Where Civil Blood Makes Civil Hands Unclean

How can the quote "Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean" be translated into Modern English?

The quote "civil blood makes civil hands unclean" means that the violent street fighting between citizens of Verona is immoral and barbaric.

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The quotation "Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean" appears in the prologue of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The meaning of the quotation lies beneath Shakespeare's clever play on words. The word civil carries multiple meanings. Civil can refer to citizens or the things of citizens. It can also apply to government, the community of citizens, or the interactions between citizens. But on the other hand, civil can mean courteous, polite, cultured, or even benevolent.

With those definitions in mind, let's look at what Shakespeare is doing in this line. Literally, he is using the word civil in its meaning of citizens. So in Verona, citizens' blood makes other citizens' hands unclean. Two families of citizens, the Montagues and the Capulets, are feuding with each other all the way to the point of shedding blood. What should be a peaceful city—a peaceful civil life, or life of citizens—has broken out into violence.

However, Shakespeare uses the other meaning of civil to add a layer of paradox and irony to this line. The citizens of Verona are supposed to be civil to one another. They are supposed to be courteous and polite, cultured and benevolent. These are upper-class people who ought to be refined, civilized, and humane, yet their “ancient grudge” has broken out into “new mutiny.” They are not “civil” to one another at all. In fact, they have become quite the opposite.

“Civil blood” becomes a paradox when when keep this interpretation in mind. Shedding blood is not civil at all. Indeed, the “civil hands” of these people ought to be kept clean through “civil” behavior. Yet this is not the case, and in this play, such incivility among citizens leads to tragedy.

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This quote comes from the prologue to the play and describes the feud between the Capulets and Montagues that is disturbing the peace of Verona. The quote turns on the meaning of the word civil and on literary devices that describe violence.

The word civil means both "public arena/citizenship" and "civilized, polite behavior." Shakespeare, who never met a pun he didn't like, plays on the dual meaning of the word. He is saying that civil blood (citizen's blood) makes civil hands (citizens' hands, civilized hands) unclean. In other words, certain citizens of Verona, because of their violence, are acting in an uncivilized way in the public arena (the streets of Verona).

Shakespeare uses blood to stand for the general violence, including death, that the street fighting among some Verona citizens is causing. Blood as used here is an example of metonymy, which occurs when a part of something stands for the whole. The classic example of metonymy is using "crown," a distinguishing feature of a king, to describe kingship.

So Shakespeare is saying that the violence (blood) of Verona's citizens is causing a problem. He then goes on to define the problem using a metaphor: he compares the immorality or barbarism of the violence to "unclean hands." In other words, the citizens who fight each other on the streets are making their souls unclean: they are sinning.

In paraphrase, Shakespeare in this line is saying that in Verona, citizens' street violence is creating a barbaric, immoral situation. Put even more simply, the violent feud is barbaric and immoral, but Shakespeare states this in a much more elegant and memorable way.

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Here is a translation into Modern English for the phrase under question:
  • "Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean" = The blood of the citizens of Verona makes the hands of the citizens both bloody and uncivilized; that is, not polite, and possibly murderous. [Please see further explanation below]
In the first Prologue to Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare provides a brief summary of the action. This summary identifies the main parts of the drama for audiences. (Prologues were given especially for the groundlings of Shakespeare's time who were uneducated and needed things to be explained simply.) Shakespeare, then, lets the audience know that the setting of his tragedy is in Verona and what action occurs in the opening scene is affected by an old feud between the Montagues and the Capulets--"ancient grudge"-- a feud that the citizens renew as they bloody their hands from wounds which they inflict upon the other citizens who are their old enemies:
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
In addition there may be some wordplay upon the word civil. Whereas "civil" relates to a community of ordinary citizens, the pun may include the other meaning of being polite and civilized. Thus, "civil blood" has the meaning of the blood of citizens, but "civil hands unclean" can have a double meaning:
  1. Literal meaning, or denotation: The citizens have blood on them and are not clean--"civil blood"
  2. Implied meaning, or connotation: Such hands are not those of truly civilized (polite and mannerly) men--"civil hands unclean."
So, with the double meaning attached to this phrase, Shakespeare suggests the bloodshed to come in his play between citizens of the two feuding families, who lose their civility (polite behavior) in their hatred for each other.

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