William Shakespeare is remembered today not only as one of the preeminent dramatists in world literature but also as one of the greatest writers of sonnets in the English language. Most of Shakespeare’s sonnets appear in a collection of more than 150 such poems titled Sonnets, first printed in 1609, perhaps without his permission. However, some of Shakespeare’s sonnets also appear in his plays, including Romeo and Juliet.
The prologue to that play, for instance, takes the form of a sonnet. The use of this form as a prologue to Romeo and Juliet seems highly appropriate, since the play is about love and since the sonnet was a form especially associated with love in Shakespeare’s era. The sonnet prologue to the play sums up the main action of the drama, and it does so in a way that is neat and tidy – not the sort of device Shakespeare would be likely to use in his later, more mature, and arguably more powerful tragedies, such as Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, or Macbeth. The use of a sonnet to summarize Romeo and Juliet, however, seems appropriate.
The prologue sonnet is a prime example of Shakespeare in firm command of a definite, prescribed, conventional form. This sonnet consists of three quatrains and a couplet. Each quatrain ends with firm stops in punctuation (two periods and a semicolon), and this fact once again calls attention to the neat and precise art of this sonnet. Yet immediately following this neat and controlled piece of art is the chaos of the play’s opening scene. The orderliness of the sonnet helps emphasize, through contrast, the disorderliness of the opening scene, and vice versa. This kind of juxtaposition is typical of the skillfulness of Shakespeare’s art.
Another sonnet as appears as a prologue to Act 2 of the play. Once again, then, Shakespeare calls attention to the artistry and artifice of the play he is writing. He calls explicit attention to the play as a play – something he does much less obviously, much more subtly, in his later tragedies. This new sonnet sums up the preceding action and forecasts the action to come. Once again, a sonnet is used to highlight the status of the play as a work of art.
Much more understated is another possible sonnet within the play – the fourteen-line passage that appears when Romeo and Juliet first kiss:
93 If I profane with my unworthiest hand
94 This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
95 My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
96 To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
97 Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
98 Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
99 For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
100 And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
101 Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
102 Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
103 O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
104 They pray — grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
105 Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
106 Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.
Here the fourteen lines form a kind of sonnet, but probably not one that would have been recognized by the play’s first auditors. Shakespeare seems to have written this “sonnet” almost as a kind of game played to amuse and satisfy himself – a clear indication of a writer who took pride in his talent even if he was the only one who knew how his talent was being used.