ShakesBlog #1 -- Romeo and Juliet: Prologue

Welcome to the start of a new endeavor!

(No, Hamilblog fans, you haven't missed anything -- I'll be closing out the last bit of "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?" next week!)

If you're new to my rhetorical ramblings, I will point you towards this primer. It's a basic breakdown of what rhetoric is, why I think it's important, and how I conceptualize and visualize it.

As I begin Romeo and Juliet, I feel it worth offering this caveat: 

There are probably not a lot of people in the world who have spent as much time thinking about the rhetorical devices in Hamilton as I have. In fact, I might venture my own singularity there. There are definitely people who have spent more time than I have thinking about Shakespeare's rhetoric, though. Possibly not a large crowd, but they're certainly out there. I know many of them. I've read and listened to more. Some of them may be reading this! (Hi, friends!)

And so, with that in mind, this disclaimer: I will not find every rhetorical device in this play. I know I won't. It's actually one of my favorite things both about Shakespeare and about rhetoric -- you can always find something new to dig into. Come back in a week, a month, a year, a decade, and your eyes will find something new to delight in. You, dear readers, may see things I don't, and that's awesome. I always loved those moments in workshops, when a student pointed out something I'd never noticed before in a speech I'd studied a thousand times, or when they offered me a new angle on what I thought I knew about it. But I'm going to crack open this plays' bones and get as much marrow as I may.

Now. On to the show.

Romeo and Juliet opens with a prologue -- or, at least, it does in some editions. For the purposes of this blog, I've decided to use Q2-- the second quarto version of the text, printed in 1599, as modernized on Internet Shakespeare Editions. Q1 is a much different play, and the Folio, while largely the same as Q2, is missing things like the Prologue. Q2 is the base text for most productions of the show you'd see on the stage, so it seems a solid choice. (And if you're interested in more about those editions, I'll... do a video about textual variants sometime!)

The Chorus in Romeo and Juliet doesn't have the same function as a traditional Greek chorus. It doesn't stick around to comment on the action; in fact, Shakespeare seems to forget about it after the start of Act Two. In the Prologue, the Chorus speaks on behalf of the playing company, setting out for the audience the broad strokes of the story they're about to see. (Early modern audiences were not, in the least, fussed about spoilers).

It's worth noting, though not of rhetorical significance, that the Prologue is also a sonnet: 14 lines with a specific rhyming pattern. It's not he last one we'll see in the show.

If you've been following the Hamilblog, the rhetorical patterns here are going to look starkly different even at a glance:

All those arrows! One device that Shakespeare uses a lot which many modern writers don't is hyperbaton, the disorder of syntax. It's so common in Shakespeare that, much like the rhyme schemes in Hamilton, I'm probably not often going to comment on it, unless it seems particularly significant to a given moment. I will mark it, however, so that you can see how frequent or infrequent it is, as that can often say a lot about a speech or scene, and I do want to take a moment to discuss it here at the top, though, because hyperbaton is the culprit behind why many people find Shakespeare difficult.

For as flexible as the English language is, we sort of expect words to come in a certain order. We can recognize clauses and prepositional phrases, but when the subject and verb aren't where we anticipate them being, our brains need a moment to untangle things. My recommendation, when you hit Shakespeare that confuses the dickens out of you, is to pull it apart and put it back together in the order that makes syntactical sense. Find your subject and verb, then figure out what else is going on in the sentence. Then ask why isn't the sentence written in the order your brain expects? It's not just "how people talked back then"; Shakespeare writes some of the simplest sentences  you can imagine. When he's engaging in disorder, it's often to tell us something about the character: that they're trying to hide information, or that they're too emotional to speak in a sensible fashion. My mentor also suggested that, in some cases, the hyperbaton may reflect a character who is or who is trying to appear well-educated, since it often emulates Latin syntax.

Here, though, I think something else is at play, since he's trying to fit the patterns of a sonnet. The hyperbaton seems to serve the rhyme scheme. It also helps to underscore some of the devices of contrast.

The Chorus begins by introducing us to our main premise: the feud between the houses. Throughout the Prologue, we see nested devices of description, and we see devices of comparison and contrast. "Both alike in dignity" is an example of appositio, the addition of an explanatory or descriptive element. It's almost off-hand, and the pleonasm of "both alike" emphasizes that there is no difference between these two houses. Pleonasm is a grammatical superfluity. You could just say, "Two households, alike in dignity". The "both" isn't necessary, but it serves to amplify the statement. Shakespeare is flat-out making it clear in the first line that these families are exactly the same, y'all. There's no reason for them to be at each others' throats.

The second line gives us a parenthetical note on the location, with the appositio of "where we lay our scene" nested within the parenthesis. The Prologue thus yokes the real and the unreal together: these things did not really happy in fair Verona, but for the next two hours, you, audience, will believe that they are real -- and so the Chorus treats them as such. There's no hedging of "your imagination needs to fill in the gaps" as there is in Henry V's prologue; this Chorus expects you to buy-in fully, setting the scene as though it is fact.

We are then treated to nested devices of comparison an contrast. "Fair Verona" balances with "civil blood", as "ancient grudge" does to "new mutiny". Considering that the entire Prologue is about two families in opposition to each other, these devices of contrast (antithesis where things are direct opposites, syncrisis if the things in opposition are less polarized) feel significant. The repetition of "civil" (epanalepsis, repetition after intervening matter) helps with that sense of balance, too.

The next line gives us a bit of ellipsis, leaving out something like "coming". The consonance of "f" makes me think of the swishing "fwip-fwip" of a sword. Shakespeare also gives us some prosopopeia, personification, granting human qualities to non-human things. One's loins are rarely, themselves, fatal (cases of venereal disease excepted, I suppose). The fatality derives from what comes out of those loins -- and so we could also consider this an example of synecdoche, where a part represents the whole.

"Take their life" is a small example of enallage, a grammatical substitution, since really it ought to be "lives". "Misadventured piteous" seems an example of congeries: the piling up words of differing meaning but for a similar emotional effect. "Misadventured" and "piteous" aren't quite synonyms (and they're not grammatically redundant, so it's not pleonasm), but the audience doesn't really need both words to understand that a tragedy occurs. Using both carries an emotional effect.

In the third quartet of the sonnet, we amp up the contrast. "Love" stands in antithesis to both "death" and "rage", "parents" to "children", and "nought could remove" to "but their children's end". The line "Which but their children's end nought could remove" is an example of peristasis, the description of attendant circumstances, and within that, "but their children's end" feels like epanorthosis, addition by correction -- though, usually, that corrective would follow the statement it corrects, not precede it. Normal syntax would read "Which nought could remove but their children's end". The disorder might just be a way of getting the rhyme, but it may also reflect the chaos of a universe in which parents outlive their children.

"Patient ears" is another example of prosopopoeia that we might also read as synecdoche: your ears must be patient, and so must the rest of you. Shakespeare also cleverly asks the audience's indulgence with the "two hours' traffic" metaphor -- and he tells us all how long to expect the play to last. (At the American Shakespeare Center, we tend to assume that you can do 20 lines of verse in a minute; at about 3000 lines, plus fights and dancing, Romeo and Juliet probably clocks in at more like two and a half).

The final line closes out with more contrast, between "miss" and "mend", and more hyperbaton, in "here shall miss" instead of "shall miss here". Shakespeare is hitting us hard from the start with the ideas of conflict and disorder, which will color this entire play.

So! I hope you've enjoyed this teaser of the ShakesBlog and will join us for the exploration of Romeo and Juliet!

Next time: Sampson and Gregory are... teenage boys, telling teenage boy jokes.

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