Why did Tybalt kill Mercutio in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet?
In Act III, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo’s closest friend, Mercutio, is killed by Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin and a young man of extremely violent disposition. Romeo, in whose arms his friend utters his least breath, subsequently kills Tybalt. The tragic encounter between partisans of the two warring clans in Shakespeare’s play is not unexpected given the build-up to some form of climatic confrontation from the play’s opening scenes. Romeo and Juliet is about the love of two young people whose families have been feuding for years, to the consternation of the town’s reigning monarch, Prince Escalus. That feud permeates the atmosphere in which Romeo and Juliet takes place, evident in the play’s opening scene. The play opens with two representatives of the Capulets determined to attack and vanquish any Montagues unfortunate enough to cross their path. The discussion between these two partisans provides the context in which the scenes and eventual tragedies that follow occur:
GREGORY The quarrel is between our masters and us
SAMPSON ’Tis all one. I will show myself a tyrant.
When I have fought with the men, I will be civil
with the maids; I will cut off their heads.
The violent sentiments evident in this discussion illustrate the depth of hatred dividing the Montagues and Capulets. It will only be with the eventual deaths of the titular characters that the clans’ respective leaders come to appreciate the insanity that has defined their relationships.
Why, then, did Tybalt kill Mercutio? Because Tybalt, as noted, is a violent, temperamental individual and a fierce partisan in the feud. Note, in the following challenge from that opening scene, Tybalt’s antipathy towards the Montagues:
What, drawn and talk of peace? I hate the word
As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.
By the time the action of Act III takes place, the stage has been well-established for a fatal confrontation between members of the two clans. Tybalt kills Mercutio because Mercutio is a Montague close to Romeo. The two are sworn enemies, although Mercutio is slower to violence than Tybalt, who is always prepared to kill, as he does with respect to Romeo’s dear friend.