One key to William Shakespeare’s play lies in its poetry. The play begins with a sonnet as prologue, a clue that the work to follow will trace the moods of a sonnet sequence. Thomas Nashe described Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella (1591), the best and most popular of the sonnet sequences of the 1590’s, as “the tragicomedy of love . . . performed by starlight,” an apt synopsis of Romeo and Juliet. Specific episodes in the play, such as the lovers’ nighttime meeting while the household sleeps (act 2, scene 2), seem copied from Sidney’s work. Like Astrophel, Romeo develops a more mature and tragic sense of love in the course of the play. In truncated sonnets of a quatrain and couplet, Benvolio urges Romeo to find another love to replace Rosaline, and Romeo swears eternal loyalty to her (act 1, scene 2). In act 1, scene 5, after seeing Juliet, Romeo and his new love compose a sonnet together, revealing their mutual love. When they begin a second sonnet, the nurse interrupts, foreshadowing how their love and their lives will be cut short.
Romeo’s language is derived from the sonnet, especially the Petrarchan conceits that Shakespeare parodied in sonnet 130, written about the same time as this play. In act 1, scene 5, Juliet accuses Romeo of kissing “by the book”; he certainly speaks by the book, like Astrophel studying “inventions fine, her wits to entertain” (Sidney’s sonnet 1). Later in the sequence,...
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