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The Shakespearean Sonnet

Sonnets in the play:

The Prologue to the play is a sonnet; the Prologue to Act 2 is a sonnet; and editors often identify the first fourteen lines of the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet (beginning with Romeo's "If I profane with my unworthiest hand") as a sonnet. In addition, Romeo's love-longing for Rosaline seems to be borrowed directly from the eternally suffering lover portrayed over and over in sonnets. Consider Mercutio's greeting to Romeo when Benvolio says, "Here comes Romeo":
Without his roe, like a dried herring: O flesh,
flesh, how art thou fishified! Now is he for the numbers
that Petrarch flowed in. Laura to his lady was a
kitchen-wench; marry, she had a better love to
be-rhyme her; Dido a dowdy; Cleopatra a gipsy;
Helen and Hero hildings and harlots; Thisbe a grey
eye or so, but not to the purpose.   (2.4.37-43)
Romeo without his "roe" is "me O," as in "O, me O, woe is me"; and a person who is wasting away looks as thin as a fish without roe (and a "dried herring" is the thinnest). The point is that Romeo's forelorn love for Rosaline is killing him, body and soul.
PETRARCH: 1304-1374. Italian poet, scholar, and humanist who is famous for Canzoniere, a collection of love lyrics.

LAURA: Petrarch's lady-love, who had hair like gold, a glance as dazzling as the sun, and the voice of an angel.

Mercutio's next point is that Romeo is about to burst into love poetry ("numbers") of the kind that Petrarch wrote about Laura. According to Mercutio, it is Romeo's opinion that Petrarch's Laura was only a "kitchen-wench" compared to Rosaline, and that other famous beauties were likewise nothing to Rosaline. The reference to Petrarch is in effect a reference to the hundreds of sonnets which were popular in Shakespeare's time, because Petrarch was considered to be the father of all sonnets.

Sonnets in Shakespeare's Time:

The sonnet was the most popular kind love poetry of Shakespeare's time, and love poetry in general was as popular as love songs are now. The craze for sonnets began June 5, 1557, with publication by Richard Tottel of SONGES AND SONNETTES, written by the rhyght honorable Lorde Henry Haward late Earle of Surrey, and other. This book (now usually referred to as "Tottel's Miscellany") was the first collection of poetry ever printed in English, and it was an immediate hit. Tottel sold all he printed, and issued another edition less than two months later, on July 31, 1557. For the second edition Tottel probably printed twice as many copies as he had the first time. After that, editions were printed in 1559, 1565, 1567, 1574, 1585, and 1587. Those are the editions from which a few copies still exist; there very well may have been more. During the same time period other collections of sonnets were published, making their authors famous, and Tottel's Miscellany itself continued to be popular, and it is mentioned by a character in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, which was written at about the same time as Romeo and Juliet.

QUATRAIN: A four-line section, with its own rhyme scheme.

RHYME SCHEME: The pattern of end rhymes in a poem, expressed as a string of letters. The rhyme of scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet is ababcdcdefefgg.

ALTERNATE RHYME: The rhyming of the last words of every other line of a poem.

COUPLET: Two successive lines joined by end rhyme.

The star poet of Tottel's Miscellany, the Earl of Surrey, created the English sonnet form by modifying Petrarch's sonnet form. (The English sonnet is also called the Shakespearean sonnet, but that's only because Shakespeare is so famous.) The form which Surrey created (three quatrains in alternate rhyme and a concluding couplet) is easier to write in English than the Petrarchan form, which has a more complicated rhyme scheme.

Surrey also borrowed his subject-matter from Petrarch. Petrarch wrote sonnets about his eternal, helpless, hopeless love for Laura; Surrey translated some of Petrarch's sonnets and wrote his own in the same vein. Following are two of Surrey's sonnets. In them you will recognize many of the characteristics of Romeo's psychological state when he believes he is in love with Rosaline -- self-pity, melancholy, affinity for the dark, indifference to everything except his hopeless love.

A COMPLAINT BY NIGHT OF THE LOVER
NOT BELOVED
  
Alas! so all things now do hold their peace!  
Heaven and earth disturbed in no thing  
The beasts, the air, the birds their song do cease,  
The nightés car the stars about do bring. car: chariot
Calm is the sea. The waves work less and less:  
So am not I, whom love, alas! doth wring,  
Bringing before my face the great increase  
Of my desires, whereat I weep and sing,  
In joy and woe, as in a doubtful case.  
For my sweet thoughts sometime do pleasure bring;  
But by and by, the cause of my disease  
Gives me a pang, that inwardly doth sting,  
     When that I think what grief it is again,  
     To live and lack the thing should rid my pain.  
   
A VOW TO LOVE FAITHFULLY, HOWSOEVER
HE BE REWARDED
  
Set me whereas the sun doth parch the green,  
Or where his beams do not dissolve the ice;  
In temperate heat, where he is felt and seen;  
In presence prest of people, mad, or wise; presence prest: amidst a great crowd
Set me in high, or yet in low degree;  
In longest night, or in the shortest day;  
In clearest sky, or where clouds thickest be;  
In lusty youth, or when my hairs are gray:  
Set me in heaven, in earth, or else in hell,  
In hill, or dale, or in the foaming flood;  
Thrall, or at large, alive whereso I dwell, thrall: imprisoned
Sick, or in health, in evil fame or good,  
     Hers will I be; and only with this thought  
     Content myself, although my chance be nought.  

So What?

Shakespeare's audience would know that sonnets were usually melancholy love poems, so it would seem appropriate that the introduction to this woeful love story is delivered in the form of a sonnet. And when Romeo is first described, it seems as though he is exactly the sort of lover who appears in Surrey's Petrarchan sonnets. Romeo's love for Rosaline is just what might be expected of a young man of his time, and a bit ridiculous, but he is transformed by his love for Juliet.

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