Why can the Prologue in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet be considered "the hidden sonnet"?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Shakespeare is the inventor of the English sonnet, also referred to as the Shakespearean sonnet. To see how the Prologue is absolutely a sonnet, we must first understand the format of the English sonnet.

First, an English sonnet always consists of 14 lines. There are exactly 14 lines in the Prologue. Second, the English sonnet also has a very specific rhyme scheme. It is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. To determine the rhyme scheme of any poem, we look at the very last word of each line and assign a letter. Words that rhyme are assigned matching letters. For example, let's take a look at the first four lines:

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. (1-4)

The word "dignity" would be assigned the letter A and the word "scene" would be assigned the letter B. Next, we see that "mutiny" perfectly rhymes with "dignity" and "unclean" perfectly rhymes with "scene," making the rhyme scheme of these first four lines ABAB. If we continue determining the rhyme scheme in this way, we quickly see that all 14 lines perfectly follow the rhyme scheme Shakespeare invented for the English sonnet. The passage even ends with the words "attend" and "mend," which would be assigned the letters GG.

In order to be an English sonnet, it must also be written in iambic pentameter. A line written in iambic pentameter is 10 syllables long and contains 5 iambs. Iambs are also called feet. Iambs, or feet, contain first an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. If we count the syllables in each of the Prologue's lines, we see that they are all indeed 10 syllables long. If we are unsure as to which syllables are stressed or unstressed to further verify the iambic pentameter, using a dictionary can often help. For example, if we look up the word household, we see that naturally in the English language, the stress falls on the first syllable house-hold. If we do the same for alike, we see that the stress naturally falls on the last syllable while in dignity, the stress falls on the first and last syllable. This pattern of stressed syllables ensures us that this line is definitely in iambic pentameter:

  • "Two house-holds, both a-like in dig-ni-ty,..."

Hence, since the passage in the Prologue certainly contains everything that an English sonnet requires, we can confirm that the passage certainly is a typical Shakespearean sonnet.


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