In what situations in Romeo and Juliet does Shakespeare present honour as a constructive or destructive force?
In Act 1, Scene 1, it is more than evident that the men from the houses of Capulet and Montague are fighting for the honor of not only their respective houses but also for themselves. The men trade insults, which eventually culminates in a sword fight. Both parties believe that they are defending the integrity of their particular houses; their actions are honorable, for they do it out of love and loyalty at the risk of suffering either injury or death. This particular perspective is best encapsulated by Sampson when he tells his enemies:
Draw, if you be men.
The obvious implication is, of course, that if they refuse to fight they are cowards and therefore devoid of honor. This is a challenge that the opposition cannot resist.
The arrival of the Lords Capulet and Montague adds fuel to the fire, and the brawl becomes such a disruptive affair that the citizens of Verona fear for their lives. One of the upset citizens curses the feuding parties for endangering them and disturbing the peace.
Clubs, bills, and partisans! strike! beat them down!
Down with the Capulets! down with the Montagues!
This incident clearly illustrates how honor can be a destructive force.
A second example of the destructive capability of honor is found in Tybalt's desire to seek out Romeo and fight him in a duel. Tybalt feels that Romeo has offended his honor and that of the House of Capulet by gatecrashing the Capulets' private Ball in Act 1, Scene 5. He feels even more offended when, at the ball, he wants to remove Romeo but is severely scolded by his uncle, Lord Capulet, and told to leave the young Montague alone.
Tybalt's desire to avenge his honor, however, sticks so deep that he eventually confronts Romeo in Act 3, Scene 1. Romeo, however, refuses to take up his challenge. This particular fracas started by Tybalt later ends in Mercutio's death.
Romeo, on the other hand, feels that it is an honorable act to avenge Mercutio's murder, and he goes after Tybalt and eventually kills him. Ironically, though, it was his intervention which gave Tybalt the advantage and the opportunity to mortally wound Mercutio in the first place.
Honor in these instances clearly has negative outcomes. Not only do Tybalt and Mercutio die, but Romeo's actions cause repercussions which will dramatically alter the course of events in the play.
There are very few examples in the play of honor being a force for good. The most profound act of honor that has a positive outcome occurs at the end of the play. Both Lords Capulet and Montague decide to bury the hatchet and bring an end to their age-old feud. Their long overdue decision is unfortunately only inspired by their deep losses. Both families have lost an only child.
The two families do, at least, regain some of their integrity and restore some status to their tarnished names. It is, however, too little too late in all senses of the expression.
Throughout Romeo and Juliet, honor (and, for that matter, love) is shown to be destructive, or at best, a double-edged sword. The entire play is framed around a feud between the Montague and Capulet families, that is, like most feuds, based on family honor. The destructive nature of honor is perhaps most vividly portrayed in the death of Mercutio, killed by Tybalt. Mercutio hints at the absurdity of fighting and dying for honor in his death speech:
Help me into some house, Benvolio, or I shall faint. A plague o' both your houses! They have made worm's meat of me: I have it, and soundly too: your houses!
On the other hand, Mercutio also chides Romeo for failing to live up to the obligations of honor in fighting Tybalt, and Romeo fulfills his debt to honor by killing Tybalt. Montague appeals to this concept of masculine honor in his defense of Romeo to the Prince:
Not Romeo, prince, he was Mercutio's friend; his fault concludes what the law should end, the death of Tybalt.
This passage indicates the degree to which honor, justice, and masculinity were entwined in the minds of Shakespeare's characters. Lady Capulet also appeals to this sense of masculine honor and justice when she demands that Romeo be killed, but the Prince opts for banishment instead.