And so the Montague minions appear, just as Sampson and Gregory were probably expecting, and the fight they were spoiling for, the fight that precipitates the whole story (Shakespeare is never careless about where he starts), ensues. In these posts I’m focusing on the language, but of course that is not the whole story, so I also want to go slowly and pay attention to how Shakespeare is putting the story together. It’s almost as if Capulets and Montagues one level up are hovering around waiting for the fight. First there’s Benvolio, a Montague, who tries to break up the fight. From his name, which is actually pronounced on stage, and the line “you know not what you do” addressed to the combatants, you might think him a much more important character than he turns out to be. Shakespeare is doing something like a head fake here by putting the words of Christ on the cross into his mouth; he’s rather more like John the Baptist coming before Romeo’s Christ.
But almost before he can speak he’s accosted by Tybalt, the hotheaded bully of the Capulet family. From his very first lines, it’s only too clear what a foolish and wasted effort any attempt to placate him would be:
. . . and talk of peace? I hate the word,
As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee:
Have at thee, coward.
After this the fan is hit; unaffiliated citizens intervene (fun fact: “partisan” originally meant a nine-foot spear with a broad head), the Capulet and Montague patriarchs appear, spoiling for a fight themselves but looking a tad incongruous in their night clothes, and finally the big man, the Prince, himself appears, fulminating against both Capulets and Montagues. If we pay attention, we learn some interesting information about the state of Verona. I myself did not notice until this reading that the citizens shout “Down with the Capulets! Down with the Montagues!” A plague on both their houses, as Mercutio will put it later. I think we sometimes assume there’s virtually nobody in Verona but Capulets and Montagues; here we get a glimpse of the rest of the population, and their attitude is clear: they’re sick of both sides and they want the violence to stop.
So does the Prince, but I find myself wondering exactly how much power he has in Verona. The combatants aren’t even listening to him at first:
Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace,
Profaners of this neighbour-stained steel—
Will they not hear?
He certainly speaks with authority once he’s heard, but think about it:
Three civil brawls bred of an airy word
By thee, old Capulet, and Montague,
Have thrice disturb’d the quiet of our streets
. . .
If ever you disturb our streets again
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.
Threatening, sure, but are the clans really scared? How did the Prince react after the first two brawls he alludes to? We never hear exactly what he tells Old Capulet and Old Montague, but neither of them are shown giving him a thought later in the play. Query whether Verona is actually laboring under Mob rule. One virtue of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is that it picks up on this aspect; Paul Sorvino and Brian Dennehy are plainly playing Mafia bosses. West Side Story, much though I dislike it, also gets at the impotence of the Prince by transposing him into that figure of ridicule, Officer Krupke.
And now we’re just about ready to meet our first main character.