What is the function of the prologue in Romeo and Juliet?

The prologue in Romeo and Juliet functions to inform the audience of the basic plot outline of the play.

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At the beginning of Shakespeare's famous prologue to Romeo and Juliet, he provides the setting and background information for the play. The prologue informs the audience that the action will center around two rival households in the city of Verona.

As the prologue proceeds, however, Shakespeare actually lays out...

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At the beginning of Shakespeare's famous prologue to Romeo and Juliet, he provides the setting and background information for the play. The prologue informs the audience that the action will center around two rival households in the city of Verona.

As the prologue proceeds, however, Shakespeare actually lays out the entire plot of the play that is about to unfold, down to the amount of time it will take. He tells the audience that two "star-crossed" lovers will have to die to resolve the decades-long feud between their families. He goes so far as to even suggest the ultimate moral takeaway from his play; "What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend," he writes, encouraging the audience to use the tragic events in his play to prevent similar tragedies in their own lives.

Although it might seem counter-intuitive to reveal the whole plot of a play in its prologue, without so much as a spoiler alert, this strategy actually serves to emphasize the sensation of fate in the play. The viewer already knows what tragic events are going to unfold and can do nothing to stop them; in this sense, they come to understand that the tragic journey of these "star-crossed" lovers is written in stone, despite their efforts to counteract their fate.

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The prologue which opens Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet provides a brief exposition of the play. The Chorus tells the audience that the play is set in Verona, Italy, and that the plot involves two feuding “households," or families, “both alike in dignity,” meaning of equal high stature.

More specifically, the prologue advises the audience that the plot of the play focuses on “a pair of star-crossed lovers” whose “misadventur'd piteous overthrows,” meaning that their attempts to overcome the hatred between their families will result in their deaths.

More than simply an introduction to the play, the prologue is a promise that Shakespeare makes to his audience. Shakespeare promises that, during the course of the play, the audience will see the events occur that are revealed in the prologue.

Most of the people in the audience for Romeo and Juliet would know the story of the ill-fated lovers Romeo and Juliet, and some would be familiar with the poem The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, published in 1562, which is one of the sources for Shakespeare’s play of Romeo and Juliet. In the prologue, Shakespeare implies that his version of the story will be different and better.

The Chorus also makes a promise to the audience that anything that’s been left out of the prologue will be shown or explained in the play, which heightens the audience's anticipation for the play.

CHORUS: The which if you with patient ears attend,

What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

Notable differences between the prologues of other Shakespeare plays and the prologue to Romeo and Juliet are that the prologue in Romeo and Juliet is much shorter, at only fourteen lines, and significantly more succinct than all of the other prologues, and the prologue in Romeo and Juliet is in the form of a sonnet. This raises the tone of the play and prepares the audience for the tragic story of the “star-crossed lovers” that follows.

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The prologue lays out for the audience what will happen in Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare tells us from the start that Romeo and Juliet are fated to kill themselves:

A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life.

However, Shakespeare also leaves enough information out to raise the theatergoer's curiosity, a fact he notes in the prologue:

If you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
In other words, if the audience stays and listens to the play, the rest of the pieces of this brief thumbnail sketch will be fleshed out so that viewers understand step-by-step what happened. The story will be entertaining.
But the question of why write a prologue at all remains. Most of Shakespeare's plays don't begin with such a summary of the action. One theory is that the play cuts so close to comedy in the beginning that Shakespeare wants his audiences to be clear from the start that he won't be attaching a happy ending to this tale. Another is that he is aware that his audiences might know the basic story so well from other sources that they will fear being bored. Therefore, he wants to reassure them of the surprising twists and turns to come. This makes sense, as Arthur Brooke's 1562 poem The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet was a widely read version of the story, and some, too, would be aware of Ovid's tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, another source.
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In Shakespeare's Prologue to Romeo and Juliet serves as an exposition of sorts.  In the form of a sonnet, the Prologue tells the audience that the play is set in Verona.  We learn of the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets, and we learn that a "pair of star-cross'd lovers" come from these feuding families. Furthermore, the Prologue tells audiences that the only thing that can put a stop to tne feud between the two families is the death of the title characters. 

While many question Shakespeare's motives for providing a summary of his play before Act 1 even begins (and indeed, he does give away the ending in his prologue), readers must remember that Shakespeare's plays were meant to be seen rather than read. The true genius of the play is evident as audiences--even those who know how the play will turn out--watch the tragedy with which the ending unfolds. 

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A prologue is an introduction to a literary or musical work that is separate from the main narrative. Instead of a first scene, which often exists in the time and place of a story, a prologue is a separate entity that offers insight into some aspect of a narrative. Prologues can be very important, or even famous, as in the case of Romeo and Juliet. 

The prologue of Romeo and Juliet is important because it sets up one of the dramatic devices that Shakespeare uses in the play: foreshadowing. In the prologue, the narrator announces that the two "star-crossed" lovers will end in tragedy. By doing this, the narrator is foreshadowing the end of the play. While this may seem like it is giving away the story, it is actually a technique used to increase dramatic tension. The audience becomes aware of how the play will end, but the characters are not given this information. The audience then sees the action unfolding, aware of the mistakes the characters are making. The audience may feel like they want to yell out, "No! Don't do that!" This tension is what makes Romeo and Juliet so exciting.  

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Romeo and Juliet may seem to lack the complexity often associated with Shakespeare's other plays because of its apparent simplistic themes and flow and the foregone conclusion, as indicated in The Prologue to the first act. However, The Prologue ensures that the audience is not fooled by circumstances or appearances, immediately setting out that the lovers will "take their life" (6). The audience is then under no illusion as to the extent of the damage that an "ancient grudge" (3) can do and The Prologue also quickens the pace, revealing how fast matters can spiral out of control, almost unnoticed, until it is too late. It also reveals that Romeo and Juliet become the sacrifice, as if some greater good can be achieved by ending "their parents' strife" (8). The Prologue is also intended to point out that anything that is not clear from the Prologue will become increasingly clear as the play unfolds, which is what Shakespeare means when he says, "our toil shall strive to mend," (14).  

Staging a play with a predictable ending requires action and passion from beginning to end. The Prologue to the second act is the only real interruption to that flow. It gives the audience a chance to prepare itself for the foregone conclusion. However, this prologue also serves to build suspense and reveals how the clash between the "extremities" (Prologue.II.14), being the two warring families, actually fuels Romeo and Juliet's love and strengthens it so that "passion lends them power" (13). This adds irony reiterating and confirming that the "grudge" is responsible for the tragic end. 

Interestingly, there are no further prologues to the subsequent acts as the play requires no further explanation and the series of events completes the cycle. If any member of the audience has any doubts, he or she need only consider the Prologue to Act I and the confirmation of events in the Prologue to Act II to remove confusion. The audience could even get so involved in the events as to wish to shout out to Romeo at the end in order to save him from his fate. The audience is completely absorbed and their own powerlessness makes it even more dramatic.

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In the prologue is when we are introduced to the problem of the story, the setting, the characters, and even the ending: The lovers whose houses are divided and in quarrel.

The prologue tells the entire story, so that the audience can in a way expect the tragic ending. However, the setup is also for the purpose of tuning into the story, and feeling the circumstances throughout the play that prevent the ending from being any different.

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