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In the Act 1 Prologue to the play Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

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.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

Shakespeare spoils the whole play, telling the audience the entire premise of two lovers meeting and that they eventually "take their life". Surely revealing this at the start of the play kills of tension as the audience already knows Romeo and Juliet will die at the end? If so, what benefit was their for revealing this information at the start of the play?

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    There are more reasons to enjoy a play other than the surprise at a plot twist that a spoiler ruins. One thing to take away from this prologue is that maybe this surprise was less valued in relation to other things at the time the play was created. – user111 May 13 '17 at 1:37
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    Maybe the disease we know as spoilerphobia did not exist in Shakespeare's time? The play is not a whodunit, where the audience match wits with the detective in figuring out the clues. – user14111 May 13 '17 at 2:23
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    It kills the tension? Why should there be tension? – muru May 13 '17 at 17:50
  • Can I just say the question doesn't claim to want there to be more/less tension or whether or not revealing key end features are inherently bad, but rather what benefit there is in doing this. – SleepingGod May 13 '17 at 21:31
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    If you don't want to claim that it's inherently bad, then maybe you shouldn't use the word "spoil". – user14111 May 14 '17 at 3:48
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You have to remember, the audience is well aware that a tragedy usually ends in the deaths of many of the main characters; therefore, I would argue that the enjoyment of the play is derived from an exploration of a set of themes that require the audience's understanding of the direction the play is moving in, in order to allow for emphasis to be placed on these themes (rather than the plot). The enjoyment of the play does not come from learning that everyone dies in the end.

"Oh, it was a tragedy! I see, what a clever play. I did not see that coming!"

  • Also, I understand that Shakespeare's audience was already familiar with the story, that "doomed lovers" was a whole subgenre of literature in the 16th century, with other plays about Italian doomed lovers being common. So the prologue didn't really spoil anything, any more than a movie about Little Red Riding Hood would spoil something by it talking about the wolf eating the grandma in the first scene. – Nathaniel Irvin Sep 29 '17 at 3:53
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If Shakespeare had depended on surprise for his plays to be enjoyable, you would never have heard of him. People would see the play once, get the full effect, and then there would be no point in going again.

Roger Ebert said, "It's not what a movie is about, it's how it is about it." The same goes for plays. Shakespeare tells you the ending up front because he wants you to not just wait for the surprise, but to watch how it happens to them. There are many different causes: their parents, their friends, their youth, even something as simple as a message that went astray.

It's much like your own life. Spoiler alert: you're going to die. What matters is how you live between now and then. As actors, we strive for authenticity at each moment. The question we constantly ask, "What is it that the character wants most in the entire world? What is preventing them from getting it?" That's how enjoyable performances are constructed: the intensity of each instant, regardless of the outcome.

There's a wonderful moment in the film Shakespeare in Love, where Juliet rises and asks, "Where is my love?". The audience is in tears, and one answers her: "Dead!" The audience member knows what's going on, but Juliet doesn't. The moment is powerful because we know what she's about to learn. She's being carried by forces more powerful than herself, and the tragedy is in how she reacts to them, instant by instant.

Shakespeare's audiences knew the ending of Romeo and Juliet before he even set pen to paper. Shakespeare rarely constructed novel stories. He repeated well-known tropes. The audience didn't sit through it in order to get a surprise ending; if anything, that would have annoyed them.

And that's true of modern audiences as well. When you go catch a James Bond movie, you don't need a spoiler alert that Bond wins and the villain loses. In a rom-com, it doesn't matter whether boy-gets-girl-back really follows boy-meets-girl and boy-loses-girl: they have different effects, but what's important is how he goes about getting her rather than his success.

To repeat myself for one final redundancy: the benefit of "spoiling" the ending is that the audience is relieved of the pressure of guessing how it turns out, and get to focus instead on the individual moments. If you just wanted to know the end of the play, Shakespeare would tell you, "Save your penny: they die."1 The reason you sit through the two hours traffic on that stage is to see how they get to die.


  1. Actually, I don't see him turning down cash. Theater is always on the brink of bankruptcy.
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    "Spoiler alert: you're going to die." - nice :-D – Rand al'Thor May 21 '17 at 16:07
  • Props for that Ebert quote! The man knew the medium. – DukeZhou Jun 27 '17 at 18:37
  • "The audience is in tears, and one answers her: "Dead!" (...) The moment is powerful because we know what she's about to learn. She's being carried by forces more powerful than herself (...)" __ somebody has suggested that the great & enduring popularity of tragedies in literature, drama, film and news is due to the universal human need for periodic emotional catharsis which these provide through sorrow not directly related to the story's audience. Recall the three-hanky-weepies of Hollywood and Bollywood! People need to cry. Which is why "a surprise ending (...) would have annoyed them." – English Student Dec 28 '17 at 14:41
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Ah, but the prologue doesn't spoil the ending of Romeo and Juliet! Take a look at those lines again:

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

So these "star-cross'd" lovers will die to bury their parents' strife. Many of Shakespeare's tragedies end with the main characters dying, so it's likely that the audience already knew that the main characters would likely die, and the prologue might be slyly hinting that they will "take their [own] life" (although that line clearly means "take their lives [from forth the fatal loins ...]", thanks @DLosc!), but doesn't tell you anything about why this death comes about. The audience knows something sad is coming, but they don't know what it will be yet.

In my opinion, this prologue sets you up to think that the suicide will be engineered by the lovers, perhaps of the "if we can't be together, life isn't worth it" variety. As you watch the play, however, things seems to get better and better for Romeo and Juliet while things get worse and worse for the Montagues and the Capulets: they meet! They fall in love! They get married! A cunning plan is hatched so that Juliet can run away from her family and be reunited with her husband! All this time, the audience is thinking, "Wait a minute, this is a tragedy? And the prologue told me that they're going to kill themselves? How will we get there from here?"

And then, boom, a letter goes awry, Romeo decides to kill himself and, just like that, the audience knows where this is going. Without the prologue, they would spend Act 5 wondering if Romeo's plan can be stopped; with it, they are certain that his plan will succeed. This lends additional tragedy to the scenes of Romeo planning his death and Friar Laurence learning that Romeo doesn't know about the scheme, since the audience already knows that these schemes will fail, that Romeo will die, and that this will almost certainly lead to Juliet's own death. I'd argue that, without the prologue, Act 5 could have been longer, with more potential interruptions to Romeo's plan -- and further increasing the audience's hopefulness -- before a surprising finish. But Shakespeare opted to let the audience get ahead of the story, giving them a longer period of time to feel sad for the characters before their actions destroy their own lives.

This makes this more like the end of Julius Caesar (where Caesar's ghost tells the non-history-buffs Brutus' final fate, who then has time to reconcile himself to it), rather than the end of Othello (where Iago's plan succeeds right to the end, when it is unexpectedly revealed and some small sense of justice is restored). It's also a bit like an episode of TV where the teaser shows you, say, a street covered with the debris from an explosion, and the audience then spends the rest of the show trying to work out how that happened.

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    I don't read "take their life" as a reference to their suicide; rather, it completes the previous line: "From forth the fatal loins" of the Montagues and Capulets, Romeo and Juliet "take their life." In other words, they spring from the loins of their ancestors. (Of course, there are plenty of other phrases that tell us Romeo and Juliet are going to die.) – DLosc Jul 1 '17 at 5:03
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The fact that the introduction tells us what is going to happen is a sort of meta-game that the playwright is playing with the story. Their love is "star-cross'd" and "death-mark’d" - by TELLING the audience what is about to happen, it more heavily impresses upon the viewer that this is an outcome which was fated from the start. Thus, the sense of tragic fate permeates all actions that happen in the course of the play by providing us with the awareness of their deaths before the story even begins.

Think how the story would change if you didn't know until the last moment how it was going to end - it might feel much more heroic at times, and you might even begin to believe that you are attending a comedy at times. Tipping his hand early in the story forces us to see all future events in their full, tragic light.

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The short answer is that there is the idea that knowing the ending harms the literary work only holds for material that depends on a "twist ending", such as The Sixth Sense. But even with that film, knowing the ending allows one to glean more from the material on subsequent viewing, in terms of references and foreshadowing.

For me, having seen many productions of R&J, the criteria for determining if the production "works" is if the audience is screaming inside for Romeo not to drink the poison, despite knowing he's going to drink the poison. Same with Juliet when she wakes up and finds him dead.

Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous plays of all time. In fact, it is a testament to the strength of the text that it has worked for centuries, despite everyone knowing the ending.

Work that is "ruined" by spoilers is always lesser work, based on gimmick (the big "twist") as opposed to artistic merit. Which is not to say such work has no merit, just that it is in a different category to narratives that are experienced again and again by an audience that already knows the story.

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    +1 (ruining your perfect 1111 rep). As Hamlet put it, a classic can be defined as "a book that you can read every day for your entire life and still find new things". Replace "book" and "read" by "play" and "watch", and the same applies here. And obviously you'll know the ending when you watch it the 2nd to nth times, so the story still has to work even for people who know exactly how it's going to go. – Rand al'Thor Jun 28 '17 at 1:20
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Picture yourself as a theatergoer in Elizabethan England. It would be much like going to the googleplex and choosing what to watch. "Action? Romantic comedy? How about that blockbuster we've seen a dozen times?" The point is, you know what you're getting when you buy your ticket. You've picked a certain genre because you want a certain experience.

And in Elizabethan England as today, an original story is hard to find. The audience had probably seen other versions of Romeo and Juliet already. "Is this the one where the two kids kill themselves? Oh, yeah, it is." You might learn something, but what you mainly want is to be entertained for a couple of hours--and to have something to talk about at the water cooler the next day.

Another reason for the prologue was to give the audience a tl;dr. If you got occupied for a while with something else (and there was plenty of else to occupy you), you could easily pick up the thread again. It's not just about giving you the ending, it's about giving you the whole story.

If you've gone to the movies for tension, you've gone to the wrong place. The good guy wins, the couple get over their misunderstandings, the cops track down the killer. There are just enough exceptions to prove the rule. Shakespeare knew his audience, and audiences haven't changed.

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    The googleplex?? – Rand al'Thor Jul 31 '17 at 15:14
  • Also, it's ironic that you include "the couple get over their misunderstandings" as an example of something that always happens, in a question about Romeo & Juliet :-) – Rand al'Thor Jul 31 '17 at 15:15
  • Right. It’s a trailer. The trailer always has the best bits in it. – A E Jul 4 '18 at 17:46

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