What is the social and historical context surrounding Act 3, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Scene 1 of Act 3 is the moment that Tybalt comes to demand Romeo's answer in response to challenging Romeo to a duel. In order to understand the social and historical context of the scene, we must understand the social and historical background and significance of dueling.

Contrary to today's opinion, dueling in older centuries was actually not considered a barbaric activity. Instead, it was seen as the only respectable way for a man to preserve his honor. Dueling was especially common for men in the higher classes. Hence, Tybalt challenging Romeo to a duel due to the fact that he felt insulted by Romeo's presence at the Capulet ball was a socially acceptable and normal thing to do. In fact, dueling was so common that under France's King Henry IV, 10,000 gentleman were thought to have died as a consequence of dueling. Dueling became popular when, especially in the Middle Ages, a judicial court as we know it today did not exist. Dueling was considered the only way for two gentleman to settle their disputes. However, under the rule of someone like Prince Escalus, dueling might have been made illegal, especially within the bounds of Verona's city. Even King Henry IV felt it necessary to pass a law demanding that all nobles "submit their grievances to a tribunal for redress," rather than addressing their problems in a duel ("Dueling History"). In the very first scene, Prince Escalus proclaims that if any Montague or Capulet disturbs Verona's streets with violence again, that person will be executed. Hence, we know that, while dueling was commonly accepted by society, Prince Escalus would have condemned it under his new law, as we see in his lines, "If ever you disturb our streets again, / Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace" (I.i.92-93). Hence the social and historical context surrounding this scene is the social and historical importance of dueling. During this time period, dueling was socially acceptable and expected; regardless, it would have been illegal under Prince Escalus's rule.

However, one way in which the scene does not fit in with social and historical context concerns the manner in which Tybalt challenged Romeo. Culturally, Tybalt would have first sent a letter to Romeo demanding an apology, and when that failed, Tybalt then would have challenged him. It is apparent from an earlier scene that Tybalt might have actually skipped that first step, as immediately after the ball, Benvolio and Mercutio discuss the fact that Tybalt has already sent a letter to Romeo's house challenging his life. Also, while many men died from duels, taking another man's life actually wasn't the ultimate purpose. Only about 20% of duels actually ended in death. The main purpose of a duel was really to prove yourself to be fearless thereby regaining your honor ("Dueling History"). Hence, another way in which this scene differs from its actual social and historical context is with respect to the fact that Tybalt seemed to actually want to take Romeo's life.