In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, what does Capulet mean when he says, "Our solemn hymns to sullen dirges change?"

Expert Answers
shake99 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The line you are asking about comes from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Act IV, Scene V. At this point in the play, Juliet has taken a drug that makes her seem to be dead. Her goal here is to trick everyone into believing she is dead and to be buried in her family’s tomb, and thus avoid her arranged marriage to Paris. Then, Romeo is supposed to meet her at the tomb and they will leave together, escaping the control of their families and supposedly living happily ever after.

Paris has just arrived at the Capulet’s house. Then the nurse, Lady Capulet, and Lord Capulet enter Juliet’s room and “discover” that she is dead (of course, she is not really). The three begin to grieve loudly and painfully. Friar Laurence, who is part of Romeo and Juliet’s plan, arrives and tries to comfort them. At about this point, Lord Capulet says:

All things that we ordained festival,
Turn from their office to black funeral;
Our instruments to melancholy bells,
Our wedding cheer to a sad burial feast,
Our solemn hymns to sullen dirges change,
Our bridal flowers serve for a buried corse,
And all things change them to the contrary.

Capulet’s point is that they were about to celebrate Juliet’s marriage. That’s why he is using terms like festival, instruments, wedding cheer, hymns, and flowers. But finding Juliet dead “changes them to the contrary,” so he counterbalances the happy terms with gloomy words like black, burial, sad, sullen, and buried.

The specific line you are asking about, “Our solemn hymns to sullen dirges change,” means that the celebratory hymns that they were planning to sing at the wedding will now have to be unhappy dirges (which are generally songs or poems for the dead, performed at funerals). 

William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Shakespeare evidently liked to play with the notion of things morphing into their opposites due to changing circumstances. In the opening soliloquy by Gloster in Richard III he says:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums chang'd to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.   (I.i)

And when Hamlet first greets Horatio in Hamlet, the prince explains his mother's hasty remarriage in a joking way:

Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.     (I.ii)

In the last act of Hamlet, when Queen Gertrude is strewing flowers on Ophelia's corpse, she says:

I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife,
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck'd, sweet maid,
And not have strew'd thy grave.                     (V.i)

kath555554444 | Student

When Caplet realizes Juliet is "dead", he is scolded by Friar Lawrence that him(and the nurse, prince and lady caplet) were rushing and oushing juliet into the marriage, causing juliet to "kill herself". Sullen dirges are sad funeral song. So he is basically sa6ing happy wedding songs are changed to sad funeral song.

tyler-k | Student

In the No Fear Shakespeare edition of the play, it translates that line to say:

"Our celebratory hymns will change to sad funeral marches."

They believe that Juliet is dead, Capulet is speaking of the change in mood from happy to somber.

Wiggin42 | Student

Our solemn hymns to sullen dirges change,

The phrase " solemn hymns" refers to joyful songs and music played at celebrations and other happy events. The phrase "sullen dirges" refers to unhappy and sorrowful song. Capulet says this to show how Juliet's actions have caused them to change the purpose of their gathering.