Last Updated on January 7, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1971
Before Scene 1 begins, the audience hears a prologue performed by the Chorus (usually a single actor who recites the prologue and epilogue of the play). Giving an overview of the play to follow, the prologue describes a long-standing feud between two families in Verona that has recently been reawakened. A relationship will begin between two young people from each of the families, and these lovers will end up taking their lives. In the end, the death of the two young lovers is what will finally bring an end to the terrible feud.
Act I, Scene 1
Scene 1 opens on the streets of Verona, Italy. Sampson and Gregory, two servants of Capulet family, walk down the street while discussing their desire to start a fight with someone from the rival Montague family. When they spot two men from the Montague house coming toward them, Sampson bites his thumb at them. This rude hand gesture sparks a verbal confrontation, during which both sides argue that their respective employer is best. The conversation quickly escalates, and soon, both sides have drawn their swords and begun fighting. Benvolio, a member of the Montague family, appears. His attempts to break up the scuffle are thwarted by the arrival of Tybalt Capulet, who insists upon fighting Benvolio. A small group of citizens enter the stage with an assortment of weapons, chanting, “Down with the Capulets! Down with the Montagues!” Lord and Lady Capulet enter, and seeing the fight, Lord Capulet calls out for his sword. Lord and Lady Montague enter as well. Capulet and Montague attempt to engage one another, but their respective wives hold them back. Suddenly, Prince Escalus and his retinue appear. Calling out to the brawling men before him, Prince Escalus orders them to lay down their weapons. The Prince declares that three riots have now been caused by the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets, and each time, it has been left to the frustrated citizens of Verona to break up the fighting. The Prince warns that if anyone from either house disturbs the peace again, they will be killed. He then requests that Lord Capulet come with him to discuss the situation further and arranges to meet with Lord Montague later in the day. All exit except Lord Montague, Lady Montague, and Benvolio.
Lord Montague asks Benvolio how the fight started, and Lady Montague expresses her relief that their son, Romeo, was not present. Lady Montague asks Benvolio whether he has seen Romeo today. Benvolio replies that he glimpsed him in the Sycamore grove in the very early morning but says that Romeo clearly wanted to be alone—he hid when he saw Benvolio approaching. Lord Montague remarks that Romeo has often been seen crying and sighing in the Sycamore grove before dawn, yet no one has been able to discover the source of Romeo’s obvious misery. As Romeo approaches, Benvolio promises to try and get it out of him.
Romeo enters just as his parents leave. In response to Benvolio’s inquiries, Romeo confesses that his sadness stems from an unrequited love: Romeo loves the beautiful Rosaline, but she has sworn to remain chaste for the rest of her life. Benvolio urges Romeo to forget Rosaline by looking at other beautiful ladies. Romeo responds that Rosaline is the most beautiful of all and tells Benvolio that he cannot simply forget her. Benvolio takes this as a challenge and vows to make Romeo forget all about the fair Rosaline.
Act I, Scene 2
Capulet, County Paris, and a servant named Peter enter. Paris asks whether Capulet has given any more thought to his suit of Capulet’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Juliet. Capulet tells him that Juliet is still young and suggests that Paris wait two more years before considering marriage. In the meantime, Capulet tells Paris to go ahead and woo Juliet, for his own consent to the match will mean nothing if she does not wish to marry Paris. Capulet then says that he is throwing a grand party later that night and invites Paris to come, suggesting that Paris may not be so interested in Juliet once he sees all the beautiful young ladies in attendance. Before exiting, Capulet gives a document to his servant Peter and instructs him to invite everyone on the list to his party. After Capulet and Paris leave, Peter comically admits that he cannot read and decides that he must ask someone for help if he wants to deliver the invites. Just then, Romeo and Benvolio enter. At Peter’s request, Romeo reads off the names of the invitees (one of which is Rosaline). When Romeo asks where this “fair assembly” is supposed to go, Peter tells him that the event is at Lord Capulet’s house and says that they are welcome to come if they are not from the house of Montague. Benvolio tells Romeo that this party will be the perfect opportunity to objectively compare Rosaline to the other beautiful women who will be there. Romeo disagrees that anyone there will better than Rosaline, but hoping to see her again, he agrees to attend.
Before the action of the play commences, a Chorus speaks the prologue. Written in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet, the prologue tells us that two young lovers from rival houses will fall in love and ultimately die. Though, in one sense, the prologue seems to take away from the suspense of the performance, it presents several of the key themes and ideas of the play. The prologue introduces the paradoxical relationship between two seemingly opposite concepts: love and hate. Romeo and Juliet is full of contrasts and oppositions (Montagues and Capulets, light and dark, love and hate, and violence and sex—just to name a few), and attentive readers will take note of the ways in which these paradoxical elements coexist and influence one another. The prologue also introduces the idea of fate, which is both a major theme and a driving force behind the events of the play. The ending of the play is given away before the action even begins, but the fact that the prologue is written as a sonnet suggests that structure is just as important as plot. Indeed, when the prologue tells us that Romeo and Juliet’s relationship is “star-cross’d” (fated to end poorly), the prologue itself creates an internal sense of fate within the play. By making the audience aware of Romeo and Juliet’s tragic end from the outset, Shakespeare makes destiny a central player and allows the audience to fully experience one of the main ideas of the play—that there is no escape from fate.
In contrast to the poetic and serious prologue, scene 1 is full of chaotic action, bawdy wordplay, and humor, all of which are designed to grab the attention of the audience. Before the all-out brawl begins, two servants walk down the street exchanging jokes. Though it is easy to dismiss Gregory and Sampson (as well as many of the lower-class characters in the play) as mere comedic relief, their exchange illuminates several key points. First, it highlights the depth of the Montague and Capulet feud, demonstrating that the animosity extends far beyond the actual members of the families. Their conversation also reveals an important connection between between masculinity and pride. Sampson declares, “I mean, an we be in choler, we’ll draw,” meaning that they will pull out their swords if a Montague makes them angry. This prideful streak is present in many of the play’s male characters, making them quick to resort to violence when they feel that their dignity is being challenged. The original source of the long-standing feud is never actually identified, and it is now primarily this hypermasculine pride that drives the violence between the two families.
The opening scenes introduce several of the play’s main characters. Benvolio Montague is logical and uninterested in the senseless feud that has consumed the rest of his family. Rather than join the fray, Benvolio tries to stop the street fight started by Sampson and Gregory, and he only joins the fighting himself after Tybalt forces him to. Benvolio’s rationality is further highlighted when he tries to console Romeo about Rosaline, logically suggesting that Romeo is only set on Rosaline because he has not compared her to any other worthy women. In direct contrast to peaceful Benvolio is the hotheaded Tybalt Capulet. With his prideful nature and hatred of the Montagues—“What, drawn and talk of peace! I hate the word”—Tybalt is the embodiment of the attitudes that have allowed the feud to continue. Tybalt’s fiery temper in this scene hints at more impulsive and violent acts in his future.
Finally, the audience is introduced to Romeo Montague, one of the two protagonists. Unlike his peers, Romeo is not involved in the fray on the streets. Instead, Romeo appears to be a sensitive young man and a bit of a loner. Lovesick over Rosaline, Romeo seems immune to Benvolio’s attempts to lift him out of his misery. The audience knows that Romeo and Juliet are the fated lovers spoken of in the prologue, so it may seem odd that Romeo is in love with another woman at the beginning of the play. Scholars have interpreted Romeo’s infatuation with Rosaline in several different ways. Some believe that Romeo’s love for Rosaline is merely an immature first love. As he describes Rosaline, Romeo appears to be drawing inspiration from Petrarch, a poet who famously used the sonnet form to write about an unrequited love. Romeo’s somewhat awkward imitation of this style may suggest that he is more interested in the idea of being in love than he is in Rosaline herself. Romeo vows that he will never forget about his love for Rosaline (“Thou canst not teach me to forget”) before doing precisely that. To some, the apparent ease with which Romeo transfers his affections suggests that perhaps all he feels for both Rosaline and Juliet is merely sexual attraction, not genuine love.
While Juliet Capulet does not appear in these first two scenes, audiences learn a bit about her through her father’s conversation with Paris. It is revealed that she is only thirteen years old, an age that her father feels is too young for marriage. Though Lord Capulet may appear solicitous toward his daughter's feelings, it is important to consider the context of this conversation. The society in which Juliet lives affords few rights to women, and as a young noblewoman, Juliet is certainly not free to chose whom she marries—as indicated by the fact that Paris is asking Juliet’s father for permission to pursue her. Rather than implying that Juliet may marry freely, Capulet is really suggesting that Paris “woo” Juliet so that she can feel like she has chosen him. Indeed, it will later become clear that Capulet has no intention of actually allowing Juliet to refuse Paris.
The belief that women are inferior to men underlies many of the sexual jokes made throughout the play. When Sampson says he will “push Montague’s men from the wall and thrust his maids to the wall” in scene 1, he means that he will rape the Montague women and, by doing so, steal that which rightfully belongs to the Montague men. This sexually laced language implies not only that women are the possessions of men, but also that women may be used to bolster or injure a man’s status. While Capulet certainly does not invite violence upon his daughter, it is clear that he expects Juliet to improve his own reputation through an advantageous marriage. And though Capulet claims to value Juliet’s opinion, her consent—like that of the Montague women Sampson jokes about—is ultimately immaterial.
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