Prince Escalus is the voice of authority and, in spite of the misdemeanours of the two families, they do respect his judgements. Therefore, when he first appears in Act 1, saying that anyone found fighting again will be sentenced to death, it is no empty threat. He is also endowed with additional authority through dramatic irony. Throughout the course of the play he makes a number of statements which the audience know will come true. One is: “If ever you disturb our streets again/ Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.” The possessive of “your lives” literally means that those responsible will die, but it could also refer to the “lives” which belong to them aka their children’s. And all it takes is one more disturbance of the peace to light the fuse leading to their deaths. The same is true when he banishes Romeo and says, “when he’s found, that hour is his last.” Though it means he will be killed if he returns, when next he is found in Verona, he is dead.
It is easy to view Prince Escalus as an outsider to the events which unfold, but he is not. Two of the murdered, Mercutio and Paris, are his family members. Yet unlike others, he does not respond irrationally and angrily. Following Mercutio’s death he treats both Montagues and Capulets fairly, saying “you shall all repent the loss of mine.” Though not killing Romeo could be viewed as favourable treatment, it seems justified in the circumstances. And banishment is not a light punishment. Even at the close of the play, following the death of Paris, he offers a balanced approach. He recognises that they have all been punished by these events and again behaves as he should in his position, despite having another family member murdered.
Following Romeo’s banishment, Escalus ends Act 3 Scene 1 by saying, “Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill.” This is arguably an unexpected statement. It can be translated as meaning that being merciful towards murderers leads to more deaths. So why does he do it then? There are a few possibilities: his position means that he can’t act in a biased way, and killing Romeo might exacerbate the situation; there is a degree of recognition in his powerlessness to stop fate, again raising his status; most likely he is referring to the mercy he showed previously, which has led to this.
After first brawl: “From those bloody hands/ Throw your mist-temper’d weapons to the ground,/ And hear the sentence of your moved prince.” (Act I, Sc i)
First brawl: “Once more, on pain of death, all men depart.” (Act I, Sc i)
After Tybalt/Mercutio deaths: “My blood for your rude brawls doth lie a-bleeding.” “Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill.” (Act III, Sc i)
To Montague: “Then will I be general of your woes,/ And lead you even to death.” (Act V, Sc iii)
To Montague and Capulet: “See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,/ That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love;/ And I, for winking at your discords too,/ Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish’d.” (Act V, Sc iii)