience begins with the Prologue which is performed by a chorus. He uses a fourteen line sonnet to describe the two noble houses in Verona and their ongoing feud. A lesser playwright would probably have used prose. The Prologue states that from these two houses, there are two ‘star- crossed lovers’, whose story of love and tragedy makes up “the two hours’ traffic of our stage”:
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, out toil shall strive to mend.
A Prologue such as this is also a most original and convenient device to introduce the plot to the audience. We are provided, in poetic language, information about where the play takes place, and given some background information about its principal characters.
The Prologue does not merely set the scene of ‘Romeo and Juliet’; it tells the audience exactly what is going to happen in the play:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life:
The audience is therefore informed that Romeo and Juliet are to die even before the play has begun. This engages the interest of the audience because it is an unusual way to introduce a play, describing the whole story and unveiling the main tragedy before it has actually happened, and it makes the audience watch carefully to see how the play fulfills the expectations set by the Prologue. In addition, Shakespeare uses words such as “our” and “you” when referring to the audience, thus indirectly involving them and making them feel part of the play as they are being personally addressed.
The variety of theme between each scene creates major contrasts. This is shown in the change from Scene One to Scene Two, Scene One being a comical fight between members of the opposing houses and Scene Two, a passionate discussion on various aspects of love. Contrasts in subject are also shown in the characters’ dialogues. At the beginning of Scene Two, old lord Capulet and Paris, a young man of wealth and high status who wishes to marry Juliet, Capulet’s young daughter, are discussing the feud between the Montagues and Capulets. After a short reply from Paris, the subject is suddenly changed from war to love with Paris enquiring:
But now my lord, what say you to my suit?
Paris is asking what Capulet has to say about his request to marry Juliet. This major contrast from bloody feuding to love is a frequent change throughout the play.
The two themes together will bring the play to its final tragedy and dramatic finale when love brings hate to an end. The audience is interested to see how this will happen. The talk of Paris marrying Juliet is the first the audience has heard about a possible union between the two, this acting as another obstruction that Romeo will soon have to pass. However, it seems that Capulet can be a kind hearted man as he realizes Juliet’s position to choose for herself on whom she marries:
But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart
My will to her consent is but a part.
But his power to force her into a marriage if he feels it necessary is noticeably present from his general personality. Therefore parental influence in this story becomes a means of fate: Juliet’s arranged marriage with Paris, and the feud between Capulets and Montagues, will eventually contribute to the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. The means that determinants of their fate are laid in place well before Romeo and Juliet even meet. This is clear to the audience from the Prologue and their knowledge is greater than that of Romeo and Juliet’s. The audience is therefore interested to see how Paris, Romeo and Juliet, along with the family feuds and social burdens all contribute to the final tragedy.
Shakespeare also introduces an unexpected surprise for the audience in Scene Two by declaring Romeo’s love for Rosaline:
One fairer than my love! The all-seeing sun
Ne’er saw her match, since first the world begun.
With the play entitled ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the audience would automatically expect the play to be based on the events entailed in the love between Romeo and Juliet. The audience would now be interested how Rosaline, a character who has not yet been introduced, fits into the story and helps it to develop. The audience never sees or even hears Rosaline but only knows through Romeo’s words that she does not require his love. Shakespeare may have purposefully kept her away, making her a ‘mysterious character’ which would interest the audience to find out more about her and underline what a sincere and passionate lover Romeo is.
Shakespeare uses the Clown, a common feature of his plays, to cleverly merge a twist of humor into the developing plot in Scene Two. Capulet is holding “an old accustomed feast” and he has ordered the Clown to invite the names written on the given list. However the clown faces one clear problem, he cannot read! It is akin to asking a “tailor” to use a “last” or a “shoemaker” to use a “yard”. The audience would be able to relate to this as many would also be unable to read, Shakespeare’s plays attracting a wide range of people of different intelligence, wealth and social status. The clown is luckily saved by Romeo who is able to read the list for him. Irony as well as humor is shown here as a clown or servant is there to assist those of need but here, the clown depends on Romeo’s help.
Three scenes into the play, the audience finally meet the second title character, Juliet. She is with her mother, Lady Capulet and the Nurse who raised Juliet from infancy. Lady Capulet is putting pressure on Juliet to think about Paris as a husband before Juliet has even began to think of marriage at all. There is a humorous interplay between the Nurse and Lady Capulet when they try to work out Juliet’s age. Juliet gives into the influence and pressure of Lady Capulet and the Nurse who both wish to see Juliet and Paris marry:
I’ll look to like of looking liking move,
But no more deep will I endart mine eye
Than your consent gives strength to make it fly
The audience’s attention would be immediately attracted by this as Juliet has considered marrying Paris despite the audience already knowing that Juliet will soon fall in love with Romeo. This heightens the expectation of the audience to find out what will happen between Romeo and Juliet and what involvement will Paris have. This question is answered in Scene Four at the Capulets party which Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio of the Montagues attend, uninvited and masked. Shakespeare stretches the suspense of the audience even further as they will be desperate to find what will erupt from the party after already witnessing past battles between the two houses.
Shakespeare’s powers as both a dramatist and poet are further used to heighten the audience’s interest in this tragedy of love. The Prologue, in sonnet form, introduces the whole play and is a beautiful way in which to do so. Scene One features a quarrel between servants and family members of the feuding households. In contrast to the Prologue, this is in recited by the characters in straightforward prose until the intervention of the Prince of Verona who speaks in stern blank verse. Throughout the first three scenes, there is poetry of great beauty and variety. For example, old Montague describes his son, Romeo, who is saddened by Rosaline not returning his love:
Many a morning hath he there been seen,
With tears augmenting the fresh morning’s dew,
Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs;
He ends this speech with a rhymed couplet:
Black and portentous must this humour prove
Unless good counsel may the cause remove
There is different language for brawling and for love and sadness and different language for different characters: the Clown and the Nurse speak in prose whereas the nobility speak in verse, often with rhymed couplets. This contrasting language is very much in evidence in the first three scenes, even before the arrival of Juliet, and continues throughout the play in order to convey the unfolding drama. It mirrors and enhances the other dramatic devices Shakespeare uses to enhance the audience’s interest.
Shakespeare’s unusual style of prologue in which the whole story and the final tragedy is declared in sonnet form is the first ingredient used to engage the interest of the audience in “Romeo and Juliet”. The audience is eager to see how the events in the play result in the final tragedy. Shakespeare then employs contrast of themes and variety between scenes to which he added a variety of prose and verse forms to ensure audience expectations are realized and their interest is not lost. The audience is always interested to see how these dramatic and poetic devices are used to link with the events foretold in the Prologue of a love tragedy that ends in union between the noble families.