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Case Study: Romeo and Juliet

A convenient place to illustrate the benefits of valuing the uncertainties that characterize Shakespeare's
language is the prologue to "Romeo and Juliet:"
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-crossed lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-marked love
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which, if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
This sonnet differs from the passage in "Cymbeline" with which we began in two important ways: it is a far
more familiar passage of Shakespeare, and its vocabulary is far more sophisticated. Both of these
characteristics make it even more difficult than the lines of "Cymbeline" to read. In the first place, we know
what it is saying (who does not know the story of these lovers?) and, if we do not, we will know once we
have the most superficial experience of the play it introduces; so close attention to these fourteen lines can
seem unnecessary. And in the second place, many of the words that the poem uses (dignity, mutiny, civil,
loins, misadventured, piteous, overthrows, passage, continuance, traffic, patient, attend, toil) seem
inappropriate to or at least oddly distanced from the dilemma of the lovers. It can be tempting, in other
words, to paraphrase this poem in light of what we know the play that it introduces is about and move
quickly on.

Much, however, is to be gained by taking Shakespeare at his word, much about the play and much about
the value of collective effort in trying to come to terms with something difficult. In working through this
sonnet, different levels of linguistic sophistication in a class can be positively valuable. It is not just that
stronger students can help the weaker ones. It will sometimes be the case that students for whom the poem
presents a higher degree of difficulty will ask the crucial questions or disrupt the premature conclusion. In
light of the attitude toward education we have been discussing, the ambiguities and uncertainties that the
surface of this poem presents are far more interesting than a coherent interpretation or a paraphrase of it.
In taking the poem at its words, a teacher, if she can risk her students' impatience, will find them helpful
(even if apparently unwilling) collaborators. When they pronounce it confusing and boring, it will open up
important issues - in the play and perhaps more broadly in a discussion of human conflict - to support the
reasons for their frustrations rather than simply offering corrections or explanations.

Dignity, for example, in the first line, may seem an odd word in its surprisingly specific suggestion that the
issue that drives the conflict of this story is a matter of money or social status or pride. It can be
provocative to allow these issues into a discussion of the reason for the frustration the lovers experience
when their families' hatred seems an obstacle to them.

Mutiny can appear to be a wholly incongruous word. To modern ears, it suggests rebellion at sea; but even
if we correct for that (as a dictionary will lead us to do) and return it to its meaning of rebellion, it will seem
out of place in a poem introducing this play. In the third line, the poem is still talking about the families, the
"households"; and while it may be easy to think of the young people in the play as rebelling against the
prohibition of their families that they might love one another, it is a challenge to that perception to find the
prologue sonnet calling not the lovers' passion but rather the outbreak of the ancient quarrel rebellious.
Civil will likely seem (once the students, perhaps, if they do not know the word, have looked it up) stuffy
and so all the more annoying in its being repeated. Its root-word connection to the word city may be a way
to help students register and articulate the odd feature of the poem whereby it does not mention the proper
names of the lovers, nor even of the families, only the name of the city. In other words, we may come to
this play eager to encounter Romeo and Juliet, Montagues and Capulets; but the prologue has something
else on its mind.

With luck, loins will get snickered at, and so it will be exciting to consider the implications of fatal loins.
Again, patient attention to the way the poem unfolds will force the realization that the poem, at this point, is
talking, not about the lovers, whose desire for each other does prove fatal, but the parents.

Misadventured and piteous in succession deserve to be called what they so obviously are - pretentiously big
words - and, again with a dictionary perhaps, students can fairly ask whether they are in any sense
preferable to simpler synonyms. Having them piled on one another in a single line makes this question all
the more to the point. If what happens to the lovers is so obviously unlucky and sad, why does the prologue
need to overstate that?

If attend is confusing, the confusion runs deep into the prologue and into the issue of how we experience a
play. If Shakespeare means "listen to," why does he use a word that primarily conveys "show up for? Why is
hearing so much the issue? And what do we make of the way are we tempted to hear here as repeating that
same idea?

These comments do not exhaust the good questions that can be raised by paying attention to the odd
vocabulary of the poem, but we will conclude with a comment on a phrase that does not seem, at first, odd
at all: take their life seems a clear statement of the outcome of the play's story. Some students (possibly
those who could be candid about their interest in loins) will realize that "take their life" means "come into
being." Most, however, will say, without unraveling the grammar of the fifth and sixth lines of the poem,
that it means "commit suicide." These latter are, in an absolute sense, wrong; but they have a point. The
words do plant the suggestion of suicide, even though that reading of what they literally mean at this point
in the poem is incorrect. It can be tempting to let the matter go at saying that the phrase in the context of
the sonnet means both things, but a teacher might consider pushing for a more complicated response: only
by recognizing that one reading is more grammatically justifiable than the other do we begin to see the
significance of the disagreement. There is a crucial political - civil-lesson to be learned by realizing how a
wrong answer, or the argument of one's muddle-headed opponent, can convey an insight.

All in all, the elements of this poem that resist being comprehended and resolved into some alignment with
the story the students anticipate can set an agenda for a consideration of the play as it unfolds. Some of
these elements will surface again as the students encounter the details of "Romeo and Juliet." And some,
perhaps many, will not. The sonnet has a wild energy that the ensuing play may not completely justify. So
long as there is some payoff, it will persuade students of the value of letting their intellects work on the
mysterious features of Shakespeare's language. Conveying that value by making it the pretext for thinking
more deeply about the situation of the play is the point.

It is the value of entertaining, provisionally and playfully (for the sake of argument, as the old phrase has it)
words that do not, at first, convey anything we think is relevant. In entering that provisional state, students
can learn to test possibilities, discard some and follow through on others. They can experience frustration
and learn to overcome it. They must defend their own insights and try to appreciate others. In this
condition, there is no certainty, but there may be, as the lines from "Cymbeline" suggest, something more
important. We should keep on calling that thing sympathy: the intimation of connection before it can be
assured. Sympathy is a human impulse to reach out across the differences of language and experience.
Sympathy is the capacity to understand another and even one's self in the midst of confusion. Sympathy is
something that the resistant but finally richly communicative language of poetry can keep at the center of
what goes on in our schools.
NOTE: We quote the lines from "Cymbeline" from The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed., ed. G. Blakemore
Evans (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997) and the lines from "Romeo and Juliet" from the New Folger
Library edition of that play, eds. Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine (New York: Pocket Books, 1992). Like
most editions of Shakespeare, whether complete (like the Riverside) or single-volume (like the Folger
editions), each of these editions has introductory material to help students encounter the strange features of
Shakespeare's language, and each has a strategy to provide reading help to students as they move through
the plays. In the Riverside, explanatory notes and glosses are at the bottom of the page, and there is no
signal to the reader in the text itself to prompt a reader to look for help. In the Folger texts, these helps are
on the left-hand page, with the text of the play on the right. Both editions, in other words, seem to want the
reader to seek assistance only when needed. Our point is not to endorse these particular editions but to take
the opportunity of acknowledging our use of these texts to note how their presentation of help encourages
readers to think first on their own about the meaning of what they are reading.


About the Authors

By D. Kay Johnston, Department of Educational Studies, Colgate
Margaret Maurer, Department of English, Colgate University