The one thing that we as teachers forget is that Shakespeare was writing his plays for a very volatile audience. At this time, acting and theater were really not very respectable professions, so much of the audience was low class and prone to immediate reactions to the play in front of them.The people who stood close to the stage and actors needed to be entertained and quickly, or it was not uncommon for them to throw rotten tomatoes and such debris at the actors. Fights and sword fighting are entertaining to watch, and kept the audience interested. Shakespeare uses innuendoes in his plays, many of which are not for polite society which we as readers often don't notice, but his audience of the time loved the bawdy references. The above answer is a great answer, but I believe we also should remember Shakespeare's audience and their often boorish behavior at this time in history if not quickly interested and entertained.
There are a number of possible reasons that Shakespeare may have chosen to open Romeo and Juliet by presenting a rowdy, action-packed street fight, including the following:
- The fight immediately grabs our attention and makes us pay attention; it is vivid and memorable and is a superb example of fascinating “stage business.”
- The fight already implies the enormous social consequences of the feud between the two families. This is not simply a conflict between two small groups of related people. Instead, it affects everyone affiliated with them as well as the city at large.
- The fight already implies one of the chief themes of the play: the dangers of uncontrolled passion and of irrational behavior.
- The fight helps set by, by contrast, the love between Romeo and Juliet and the possible reconciliation of the two families. Certainly there seems no prospect of reconciliation in the opening scene.
- The dialogue leading up to the fight is somewhat comic and therefore helps emphasize, by contrast, the ensuing tone of tragedy emphasized in much of the rest of the play.
- The fight foreshadows various other conflicts later in the play, such as the battles between Tybalt and Mercutio and between Romeo and Tybalt. The first fight ends without too much trouble; the later battles between end with important characters killed.
- The fight shows the Prince as a symbol of order; it thus foreshadows his later, similar appearances in the play.
In the opening dialogue of the scene, Sampson seems the more seriously aggressive of the two servants; Gregory seems the more playful and witty:
Sampson. Gregory, o' my word, we'll not carry coals.
Gregory. No, for then we should be colliers.
Sampson. I mean, an we be in choler, we'll draw.
Gregory. Ay, while you live, draw your neck out o' the collar.
Sampson. I strike quickly, being moved.
Gregory. But thou art not quickly moved to strike.
Sampson. A dog of the house of Montague moves me.
Gregory. To move is to stir; and to be valiant is to stand:
therefore, if thou art moved, thou runn'st away.
Sampson. A dog of that house shall move me to stand: I will take the wall of any man or maid of Montague's.
Gregory. That shows thee a weak slave; for the weakest goes to the wall.