A pair of star-crossed lovers
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.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur'd piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
In a sonnet no one would claim as Shakespeare's best, the chorus
reports a feud between two families "alike in dignity" (of equal
social rank), the Montagues and Capulets. Romeo, a Montague, and
Juliet, a Capulet, are the "pair of star-cross'd lovers" whose
misadventures and deaths will finally put an end to the feud.
"Star-cross'd" means "opposed (crossed) by the stars," the arbiters
of man's fate. As sophisticated as Renaissance thought was in many
ways, the Copernican revolution had yet to have much of an impact.
It was still popularly believed that the celestial order directly
affected the affairs of the world.
Romeo and Juliet, only the second of Shakespeare's ten
tragedies, relies heavily on the rhetoric and devices of the
classical tragedies Renaissance dramatists used as models. A
prologue delivered by a chorus is one such device; and, as
prologues generally did, this one lays out the "argument" (plot and
moral) of the play. Suspense was not important to the audiences who
came to see Romeo and Juliet—most of them would already have known
the story anyway.