Romeo and Juliet Navigator:
Detailed Summary of the Prologue to the Play
- Enter Chorus:
The Chorus tells us the plot of the play, and what kind of play it is.
A single actor, the Chorus, comes forth to command our attention with a statement of a problem: "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" (Prologue 1-4). The key word is "civil," and the phrase "civil blood" is a paradox. Citizens of a town ought to be civil; that is, they ought to show respect for one another and get along. But too often, they don't. They engage in civil wars and shed "civil blood," which wouldn't happen if they were really civil. This paradoxical situation exists in "fair Verona," but the following phrase "where we lay our scene," implies that it could happen anywhere. Why? Not because one side is right and the other wrong. The households are "alike in dignity," and the "grudge" doesn't belong only to one or the other. It's "ancient," beyond memory. And as the two sides share the grudge, they also share the guilt. Both sides mutiny against the peace of the town, making their "civil hands unclean."
The next four lines of the prologue tell us how the problem is solved, the plot of the play, and what kind of play it is: "From forth the fatal loins of these two foes / A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life; / Whose misadventured piteous overthrows / Do with their death bury their parents' strife (Prologue 5-8). The "cross'd" in "star-cross'd" means hindered, frustrated, thwarted, and defeated. Such will be the love of Romeo and Juliet, because of the stars. In the stars is the destiny that causes "misadventured piteous overthrows." An "adventure" is a happenstance, a piece of luck, good or bad. When an airplane falls out of the sky or an innocent family is wiped out by a drunk driver, the victims have suffered "misadventured piteous overthrows." Today, we still feel pity for the victims of such an event and call it a "tragedy," and that is the sort of tragedy that Romeo and Juliet is. Because of the kind of tragedy it is, our pity is greater if we know from the beginning how it's going to turn out, as in movies from Casa Blanca to Titanic. Against the dark background of death, Romeo and Juliet's love shines bright, and in the end triumphs by ending the feud between their families.
The rest of the prologue repeats the message that the lovers will die and their deaths will stop the feud, then tells us that all this will be shown in "two hours' traffic [business] of our stage" (Prologue 12). If modern actors tried to cram all the words of Romeo and Juliet into two hours, they would have to talk so fast that no one could understand a word, but maybe all the words in the present text weren't delivered in Shakespeare's time either, because the last line of the prologue promises that "What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend" (Prologue 14), which means that if the audience doesn't like something, the actors will try to fix it in a future performance.