Violence and conflict central to Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet was written by William Shakespeare in the late sixteenth century and was probably first performed in the Globe Theatre in London. The play is set in Verona in northern Italy during the Renaissance, a period beginning in the fourteenth century. At the time Shakespeare wrote the play, Queen Elizabeth I (the third Tudor monarch) ruled England. Elizabeth was highly educated and she mastered several languages, wrote poetry and music, and enjoyed the theatre. An audience in the sixteenth century would have enjoyed Romeo and Juliet because it was humorous and the world play used by Shakespeare would have appealed to a wide audience including both men and women, groundlings and wealthy merchants. Above all it involved aspects of life which they could relate to and they would have been familiar with the ideas of family feuds and the need to uphold family ‘honour’.
Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy about two opposing families, the Capulets and the Montagues who are constantly feuding. Romeo and Juliet are two young lovers but they come from different families, Romeo is a Montague whilst Juliet is a Capulet. Although the most obvious theme in the play is love, there are several scenes which contain violence and conflict. At first Romeo and Juliet is a comedy but after Mercutio’s death in Act III, scene 1 the play becomes a tragedy. The play opens with violence due to the conflict between the two feuding families and it is this conflict that ultimately results in the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. This essay considers some of the ways that violence and conflict are central to Romeo and Juliet with particular reference to Act III scene 1.
Romeo and Juliet begins with the Prologue, a speech made by an actor (or ‘chorus’) before the main play begins. The Prologue foreshadows the events in the play, such as the deaths of Romeo and Juliet and tells the audience what the play will be about. Shakespeare uses the structure of the prologue to express the theme of love and conflict which occurs throughout the play. It is written in the sonnet form and is fourteen lines long with Iambic pentameter. The use of a fixed rhyme scheme in the Prologue, with stress falling on every second syllable, helps establish the theme of violence in the play and is the closest approximation to speech. From the Prologue, the audience can see that Romeo and Juliet is a play about violence. When the Prologue mentions how the feud between the two houses (families), ‘From ancient grudge break to new mutiny/Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean,’ Shakespeare shows how violence and bloody conflict has affected the whole of Verona. The line, ‘A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life’ tells the audience that both Romeo and Juliet’s fate is death. In addition, it shows the audience that the play is a tragedy and about violence because suicide in the sixteenth century was considered the ultimate violence. Moreover, ‘star-crossed lovers’ shows the audience that Romeo and Juliet are ill-fated and their tragic deaths are a direct consequence of a society at war (which, ironically, they chose not to be part of). Following the statement that Romeo and Juliet will die later in the play, the prologue then says how ‘their death(s)’ then ‘bury their parents’ strife.’ The prologue mentions certain words and phrases such as how Romeo and Juliet’s ‘death-marked’ love and their parents’ ‘rage,’ which further shows how the themes of violence and conflict are important in the play.
Act III, scene 1 is a pivotal scene in Romeo and Juliet transforming the play from one of Romance or Comedy into Tragedy. The scene opens on the streets of Verona and begins with talk of violence, ultimately leading to the deaths of two other main characters in the play - Tybalt and Mercutio. Benvolio is eager to avoid a fight with the Capulets and he suggests to Mercutio that they should return home: ‘I pray thee, good Mercutio, let’s retire/ The day is hot, the Capels are abroad’ (lines 1-2.) In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare presents Benvolio as a peaceful man and when he says, ‘these hot days is the mad blood stirring’ it shows us that he is nervous that a fight will break out and suggests the heat makes people more irritable. Moreover, Benvolio’s name literally means ‘good will’ or ‘good intentions,’ so when Benvolio looks to avoid confrontation with the Capulets, it supports this idea.
In Act I, scene 5 when Tybalt overhears Romeo talking with Juliet, he is angered that a Montague should have gate crashed the ball at the Capulet household and sends for his ‘rapier.’ Tybalt informs Capulet of Romeo’s presence but Capulet rebukes him, telling Tybalt to leave him alone and he explains that Romeo is ‘virtuous and well-governed.’ However, Tybalt refuses to leave and Capulet reprimands him, calling him a ‘saucy boy.’ Tybalt’s only choice is to leave. However, he swears revenge and says: ‘I will withdraw: but this intrusion shall/Now seeming sweet convert to bitter gall.’ This statement has several connotations and can be interpreted in a number of ways. However, my opinion is that Tybalt promises future trouble and foreshadows Romeo’s death by poison (‘bitter gall’ is anything bitter but can also mean poison). His vicious reaction to Romeo’s presence and his promise of revenge further highlight Tybalt’s violent character and shows conflict within the play. Tybalt feels Romeo has dishonoured his family and swears revenge against him which explains why he later wants to fight Romeo in Act III, scene 1.
Act I scene 1 also starts with both verbal arguments and physical violence. The scene establishes the characters within the play and we see that the conflict between the two households has affected all of Verona. From the moment Tybalt enters in Act I, scene 1 the audience see that Tybalt is a violent character: ‘What, art thou drawn among these hartless hinds?/Turn thee Benvolio, look upon they death’ (line 61.) Tybalt not only threatens Benvolio and Abraham but he also signals his loathing for all Montagues. Moreover, by calling Benvolio and Abraham weak and feeble, Tybalt is insulting them, which further shows Tybalt’s aggression and hatred for all Montagues. Benvolio does not take offence at Tybalt but instead says: ‘I do but keep the peace; put up thy sword, Or manage it to part these men with me’ (line 63.) From Benvolio’s reply, we immediately see that Benvolio is the peace- keeper in Romeo and Juliet and a character who is not easily provoked.
In Act III, scene 1 Tybalt is characterised as being a violent, aggressive and over- confident man. For example in line 57, Tybalt attempts to provoke Romeo into fighting, telling him, ‘thou art a villain' (Act III, scene 1.) A ‘villain’ in the sixteenth century was a common person and therefore this is a great insult to Romeo who is of noble birth. Romeo denies this claim and tries to reason with Tybalt: ‘villain am I none/Therefore farewell. I see thou knowest me not’ (line 60-61.) Act III, scene 1 is immediately after Romeo has secretly married Juliet in Act II, scene 6. Mercutio, Benvolio and Tybalt do not know Romeo is married. Romeo does not want to fight Tybalt because after his marriage with Juliet, Tybalt is Romeo’s cousin.
Romeo tries to leave but Tybalt, still enraged that Romeo has attended the Capulet’s feast, challenges Romeo to a duel: ‘Boy, this shall not excuse the injuries/That thou hast done me, Therefore turn and draw’(line 62-63.) Tybalt mocks Romeo when he calls him a ‘boy’ to provoke Romeo into fighting him. Tybalt is further portrayed as aggressive in Act I, scene 1 when he says, ‘What, drawn and talk of peace? I hate the word/As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee/Have at thee coward!’ The audience can see that Tybalt is violent and dangerous because he immediately threatens Benvolio with death. Moreover, from what Tybalt says it is clear that he is looking for a fight and we know from Act I scene 1 that he is a confident and skilled swordsman.
In Act III, scene 1, Mercutio attempts to anger Tybalt with several insulting remarks such as ‘rat-catcher’ (line71.) Mercutio mocks the coincidence that ‘Tybalt’ was the popular name for a cat in the sixteenth century and shows Mercutio’s intelligent humour. Mercutio’s play on Tybalt’s name continues later in Act III, scene 1 when Mercutio says, ‘Good King of Cats, I just want/one of your nine lives!’ Nevertheless, Shakespeare also portrays Mercutio as a violent character, such as in Act III, scene 1 when Mercutio challenges Tybalt to a fight: ‘Will you pluck your sword out of his pilcher by the ears? Make haste, lest mine be about your ears ere it be out’ (line 75-77.) Clearly there is conflict between Mercutio and Tybalt and following Mercutio’s insulting remarks and provocative comments in Act III, scene 1, Tybalt kills Mercutio.
Mercutio serves a fundamental role in Romeo and Juliet. With his intelligent puns and wordplays he is a popular character but his death transforms the play from a comedy into a tragedy. He is kinsman to the Prince and a relative of Paris but more importantly he is a close friend of Romeo. In Act III, scene 1 Mercutio fights Tybalt. Shielded by Romeo who attempts to break up the fight, Tybalt wounds Mercutio. Even though Mercutio is dying, he still makes a series of jokes. At first Mercutio is sarcastic when he says his wound is not as ‘deep as a well’ or ‘wide as a church door,’ but he then makes a pun: ‘you shall find me a grave man’ (lines 93-95.) Mercutio’s use of word play has two meanings; ‘Grave’ can mean serious but Mercutio also suggests that it is his ‘grave’, for when he dies. Mercutio’s use of wordplay throughout Romeo and Juliet creates a dramatic, comical effect which would have appealed to an Elizabethan audience.
In Act III, scene 1, Mercutio uses wordplay in his response to Tybalt’s statement that Mercutio ‘Consortest’ with Romeo (line 41.) Mercutio uses a series of puns about music, such as ‘minstrels’ (a group of musicians) and ‘discord’ (a group of notes.) The use of wordplay and puns throughout Romeo and Juliet contrasts the theme of violence and conflict. Shakespeare uses a variety of language each for a different effect. In line 44, Shakespeare cleverly uses both figurative language and word play when Mercutio says: ‘Here’s my fiddlestick, here’s that shall make you dance.’ In the sixteenth century the meaning of ‘fiddlestick’ was the bow of a fiddle. Therefore Mercutio’s choice of the word ‘fiddlestick’ is a clever play on words, as he jokes that his sword/fiddlestick will make Tybalt dance. A sixteenth century audience would understand these puns and it would appeal to a sixteenth century audience but a modern audience would perhaps not understand all of these jokes.
In Act III, scene 1, when Mercutio is dying, he curses the feuding families three times: ‘A plague o’both your houses.’ A ‘plague’ in Verona was a powerful curse and a sixteenth century audience would understand this but it would not be very effective to a modern audience. Mercutio’s final curse on the two households and his last words have the greatest impact on us: ‘A plague o’ both your houses/They have made worms meat of me/I have it, and soundly too. Your houses!’ Mercutio is angered at how the conflict in Verona and at the feud which has taken so many lives has finally taken his life too and he is neither a Montague nor a Capulet. This shows how the conflict between the two families has spread to affect everyone in Verona.
In Act III, scene 1, Romeo says that Juliet’s beauty has made him ‘effeminate’ meaning soft but when he sees that his friend Mercutio is dying, his mood changes and he becomes aggressive: ‘And fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!’ (Line 120.) It is clear that Mercutio’s death has angered Romeo and it is this grief, coupled with his desire for revenge which moves Romeo to fight Tybalt. As a result of his vicious anger at Mercutio’s death, Romeo is furious and murders Tybalt in this scene. After hearing Benvolio’s account, the Prince decides that enough blood has been shed and instead exiles Romeo on pain of death: ‘And for that offence/ Immediately we do exile him hence’ (Act III, scene 1 lines 183-183.)
After Prince Escalus arrives, Benvolio gives a detailed account to the Prince of the fighting that took place earlier in the scene. Benvolio tells the Prince that Tybalt was slain by ‘Romeo’s hand’ and explains how Romeo attempted to keep the peace and reason with Tybalt (line 148.) Benvolio then goes on to explain the circumstances, explaining that Tybalt was ‘deaf to peace.’ In lines 164 and 165, Benvolio describes Mercutio’s death in the fighting and says that it was an ‘envious thrust’ from Tybalt, which ‘hit the life’ out of the ‘stout Mercutio.’ Finally, Benvolio says that after Romeo killed Tybalt, he turned and fled: ‘stout Tybalt slain, And as he fell did Romeo turn and fly/ This is the truth, or let Benvolio die’ (Act III, scene 1) From his account, the audience can see that Benvolio is an honest and truthful man but his account is slightly biased by his kinship to Romeo. However, it does help the Prince to reach the decision that there has been enough violence and death already, so he decides not to execute Romeo but to exile him instead. As a consequence of the conflict and violence earlier in the play, coupled with Mercutio’s death and the curse which he places on the two families in Act III, scene 1, there are the beginnings of darker days in Romeo and Juliet.
It is clear through close analysis of Act III, scene 1, that violence and conflict are central to Romeo and Juliet. The play begins with the Prologue which foreshadows the conflict between the two feuding families and tells the audience about the tragic deaths of Romeo and Juliet. This immediately establishes the theme of violence and conflict within the play and many of the scenes portray both verbal and physical violence. In Act III, scene 1 both Mercutio and Tybalt die and this begins a darker side to the play, transforming it from a Romance or Comedy into a Tragedy. Act III, scene 1 is therefore a fundamental turning point in the play, ultimately leading to the deaths of several main characters, most notably the two young lovers, Romeo and Juliet in Act 5 scene 3. Numerous characters within the play, particularly Tybalt and Mercutio are presented as aggressive and hostile through both verbal abuse and physical violence. Moreover, the vivid descriptions of violence that Shakespeare uses in many of the scenes add to the intensity of the drama surrounding the conflict. Therefore, it is clear from Act III scene 1 (and other scenes in the play) that violence and conflict are central themes of Romeo and Juliet.
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