Rivalry to Revenge
Up until the start of Act 3, there have been occasional hints of the peril to follow. But now is when things start actually going wrong.
From the gentle steps towards marriage in the previous scene, the audience is returned with a bump to the not-so-gentle Mercutio, in Scene 1.
It begins with Benvolio suggesting they go inside because it is hot, there are Capulets nearby, and if they cross paths, there is likely to be a brawl.
Mercutio states that Benvolio is always keen to fight and needs little excuse, but is this true?
We saw, in the opening brawl in Act 1, his attempts to maintain peace with Tybalt. If this is the case, why is Mercutio attempting to build him up to a fight? Mercutio’s motives for the fight to follow, are far from clear.
As the Capulets arrive, the tension is high. Mercutio seems determined to fight, and from the moment Tybalt speaks, Mercutio starts literally asking for a fight; “make it a word and a blow.”
Tybalt says his issue is with Romeo but Mercutio is not interested and draws his sword.
At this moment Benvolio advises them to get out of public, but Mercutio rejects that suggestion.
Romeo turns up and Tybalt looks to turn his attention to him but Mercutio is a man on a mission.
Romeo tries to reason with Tybalt, saying he won’t fight, which enrages Mercutio and finally a fight ensues between Tybalt and Mercutio.
As Romeo tries to step between them, Mercutio is injured by Tybalt under his arm, and eventually dies after cursing both houses.
But why is Mercutio so keen to fight in the first place? Does he think Prince Escalus (a relative of his) will not punish him? By causing the fight there is every chance he will die either way (in the fight, as is the case, or as punishment).
So what is his motivation?
Loyal to Death
As Mercutio exits, on the cusp of death, Romeo berates himself for being pathetic and not fighting.
In the space of a few lines, Romeo is told Mercutio is dead and then Tybalt returns.
Now Romeo is faced with another decision which will have a significant bearing on the plot. Rather than think through his actions, within fifteen lines of hearing Mercutio has died, he has murdered Tybalt.
This is a key difference between Romeo and Juliet as characters. It is easy to pair them up, but Juliet is more considered than Romeo. She has learnt that actions have consequences. Though they both get pulled along by the strength of their feelings, it is important to remember they have had different upbringings.
Romeo clearly has a family who cares for him; Montague expressing his concern for his son at the start of the play, and Benvolio talking through his Rosaline related issues with him.
Juliet on the other hand, when she says she does not wish to marry Paris later in Act 3, is berated and insulted by her father and mother. Here we see the reality of a patriarchal society.
The Prince, Montague, Capulet, and both their wives, arrive almost immediately.
It is Lady Capulet, direct relative of Tybalt, who is the one to speak, demanding that a Montague must be killed for Tybalt’s death.
The Prince asks Benvolio what happened, showing that he views him as a trustworthy individual, and he relates it honestly.
Lady Capulet doesn’t believe it, insisting that “twenty” Montagues must have fought in the fight to kill this one man.
It might be interesting to consider this; she speaks incredibly highly of Tybalt and appears distraught. Are there any other clues in the play, illustrating a closeness between Tybalt and Lady Capulet, bearing in mind they may well be close in age?
Finally, the Prince decrees that Romeo will not be killed but banished.
It is important to remember that Mercutio is a family member of the Prince. Therefore, in the Prince, we see the contrast to Romeo; someone who doesn’t behave emotionally and irrationally, but comes up with a logical solution, with the intention of restoring order.
But that is not to say he isn’t unaffected: __“you shall all repent the loss of mine. I will be deaf to pleading and excuses.” T__he Prince is fresh out of patience; if Romeo returns, he will be killed. The barrier between Romeo and Juliet’s love just got a whole lot bigger.
Grief and Love
Scene 2, immediately takes the audience to Juliet. She is willing the day away, desperate for it to be night so she can see Romeo.
She has no idea what has happened yet; a nice bit of dramatic irony. There follows a misunderstanding on the Nurse’s arrival, where she is lamenting Tybalt’s death but Juliet thinks she is saying Romeo is dead.
This is a compelling moment when she finds out Romeo has killed Tybalt. As a modern audience, we all know that she sticks with Romeo, as the plot is so famous. But in Shakespeare’s time, a lot of his audience wouldn’t have known the plot. Therefore, some tension would have been created here: will Juliet side with her husband who she has only met a couple of times, or turn against him for killing her cousin?
Juliet is bereft at Romeo’s banishment and vows to kill herself rather than marry Paris. But the Nurse says she will go and get Romeo, and bring him here.
Scene 3 offers an important insight into Romeo’s character. Essentially that he is a bit of a brat.
Friar Laurence returns to tell him the good news that his life has been spared and he will only be banished. Romeo’s response? “Tis torture, and not mercy: heaven is here,/ Where Juliet lives.”
Mate, you literally just killed another human being… It is important when dealing with Shakespeare to not assume that killing people was completely normal back then - it wasn’t.
We have gangs nowadays and it is still shocking when you hear that a teenager has been stabbed.
Romeo barely mentions Tybalt, instead focusing on being kept from Juliet. So self-involved is his lamenting that even the Friar can’t believe how ungrateful he is.
Don’t fall into the trap of presuming Romeo is simply unlucky. __Even if fate plays a role, its vehicle is Romeo’s flaws. __The Nurse also arrives and both tell him to sort himself out.
The scene ends with the Friar telling Romeo to go to Juliet and then leave for Mantua; Friar Laurence will send him letters there.
Scene 4 opens with Capulet bringing the date of Juliet’s wedding to Paris forward, for three days’ time.
He has decided that, rather than continuing to try and persuade Juliet, he will command her if necessary.
This is in contrast to the Capulet we saw at the start of the play, who felt Juliet was too young and said that he wouldn’t consent to anyone his daughter didn’t want to marry.
Perhaps Capulet wishes to forge a bond with Paris, who is a kinsman of Prince Escalus.
Again this increases the tension and pace of the play. If it were further away, Juliet would have time to concoct a proper plan, perhaps a more careful one.
But, as ever, what proves elusive is the one thing she needs most: time.
Whenever we see Romeo and Juliet together, there is always an element of danger and rushing.
Rather than seeing them spending time together freely, there is always something pressing.
Scene 5 opens with Romeo worried that he has heard the morning lark and must leave.
He departs but says he is certain they will see each other again, and all this turmoil will be worth it in the end.
Before her mother enters, Juliet has a brief soliloquy which reminds the audience of fate and fortune.
Capulet and Lady Capulet enter and tell Juliet her wedding has been brought forward. And it kicks off. Juliet isn’t keen. Her parents are furious.
Lady Capulet says that she wishes Juliet “were married to her grave”. Harsh.
Capulet says if she doesn’t get married he will chuck her out and let her starve. Also harsh.
But the biggest blow comes from the Nurse, the closest person to her. Even she says, once the parents have left, that she thinks it best that Juliet marries Paris.
Juliet has one last hope: she will go to Friar Laurence and ask for his help. And if not, she will kill herself.
Note that both Romeo and Juliet speak openly about the option of killing themselves.