In Act III, Scene 1 of the play Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare so effectively uses timing, whereby the precise moment at which tragedy is born serves to transition and to end what has been an atmosphere of comedy. The elements of conflict, dramatic irony and historic significance serve to not only establish and support the play's underlying tone, but are employed by Shakespeare to enhance a storyline initially embodied by a comedic air. The play's initial scenes provoke laughter and snickering among members of the audience through the use of Mercutio's inventive puns and witty innuendos. The climax of Romeo and Juliet is reached at the death of Mercutio, which serves as the moment of intervention that transforms the play from such point forward into an irreversible tragedy. The violent action which occurs within Act III, Scene 1, although presented in tandem with the elements of love and romance, serve as a reminder that the play, Romeo and Juliet, still takes place in a world influenced by machismo in which notions of honor, pride, and loyalty are prone to erupt into a fury of conflict. The danger and ferocity, which permeate the play's storyline, are employed by Shakespeare as dramatic devices to emphasize that the elements of love and romance are so precious and fragile in nature. Passion outweighs reason at almost every turn as the storyline unfolds.
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The play's "feel good" backdrop, depicted by comedic undertones and romantic innuendos so prevalent through the first two acts, dramatically transforms during scene 1 of Act III as Romeo becomes caught up in the outright, public conflict between the Capulets and the Montagues. Shakespeare uses references to searing heat, flaring tempers and sudden violence in sharp contrast to the romantic, peaceful elements of the previous night's events. The play's action ascends to a dramatic pinnacle in which the private world of Romeo and Juliet confronts the external, public domain of feuding families. From the beginning of this scene, one can sense that something "significant" is about to happen. Benvolio first senses an air of tension and advises Mercutio to "retire" (III, i, 1). The weather has become hot and "the mad blood [is] stirring" (III, i, 4). As Tybalt enters, the audience is keenly aware that "the air" is permeated with the foreboding element of stress and holds on to the expectation that an outright street brawl may erupt at a moment's notice.
Shakespeare's usage of "cause and effect" is illustrated by the actions of Mercutio as this scene unfolds. Mercutio's "action" in provoking Tybalt is skillfully "counteracted" by Romeo's interference. Although unintended, Romeo's attempt to thwart an impending brawl leads to Mercutio's death. As does Tybalt's, Mercutio's persona maintains a strong sense of honor and boyish "machismo" and thus, Mercutio becomes infuriated by Romeo's refusal to engage Tybalt. Mercutio addresses Romeo's apparent reluctance in fiercely uttering, "O calm, dishonourable, vile submission" (III, i, 76). Mercutio holds fast to the principles of courage and honor as he takes up Tybalt's challenge to defend his friend's (Romeo's) good name. Even at death's door, Mercutio holds true to his comedic persona in describing, somewhat ironically, the mortal wound inflicted by Tybalt, "No 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, but 'tis enough, 'twill serve" (III, i, 99-100). The circumstances of Mercutio's death instill within the audience a sense of "sponsorship" toward Romeo's character transformation into a momentary state of rage. This singular action marks a distinct turning point in the play as "tragedy" overtakes "comedy" and the fates of the remaining protagonists only darken. A dying Mercutio foreshadows the action for the rest of the play when he repeatedly exclaims,Â "A plague a both your houses" (III, i, 96).Â Mercutio, seemingly a pivotal player in what began as a comedy, not only is the first to die, but his death serves as a beacon to the inevitability of the mortal fates of those who remain.
In the beginning of scene 1, Romeo's character is emblematic of the star-crossed lovers depicted earlier in the play. As the scene progresses, the characters of Tybalt and Mercutio (although Mercutio belongs to neither family) are emblematic of the social unrest represented by the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues. As Romeo is passionate about "love", so are Tybalt and Mercutio about "pride and honor". Romeo appears "euphoric" having recently betrothed Juliet before, and "clueless" that Tybalt has challenged him to a duel. Until Mercutio's death, Romeo has remained somewhat detached from the hostility and tension projected by other characters in this scene. Romeo walks atop his love-struck cloud, buoyed by blissful thoughts of peace, harmony and unity via his marriage to Juliet. Thus, in deflecting Tybalt's outright provocations, Romeo so passionately responds that he loves "thee better than thou canst devise" (III, i, 72). From Romeo's perspective, his identity as a Montague has been "trumped" by his becoming one in union with Juliet. While Romeo no longer labels himself a Montague, Tybalt sees Romeo as standing so steadfast on the wrong side of a clear line dividing the families. As Mercutio is dealt a mortal wound, Romeo's character transitions back from that of the emblematic star- crossed lover to again portray the more historic, stereotypic "gang member" to which the characters of Mercutio and Tybalt embody. Romeo's transition now clearly embraces the Elizabethan historic ideal in his use of the term "effeminate" (III, i, 119). Such realization provides evidence of Romeo's internal versus external conflict between his personal preoccupation with a current state of "being in love" in contrast to the external public's preoccupation with terms such as honor and duty. The persona who battles Tybalt is the Romeo that Mercutio would view as the "true Romeo", whereas the persona that has sought to avoid confrontation out of love for and duty to his wife is the Romeo that Juliet would hold up as her "loving Romeo".
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The hope for peaceful co-existence between families, which sprung from Romeo's marriage to Juliet, is "squashed" within an instant. In a moment of profound irony, Romeo's attempt to disrupt and intervene between the two combatants enables Tybalt to mortally wound Mercutio with a fatal thrust. Therefore, Romeo's act of peaceful intent ironically results in Mercutio's death and the inevitability of being ensnared by the web of conflict between families. Romeo realizes he cannot avoid the social world of men by seeking refuge in a private sanctuary of marital bliss with Juliet. During these times, a societal belief was that a man that had been overpowered by love was a man that had lost his "manliness". The word "effeminate" was placed by the masculine, public world upon those things not respected. In using the term, Romeo acknowledges the conflict between the elements of honor and duty supported by society on the one hand, and the private world of love and bliss in which he has sought sanctuary but can no longer remain. At the moment Mercutio confronts Tybalt on Romeo's behalf, Romeo is destined to fall from the short-lived pinnacle attained through marital bliss.
Â Shakespeare uses the literary device of dramatic irony in Act III, Scene 1 to create tension within the play's storyline. Romeo refuses to engage Tybalt because the two are now relatives through marriage; however, Tybalt is unaware of Romeo and Juliet's secret. There is irony here because one who only two days earlier was Tybalt's sworn enemy has now become "family". As such, Romeo is motivated to avoid outward conflict to the extent such action is plausible. Added to this paradox is the fact that Tybalt is unaware of his present state of being related to Romeo, by way of Juliet's betrothal. Such an atmosphere of tension is enhanced through the audience's knowledge that Romeo and Juliet are now husband and wife and the simultaneous awareness that the other characters have "been kept in the dark". The audience can only speculate whether Romeo's betrothal to Juliet will be revealed or the streets of Verona will host an outright "gang fight" soon to erupt.
Â Following Tybalt's death, the arrival of Prince Escalus together with Verona's mob of citizens directs the focus of the play to the external realities of the day. Although valued by those noblemen of the day, Romeo's action in confronting Tybalt head-on served to threaten public civility and order, so demanded by citizens of Verona and to which the Prince has pledged to uphold. As one who has broken the peace, Romeo is now exiled from Verona. Previously in the play, Prince Escalus had acted to repress the open hostility between the Capulets and the Montagues; presently, in seeking to repress and curtail any outbursts of violence, the Prince's actions serve to thwart the bliss so recently kindled between Juliet and her Romeo. Consequently, their love having been dealt a "deathly blow" by the edicts of Verona, Romeo and Juliet's relationship is in harms way to the reprisals from the Prince and members of both families. As the play concludes, the audience most certainly reflects upon the accidental death of Mercutio and how this pivotal event is used with precision in transforming what began as a comedy into a timeless tragedy to all eras and ages.