Romeo and Juliet begins with a conversation between Sampson and Gregory, two servants belonging to the Capulet household. Sampson is spoiling for a fight, bragging about his readiness to thrash the Montagues. Gregory teases him, tacitly inviting him to engage in a verbal tennis match. Most of the humor in this scene springs from the puns that the two men exchange.
Sampson starts by exclaiming, “. . . we’ll not carry coals” -- i.e., “We’re not going to tolerate their trash.” Gregory picks up the word “coals” and, pretending to take it literally, tosses back the word “colliers” (i.e., menial laborers who dig coal for a living.) Sampson sticks to his point -- insisting that he’s determined to fight -- but he also wants to participate in Gregory’s game, and so he tops Gregory by using a word that riffs on “collier”: “an we be in choler, we'll draw” (i.e., “If we get angry, we’ll draw our swords on them.”) Gregory bests him by coming up with yet a third homophonous word: “Ay, while you live, draw your neck out o' the collar.”
Shakespeare loves creating scenes like this, where one character initiates a “game” and another picks up on the “rules” and joins in. It’s one of his favorite ways to reveal both rapport and competitiveness. (For more examples, take a look at As You Like It IV, i; Richard III I, ii. “I would I knew thy heart” through “To take is not to give”; and Love’s Labour’s Lost II, i. “Lady, I will commend you to mine own heart” through “I cannot stay thanksgiving.”)
By extension, the audience is also invited into the game. Shakespeare’s audiences loved linguistic play. One function of the humor in this scene is to draw us in and focus our attention.
As the conversation progresses, Sampson and Gregory introduce ever more bawdy jokes into their punning competition. Then two Montague serving men arrive, and a physical fight breaks out. There’s no more witty dialogue now: just rage and violence. Benvolio appears and tries to stop it, but Juliet’s furious cousin Tybalt runs in and attacks him. A mob pours in, joining in on both sides of the brawl. Lord Capulet and Lord Montague arrive and are instantly at each other’s throats. All is chaos until the Prince appears -- the most powerful authority in Verona -- and puts a temporary stop to the fight.
Each character who appears is more powerful and important than the last, until even the heads of the two great houses are brawling in the street. By starting the scene with two lowly servants exchanging puns, Shakespeare shows us how insubstantial the basis of the Montague/Capulet feud really is.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Shakespeare frequently juxtaposes violence and tragedy with humor. Look, for example, at Romeo and Juliet IV, 4. Juliet is found “dead,” and her parents and Paris express shock and grief. Immediately afterwards, the servant Peter jokes with the musicians who were to have played at Juliet’s wedding. By doing this, do you think Shakespeare emphasizes the intensity of the tragedy? What do you think the effect is of this sudden plunge from high drama into low comedy?