Act III, Scenes 1–2: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on January 7, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1768

Act III, Scene 1

Act III opens on a sweltering day on the streets of Verona. As he walks with Mercutio, Benvolio suggests that they go inside to avoid both the heat and the Capulets that are wandering the streets looking for a fight. Mercutio replies that Benvolio himself is quick to fight and should not pretend otherwise by preaching restraint. Suddenly, Tybalt appears, accompanied by several of his men. Tybalt approaches Mercutio and Benvolio, saying he needs to talk to them. Mercutio taunts Tybalt, but before their fight can escalate further, Romeo appears. Tybalt, who has been looking for Romeo, calls him a “villain”—remember that Tybalt has challenged Romeo to a duel for his trespass at the Capulet party. Romeo (who is now married to Juliet, Tybalt’s cousin) cryptically tells Tybalt that he will excuse these insults because he now has a reason to love Tybalt.

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Refusing to be denied, Tybalt orders Romeo to draw his sword and duel. Romeo insists that he has no quarrel with Tybalt, whose Capulet name is now as dear as his own. Calling Romeo’s submission dishonorable, Mercutio intervenes and challenges Tybalt to a fight himself. They begin duelling even as Romeo begs them to stop, reminding them that the Prince has forbidden fighting in the streets. Increasingly desperate, Romeo throws himself between the two men to act as a human barrier. Tybalt uses this distraction to his advantage, stabbing Mercutio under Romeo’s arm before fleeing with his men. Romeo laments this unfortunate turn of events and decides that his love for Juliet has made him unacceptably effeminate. Mercutio’s wound proves fatal, and he dies cursing the Capulets and the Montagues. Unexpectedly, Tybalt reappears, and Romeo, enraged by the sight of his friend’s murderer, engages Tybalt and kills him. As people begin to pour out onto the streets, Benvolio tells Romeo to run, reminding him that the Prince will have him executed for breaking the peace. Romeo flees the scene after declaring that he is “fortune’s fool.”

The Prince appears along with Lord Capulet, Lord Montague, their wives, and their men. Enraged by the bloody scene before him, the Prince demands to know who started the fight. Benvolio truthfully relates what happened, explaining that Romeo refused to fight Tybalt until Tybalt killed Mercutio. Distraught over her nephew’s death, Lady Capulet demands that Romeo be killed for his crime. Lord Montague points out that as Tybalt had broken the Prince’s law first, Romeo only killed someone who would have been executed anyways. The Prince takes the context of Tybalt’s death into account and decrees that Romeo’s punishment will be banishment, not death. The Prince goes on to say that he too is now personally involved in the feud as Mercutio, his relative, lies dead because of it. He vows to punish the families for this crime and warns the Montagues that Romeo must leave the city immediately or be killed.

Act III, Scene 2

Unaware of the bloody scene that has just taken place, Juliet sits in her room and impatiently waits for nightfall so that she and Romeo may consummate their marriage. Suddenly, the Nurse bursts in, distraught over Tybalt’s death. In her agitated state, the Nurse poorly explains what has transpired, leading Juliet to believe for a moment that both Romeo and Tybalt are dead. When Juliet finally learns what really happened, she bemoans this cruel twist of fate, declaring the Romeo’s actions were in total opposition to the person she thought he was. The Nurse agrees, saying, “Shame come to Romeo!” Hearing this, Juliet changes her mind and defends Romeo to the Nurse, admitting that she already regrets criticizing him herself. Turning to the subject of Romeo’s banishment, Juliet complains that this news is far worse than the news of Tybalt’s death. Juliet resigns herself to the idea that she will die a virgin, but the Nurse reveals that Romeo is hiding at Friar Laurence’s cell and promises to go fetch him so that the marriage may be consummated. Juliet gives the Nurse a ring and asks her to deliver it to Romeo as a symbol of her love.

Analysis

The deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt at the beginning of act III mark a turning point in the play as a romantic story of young love devolves into a violent tragedy. In fact, up until act III, Romeo and Juliet reads as closer to a Shakespearean comedy (which usually ends in marriage). The quick wit and fiery temper Mercutio has displayed throughout the play now becomes his downfall when he taunts Tybalt into a duel. Though Mercutio humorously accuses Benvolio of being hot tempered, the audience knows that it is really Mercutio who is quick to fight. Indeed, Benvolio jokes that if he had Mercutio’s temper, he would not live longer than an hour and fifteen minutes. The two friends are merely poking fun at one another, but their jokes prove eerily prophetic as Mercutio’s quick temper leads to his death within the hour.

Even in the face of death, Mercutio continues to make puns: “Ask for me to-morrow, / and you shall find me a grave man.” Immediately after making the joke, however, Mercutio seems to recognize the gravity and the senselessness of the situation, prompting him to curse the Capulets and the Montagues. Mercutio, who is not a member of either of the rival families, has now needlessly forfeited his life in service of their feud. Mercutio repeats “A plague o’ both your houses!” three times, and while it initially comes across as a flippant rebuke, Mercutio’s curse becomes more serious as he inches toward death. Note that while Romeo ascribes this unfortunate turn of events to fate—“O, I am fortune’s fool!”—Mercutio places the blame for his death squarely on the feud and the individuals who perpetuate it. Mercutio’s curse also serves to reinforce the theme of fate. The audience knows that Mercutio’s curse will come true: both the Capulets and the Montagues will suffer the death of a beloved child. 

In scene 1, the sensitive side that Romeo displays with Juliet is finally brought into conflict with the hypermasculine environment of Verona. Romeo initially tries to deflect Tybalt’s insults with love, claiming that he loves the Capulet name as much as his own. Because Romeo has kept his relationship with Juliet a secret, however, neither Tybalt nor Romeo’s friends know what he means by this. This confusion leads Mercutio, who interprets Romeo’s response as unacceptable cowardice, to challenge Tybalt in Romeo’s place. Afterwards, Romeo regrets allowing his friend to fight in his place, a weakness he blames on his love for Juliet. Various characters have previously juxtaposed love and violence rhetorically, but now this contrast is expressed literally, as Romeo directly connects his love for Juliet to his friend’s death. 

Chaos reigns as Mercutio is stabbed, and Tybalt flees the scene before strangely returning moments later to fight Romeo. Tybalt’s decision to return and Romeo’s decision to fight him suggest that, with Mercutio’s death, all rationality has temporarily left these characters. Indeed, just before Romeo challenges and kills Tybalt, he declares, “This day’s black fate on more days doth depend; / This but begins the woe others must end,” suggesting that Romeo is aware that his actions in this moment have the potential to cause future suffering. Despite this, Romeo sees Tybalt and immediately abandons all thought of rationality, declaring that “fire-eyed fury” will guide his actions from now on. Of course, in letting rage be his guide, Romeo kills a member of Juliet’s family and virtually ensures that their respective families will never accept their marriage. Furthermore, for breaking the Prince’s law, Romeo is banished from Verona. Now, the young lovers must defy not only their families but the law as well if they want to continue their relationship.

As Juliet waits for night to fall, she alludes to Phoebus (the god of the sun) and Phaeton (Phoebus’s son) as she urges day to give way to night. Here, Juliet’s metaphorical remarks evoke familiar themes of light and dark while also poetically describing her impatience to consummate her marriage. Eagerly awaiting her husband, Juliet famously says,

Give me my Romeo. And when I shall die, 
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night

Here, Juliet employs the contradictory ideas of love and death to illustrate the depth of her love. Later, she will juxtapose love, sex, and death in a darker way when she learns of Romeo’s exile: “I’ll to my wedding bed; / And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead!” This rhetorical combination of love and death occurs throughout the play, emphasizing the fact that death is an inherent part of Romeo and Juliet’s love.

The Nurse’s inability to quickly and calmly explain what has happened to Tybalt and Romeo is reminiscent of act II, when the Nurse deliberately withheld Romeo’s reply to tease Juliet. Now, however, the Nurse’s behavior stems from genuine distress, signaling the play’s drastic change in tone. Juliet initially believes that the Nurse is saying that Romeo has killed himself, and her reaction is to say that she does not exist without Romeo (“I am not I if there be such an I”), foreshadowing her eventual decision to commit suicide. Juliet’s assumption that Romeo has killed himself—though the Nurse only says “he’s dead”—is also notable in that it hints at the suicidal impulse that lurks beneath their love.

When the Nurse is finally able to clarify what has happened, Juliet expresses her dismay over Romeo’s unexpected crime through a series of oxymorons: “Beautiful tyrant! Fiend angelical! / Dove-feathered raven! Wolvish-ravening lamb!” Unlike Romeo, however, Juliet does not allow her distress to rule her. Notably, Juliet is blindly loyal to neither Romeo nor her family. After thinking it over for a moment, Juliet decides that her allegiance must be to Romeo and reframes her perspective in a way that allows her to take her husband’s side: “My husband lives, that Tybalt would have slain; / And Tybalt’s dead, that would have slain my husband.” While Romeo is ruled by his grief and throws caution to the wind, Juliet works to control her emotions, deliberately putting her love for Romeo before her personal sorrow over her cousin’s death.

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