Rhyming in Romeo and Juliet
Before Shakespeare’s time most plays were written entirely in rhymed verse, but from the late 1580s the new blank verse plays sounded more real, while rhyme seemed old-fashioned. However, sometimes, as in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare reached for rhyme for the special effects that it creates. What are they?
Firstly, rhyme is the language of magic and spells. When we hear something in rhyme we are more prepared to believe it is telling us some truth: ‘A stitch in time saves nine.’ ‘Yes indeed’, we murmur – but, ‘A stitch in time saves eight,’ just sounds odd. If it rhymes we feel there must be something in it.
Rhyme, therefore, is associated with old wise sayings, and some of the rhyme in Romeo and Juliet is spoken by the older generation, trying to give advice to the young. Here’s the Friar admonishing Romeo:
Young son it argues a distempered head,
So soon to bid good morrow to thy bed.
We hear Lady Capulet preparing her daughter for the possibility of marriage in rather curious rhyming lines, and earlier Juliet’s father, perhaps less keen to get his daughter married off so soon, has been talking ‘wisely’ to Paris:
Let two more summers wither in their pride,
Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride.
If only his advice had been taken, perhaps Romeo and Juliet could have been a comedy – with a happy ending.
But rhyme is principally the language of love. The play begins with Romeo unable to cope with the fact that Rosaline doesn’t return his love. In his first scene, with Benvolio, rhyme – so often the sound of the frustrated love – helps Romeo to mock himself, and Rosaline:
And in strong proof of chastity well armed:
From love’s weak childish bow, she lives uncharmed...
She hath forsworn to love, and in that vow
Do I live dead, that live to tell it now.
Romeo’s also clever enough to out-rhyme others, for when Benvolio asks about Rosaline:
The she hath sworn, that she will still live in chaste?
Romeo ‘caps’ him with:
She hath, and in that sparing makes huge waste.
Rhyme is fun, and here Romeo is rhyming on purpose – but sometimes rhymes pop into our heads unexpectedly, and these, though rare, are times when rhyme shows us its most surprising face – as when Romeo first sees Juliet:
O she doth teach the torches to burn bright:
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night,
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear:
Beauty too rich for us to use, for earth too dear...
Did my heart love till now, forswear it sight,
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.
He is not ‘trying’ to rhyme, but the rhymes fall from his lips as he responds to his vision of perfection. Juliet, Romeo sees, is giving life to those things around her – the torches come alive and learn to burn more brightly; the night chooses to wear Juliet on its cheek. Romeo’s vision is a ‘bolt from the blue’ – and he’s convinced of the rightness of it, because he’s heard how his words have perfectly rhymed.
He takes Juliet by the hand, and together they improvise a sonnet. Their success in achieving this, together with the kiss that it leads to, proved they were destined for each other. However, in this lover’s game they were consciously seeking out these rhymes. Later though, once Juliet discovers who she has kissed – a Montague – she experiences her own ‘bolt from the blue’, and as it rhymes, though she is not meaning to rhyme, it sounds an unwelcome truth:
My only love sprung from my only hate,
Too early seen, unknown, and known to late,
Prodigious birth of love it is to me,
That I must love a loathed enemy.
These words, outlining the tale to come, sound as if some oracle is speaking through her. Rhymes like these seem to freeze the action for a while – and especially so where Shakespeare uses rhyme most frequently, at the ends of scenes. As a voice calls out for Juliet, the Nurse brings this particular scene to a rhyming end:
Come let’s away, the strangers are all gone.
Concluding rhymes like this, give us a sense of completion, the right word has slipped into place and nothing more need be said,
Most of the rhymes in Romeo and Juliet occur early in the play. Rhyme’s tendency is to hold things in suspension; it is not the language for getting things done. When Romeo meets Juliet later that evening, in the orchard, for example, blank verse takes over.
But rhyme will be heard at the end of the play:
A glooming peace this morning with it brings,
The sun for sorrow will not show his head;
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things,
Some shall be pardoned, and some punished.
For never was a story more of woe,
Than this of Juliet, and her Romeo.
And as we hear these lines, rhyme one more holds us in its frozen grasp.