Romeo and Juliet as a Sonnet

This is an essay I wrote for 21L.004 (Introduction to Poetry).

The play Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare begins with a sonnet delivered by the chorus. This sonnet gives an overview of what is to follow, so the audience is not at all surprised when Romeo and Juliet together reach their untimely end (however, the details are withheld until it is dramatically appropriate for the audience). The Shakespearean sonnet, as a poetic form, has a definite structure: there is a sort of proposition, given by the first lines, and the final lines make a thematic turn to see the proposition in a new light. Since Romeo and Juliet begins immediately with a sonnet which reflects the play, there is a hint that the play might also mirror the sonnet. The thesis of this paper is that the play Romeo and Juliet actually does have a structural similarity to Shakespearean sonnets and that this structure juxtaposes comedy with tragedy. The contrast resulting from this juxtaposition strengthens the effect of the tragedy, by the same principle that a falling object delivers a greater impact when it is initially raised higher. This paper will also argue in this framework that the play is actually a comedy because the story is more about the feuding families than it is about Romeo and Juliet, so it is a comedy because it is a tragedy.

A Shakespearean sonnet is a lyric poem of fourteen lines in iambic pentameter composed of three quatrains of four lines each, ending with a couplet of two lines. Traditionally, a sonnet begins with a theme or proposition, and the theme makes a turn in the third quatrain or in the couplet where the sonnet changes in character. The change in the character of the poem illuminates the original proposition or theme in a new way because it can be examined again from a different point of view. For instance, Shakespeare in sonnet CXXX spends three quatrains describing the appearance of his mistress by noting all of the pleasant things which she is not like, but, in the couplet, he says that he loves her and that making such comparisons fails to give his true impression of her.

The bare essence of a sonnet is that there are two parts with similar thematic material, but the second has a different character which draws attention to particular features of the first part in a new way. So, we may speak of something as being like a sonnet if it is clear that there are two parts which have this bare essence of being a sonnet. As an aside, the third movement of almost any Classical symphony is sonnet-like. The structure of a third movement is generally a minuet and trio, which are two pieces of similar thematic material, where the minuet is generally of somewhat heavier character than the trio. The pieces are played played one after another, and the change in character is a contrast which brings out features of each of the pieces. The trio, being more delicate, would not be able to be played alone without the minuet before it. Similarly, the conclusion of sonnet CXXX would not be as strong without being able to contrast with the material of the first three quatrains.

Now that one can see how things which are not sonnets can be like sonnets, this paper will show Romeo and Juliet is like a sonnet. This paper will discuss three things which support the play being like a sonnet: the play has a definite point at which the character of the play turns, the play after this turning point, due to the contrast, illuminates the play before the turning point, and, beginning at the turning point, the play seems to shift from being a comedy to being a tragedy. Since this play was composed by a competent writer, it has a coherent story, so it is clear that the play before and after the turning point have related thematic material, as the play after this point is a dramatic continuation of what preceded it. Because of this, there is no need to belabor arguing that the play has two similar parts to show it is sonnet-like.

The play changes character dramatically in Act III, Scene I, as Mercutio is slain. Before the death of Mercutio, there is a sense of lightheartedness throughout the play. In Act I, the the most serious event is the scrimmage between the Montagues and the Capulets, which occurs in Scene I. In this scene, members of the families have a minor battle, and then the Prince explains to everyone that he is tired of their fighting. As this is Act I, this scene is mainly for the purpose of exposition so that the audience is fully aware of the conflict between the two families. Otherwise, the first two acts consist of a plentiful degree wordplay (such as in Act I, Scene IV when Mercutio is introduced and in Act II, Scene IV when he, Benvolio, and Romeo are having fun), a big party, love poems, and a marriage. Interestingly, the first two acts are the only acts which contain sonnets. In addition, these are the only two acts which have prologues, which are delivered as sonnets by the chorus.

In contrast, the play after this turning point, which consists of the final three acts, are noticeably darker than the preceding two acts. By the end of the third act, two people are killed, Romeo is banished from Verona, and Juliet is faced with the threat of having to marry the County Paris. By the end of the fourth act, one may think that the play is on the verge of turning for the better, but at the beginning of the fifth act the rest of the play is set since Romeo has decided to poison himself due to irremediably given misinformation.

The play after the turning point illuminates the material of the first two acts in a new way. The following is an example of this. The dramatic continuation in the last three acts illuminates the flaws in the characters of Romeo and Juliet when contrasted with the first two acts. Before the turning point, the play portrays Romeo and Juliet as exchanging sweet nothings and simply being young people in love. They are incredibly excited at having found each other, and, due to this, they decide to immediately get married. However, the play after the turning point shows that haste was one of their weaknesses. Their haste in the first acts made them happy, but, as Friar Laurence foreshadows in Act II, Scene IV when he says to Romeo “Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast,” the haste of Romeo and Juliet greatly contributes to their demise. For instance, when Romeo finds out about Juliet’s supposed death, instead of taking time to make sure he is thinking, he immediately runs to the apothecary to get material to poison himself. Even Juliet, who was generally more levelheaded than Romeo, upon waking to find Romeo dead, impulsively kills herself. Another example is that the ominous family feud which had been set up and lightly touched upon in the first two acts is more closely examined in the last three acts. To Romeo and Juliet, the feud was an abstract notion which got in the way of their love (that is, Act II, Scene II, “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo!”), and they ignored it. However, the second part of the play activates the feud to show that they were playing with a danger they really could not ignore.

At this point, it is clear that Romeo and Juliet is like a sonnet: the thematic material of the play is partitioned into two parts, where the second part examines the first part closer by changing its character. The goal of this paper henceforth is to understand in what sense this play is a comedy.

In ancient Greek tradition, the genres of tragedy and comedy were something of opposites. A tragedy tends to be a fairly heavy work which deals with human suffering and explores the downfall of its characters, whereas a comedy is generally light and ends happily. After the turning point at the beginning of the third act, the play gets very heavy for reasons already mentioned. Both Romeo and Juliet, having weaknesses in character, meet their downfall, and Montague and Capulet lose their children. The last three acts of the play are, without a doubt, a tragedy. But, the first two acts are very different in character: they are light, they have many jokes, there is a sweet romance with love poems, and the second act arguably ends happily since Romeo and Juliet end up married and look as though they one another. By all appearances, it seems the first two acts are from a comedy. Therefore, it appears the play is divided up into a comedy and a tragedy, where the switch occurs at the death of Mercutio. The effect this has on the play is that, as soon as the play starts to get heavy, the tragedy hits harder because of its juxtaposition with the comedy which immediately preceded it.

In a sense, however, the entire play is also a comedy. Unlike in Hamlet, where everyone present ends up dying, in Romeo and Juliet, the death of the namesake characters force Montague and Capulet to make peace after many years of feuding. In a sense, then, the tragedy caused by the feuding families effects a happy ending. In another story, it could have been the case that Montague and Capulet ultimately blame each other for the death of their respective child, maintaining their feud. Instead, Verona reaches peace. The play can be seen as a comedy which takes a detour into tragedy and ends with a somewhat happy ending. And, the tragedy is present because, with feuding families, death is inevitable. In fact, one could argue that this play was actually a dark comedy about Montague and Capulet, who were trying to keep their peace while sustaining a feud, but the subplot of their respective children marrying and ultimately killing themselves because of the feud brings bittersweet happiness to the families.

In conclusion, the play Romeo and Juliet is a tragicomedy whose large-scale structure is like a sonnet. It is clearly a tragedy because the main characters reach their downfall and there is a sense of heaviness to the work, but not so obvious is that it is a comedy. The large-scale structure of the play is that of a sonnet because there are two main sections which have similar thematic material, and the second has different character than the first, giving the audience a new vantage point of the exposition. The turning point of the play as a sonnet is roughly when Mercutio is killed by Tybalt at the beginning of the third act. Then, the play before Mercutio’s death is mainly comedic, while the play after his death is mainly tragic. But, tragedy effects a happy ending in that the Montagues and the Capulets will no longer feud, and so Romeo and Juliet is also a comedy.