The first time I read Romeo and Juliet, I was a freshman in high school. And, like many other high school freshmen, I hated every minute of it.
When I was first introduced to Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, I was already exhausted by the oversaturation of Romeo and Juliet in pop culture—everything from Leo DiCaprio’s 90s portrayal of a gangster Romeo to the 2013 film Warm Bodies seemed fixated on reinventing a story that had gotten old. It felt like every love story was measured against Romeo and Juliet, and as a freshman, it made me gag.
It wasn’t until I read the play again in college that I realized how closed-minded I had been. I studied Shakespeare again in my freshman year of college, and my professor introduced Romeo and Juliet by teaching us about Shakespeare’s sonnets. Before he had us read the play, he showed the class act 1, scene 5, the scene where Romeo and Juliet meet, and he pointed out the sonnet embedded in the text:
Romeo: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My two lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Juliet: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
Romeo: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do!
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Romeo: Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by thine my sin is purged.
I was blown away, to say the least. In the middle of the scene were Shakespeare’s signature fourteen lines of iambic pentameter (the last line not counting as part of the sonnet). It had an ABAB rhyme scheme and ended with a heroic couplet and the lovers’ first kiss. As it turns out, there are three sonnets total in the play: one in the opening prologue, one at the beginning of act 2 (both recited by the chorus), and one in act 1, scene 5, where Romeo and Juliet first meet.
Learning the context and history of Shakespeare’s sonnets added a new dimension to the play and made it more interesting than it had been before. Sonnets are much older than Shakespeare and go back to Italian love poems from the thirteenth century. They are traditionally declarations of unrequited love, so to see the two characters meet each other in a sonnet is like seeing them engage in a dance.
But sonnets are supposed to be about unrequited feelings—the lovers aren’t supposed to get together in the end. The speaker is never supposed to get his love; the love object is never supposed to speak in the first place. It all goes against tradition. This particular sonnet in act 1, scene 5, breaks all the rules by allowing both Romeo and Juliet to participate and even kiss, an act that ultimately leads to their tragic fate. The sonnets really made the tragedy of the story sink in—I finally saw how deep the story went. The love and the tragedy were embedded in the poetry of the play, so it no longer mattered how different interpretations dressed it up or down. The romance was no longer repulsive because it was connected to a history of tragic love stories that I had been completely unaware of.
Romeo and Juliet has been told and retold and reimagined so many times that it’s understandable to feel like you know the story before you’ve even read the play. It’s easy to roll your eyes at iterations of “wherefore art thou, Romeo” and “what light through yonder window breaks” and miss the poetry printed on the page. So if romance isn’t your thing, that’s fine—this play, full of keen language and a rich lineage of heartbreak, has so much more to offer.