How does Shakespeare distinguish the different levels of status amongst the characters and what ideas are conveyed through these distinctions in the play Romeo and Juliet?
A distinction in status represented in Romeo and Juliet is how the Montagues and Capulets are treated compared to those of lower classes.
The Montagues and Capulets are noble families. Although they are the ones who are feuding, many of the deaths are actually from servants or families affiliated with them. For example, in the opening scene we see servants feuding. Samon and Gregory fight with Abram and Balthasar first, and the nobles enter later. Prince Escalus makes a decree, hoping to stop the violence.
If ever you disturb our streets again,
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace. (Act 1, Scene 1)
He then takes Capulet with him to talk to him, and tells Montague to come in the afternoon. Therefore we can infer that he does not mean that Montague and Capulet’s lives will be forfeited for fighting—just whoever else fights. This seems to be supported by the fact that Romeo is banished and not executed for killing Tybalt.
A gentler judgment vanish'd from his lips—
Not body's death, but body's banishment. (Act 3, Scene 3)
Friar Lawrence tells Romeo that the prince took his side. True, there were extenuating circumstances in that Tybalt killed Mercutio first. Still, he would not likely have pardoned a person of lower birth for slaying someone like Tybalt.
In fact, the prince seems to have had it with the two families when Romeo and Juliet are discovered dead.
See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love!
And I, for winking at you, discords too,(305)
Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punish'd. (Act 5, Scene 3)
When he says he is going to punish everyone, Montague and Capulet make up. Capulet says Romeo can rest in Juliet’s tomb, and Montague says he will erect a statue to Juliet. Suddenly, they decide to end the feud and make up! A cynical person would think they did it to avoid punishment.
Hearing the feuding fathers make amends, the prince changes his tune.
A glooming peace this morning with it brings.
The sun for sorrow will not show his head.
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon'd, and some punished (Act 5, Scene 3)
Hmm. Now we have gone from punishing everyone to pardoning some and punishing some. If Montague and Capulet made up, they will be spared. Is it because they have lost children, or because of their noble birth? The reader can infer a little of both.
Only highborn families could have caused as much trouble as the Montagues and Capulets. Because they are rich and powerful, everyone in town has to ally himself or herself with one or the other. Less influential families would not evoke so much loyalty, and would not have so many allowances made for them. The prince seems to be just happy the feud has ended.