Introduction For Romeo And Juliet Conflict Essay

Conflict In William Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet

Conflict in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet is a tragic play about the love relationship between
the young Romeo and Juliet, who belong to 2 ancient family names that
hold a grudge against each other, the Montagues and the Capulets.
There are also many other conflicts which ultimately stop Romeo and
Juliet form being together. The story was written by the famous play
writer, William Shakespeare, and originated the poem, 'the Tragicalle
Historye' of Romeo and Juliet written in 1452. Throughout the play
conflict is a very important issue and was the main reason the
relationship ended in tragedy.

In Romeo and Juliet, conflict is the focal point of the play as most
of the story is based around this. The conflict in the play is
introduced through nature, social and personal levels of feud. The
first major conflict that is essential to the play, and is the
backbone of the whole story is the feud between the families, the
Montague?s and the Capulet?s is very important as it is introduced in
the prologue, ?From ancient grudge break to new mutiny? showing that
the conflict has existed for many generations and once again the feud
has arisen to boiling point. The next line, ?where civil blood makes
civil hands unclean?, gives us the impression that the conflict
between the Montagues also involves many other people, which helps to
show the extent of the conflict. This is reinforced by the fact that
even the servants of the families are quarrelling during the beginning
of the play, just before the big fight that involves the whole of
Verona. Shakespeare shows this by making the servant use insults that
were used at the time, ?Do you bite your thumb at me.? The feud is
mainly to do with the pride the family name holds, although no-one
really knows what the feud is originated from. However the pride each
family holds has turned into rivalry for control, power and fighting
for the family name. The feud also runs in the background through the
whole play and is branched off into other smaller feuds such as Romeo
and Tybalt and Juliet and her father. We can already see that the
conflict is already a major driving force of the play and helps to
fuel the tragedy.

The effect the feud has on the play is that we can already see that
the relationship between Romeo and Juliet would be fairly prohibiting
and would be seen in the eyes of Montague and Capulet as deceitful and
dishonourable. Already there is a major issue that will always prevent
Romeo and Juliet having a stable relationship and helps to leas to the
tragic and unfortunate deaths of the lovers. Another major effect it
has on the play is that it helps to create all the other feuds and
creates an unwelcome hostility between the two families. The idea of
the relationship ending in tragedy through this conflict is...

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SOURCE: Levenson, Jill L. Introduction to Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, edited by Jill L. Levenson, pp. 1-126. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[In the excerpt below, Levenson highlights Romeo and Juliet's themes, discusses its structure and its use of rhetoric, and notes that in terms of genre, the play provides an original arrangement of the tragic, comic, and sonnet sequence forms.]


Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was, and still is, famous for its affect. In his essay on feeling and early modern theatre, Gary Taylor cites allusions from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, notably to the tragedy's last couplet, indicating that audiences appreciated this play as ‘the ultimate in woe’.1 However the text has been adapted since the Restoration, woe and love have remained keynotes of successful performance; and Romeo and Juliet has enjoyed a number of highly successful periods in production, from the second half of the eighteenth century to the end of the twentieth, from staging by David Garrick to cinema by Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann (see the discussion of theatre history below, ‘Restoration to Late Twentieth Century’). Theatre tends to pitch emotion for adult audiences; recent films, keying sentiment for more than one generation, have moved record numbers of teenagers with the incomparable ‘story of more woe’.


One source of affect in Romeo and Juliet must be the mythical component of the narrative, potential which the dramatic version exploits to a far greater degree than the novellas. Again and again Shakespeare reinforces Liebestod and resonant myths, not only with references to Cupid and Venus but with allusions to unrelated Ovidian stories connecting disaster and transformation: Phaëton, the most prominent (2.2.4, 2.4.9, 3.2.1-4, 5.3.306), as well as Danaë (1.1.210), Echo (2.1.207-9), Julius Caesar (3.2.22-5), Philomel (3.5.4), and Proserpina (5.3.105). At times citations of supporting myth and legend appear in unlikely places, such as Mercutio's catalogue of five tragic heroines in his mockery of Romeo as lover (2.3.40-2). Despite comic distractions like this, promises of woe to come occur everywhere in the play. The motif of death as Juliet's bridegroom, identified by M. M. Mahood and T. J. B. Spencer,2 is introduced at the end of the fourth scene (ll. 247-8) and repeated until its enactment in 5.3. Wordplay and irony also anticipate the tragic close. On seeing Juliet at the dance, Romeo observes ‘Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear’ (see 1.4.160 n.). In their first private conversation Juliet confesses, as she compares Romeo to a pet bird, ‘Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing’ (2.1.229). The familiar version of the wedding scene concentrates foreboding in the exchange between Friar Laurence and Romeo (2.5.1-15).3

The play also enhances the rite of passage which the myth represents. While the novellas emphasize the lovers' failure to make the social transition symbolized by marriage, they present little psychological complexity. Literary conventions which stylize thought and emotion allow the protagonists almost no individuality: Romeo and Juliet are patterns of young love, his age unspecified, hers noted (during her father's marriage negotiations) as sixteen in Brooke, eighteen or so in the others. By contrast, the dramatic version catches the lovers specifically in the early and middle phases of adolescence. Its portrayal of these phases, remarkable for its accuracy and thoroughness, is animated by sexual energy. When wordplay imitates sexual play, it expresses thoughts and sensations typical of this often chaotic period of transition.4 The staging itself, readily adaptable to film, charges events:

Visually, the play remains memorable for a number of repeated images—street brawls, swords flashing to the hand, torches rushing on and off, crowds gathering. The upper stage is used frequently, with many opportunities for leaping or scrambling or stretching up and down and much play between upper and lower areas. The dominant feelings we get as an audience are oppressive heat, sexual desire, a frequent whiz-bang exhilarating kinesthesia of speed and clash, and above all a feeling of the keeping-down and separation of highly charged bodies, whose pressure toward release and whose sudden discharge determine the rhythm of the play.5

Perhaps the sexually charged enactment of adolescence explains the emotional appeal of Romeo and Juliet to modern teenagers and to adults still in touch with their earlier selves.

In its portrayal of adolescent phases, Romeo and Juliet uses the sequence of the well-known story as a point of departure. It adds scenes and shorter passages to the fictional narrative which enlarge the social worlds of the lovers before reducing them, and which therefore complicate relationships with families or friends. Consequently the changes of adolescence, part of a larger dynamic, set off repercussions at every level of the action: the protagonists verbalize them and act them out; Romeo's friends mirror or disagree with his behaviour; and the older generation, misconstruing almost all of the signs, hasten events towards calamity.

In the opening scene, for example, more than half of the dialogue elaborates on Romeo's state of mind. When the prototype failed to rationalize his initial lovesickness in the novellas, an anonymous friend lectured him on the wastefulness of unrequited love, and Romeo immediately accepted his advice to find a more compassionate mistress. Revising this episode, the play makes Romeo's behaviour the subject of conversation between his father and his cousin Benvolio: Romeo isolates himself, restless and uncommunicative, seeking an ambience that suits his mood. Benvolio not only shares some of Romeo's feelings (ll. 114-26), but recognizes the correspondence:

I, measuring his affections by my own … Pursued my humour, not pursuing his, And gladly shunned who gladly fled from me.

(ll. 122-6)

Yet neither relative can identify Romeo's problem, an obvious case of unsettled hormones, and Benvolio determines to help Montague find the cause. During the eighty-line exchange between Romeo and Benvolio which follows, play on words and on conventions of love-poetry replaces the anonymous lecture, establishing the distinctive language of the young male peer group that will include Mercutio. With his ripostes to Benvolio's speeches, Romeo scores points in a contest of wits that displays self-conscious masculinity in adolescent patter:

ROMEO In sadness, cousin, I do love a woman. BENVOLIO I aimed so near when I supposed you loved. ROMEO A right good markman, and she's fair I love. BENVOLIO A right fair mark, fair coz, is soonest hit. ROMEO Well, in that hit you miss: she'll not be hit With Cupid's arrow, she hath Dian's wit; …

(ll. 200-5)

The fourth scene introduces Mercutio, the character invented from a few sentences in the original narratives; and it adds at the start an episode of more than one hundred lines where he interacts with Romeo, almost engulfing him with the power of his imagination in the Queen Mab speech, expressing his anger and his sexual fantasies. Often Mercutio's banter, witty and combative, escalates to rough bawdy; it voices preoccupations which the other young men disguise with more propriety. Between this episode and the beginning of the third act, Romeo's two close friends appear where the audience could not have expected them from precedents, leaving Capulet's party (1.4.232-7), serving as prelude to the moonlit balcony scene (2.1.3-43), filling time until the Nurse delivers her first message to Romeo (2.3.1-134). Intruding on the love-story, they accentuate Romeo's growing distance from their social life. The opening scene of the third act centres on them, especially Mercutio, who provokes the fight which leads to Romeo's exile. After the explosion of violence which kills Mercutio, Benvolio too disappears from the play, and Romeo's isolation becomes different in kind. As his social world disintegrates, the drama returns to its source-narrative and Romeo engages with characters who expedite his fate: Friar Laurence, the Nurse, his man Balthazar, the Apothecary. The fifth act contains a different kind of invention, Romeo's dream and recollections of the Apothecary's shop in 5.1, and his encounter with Paris in 5.3. Late in the play these discrete moments again focus his state of mind, his brief escape into wishfulfilment and his suicidal despair.

Like the novellas, the play introduces Juliet after the exposition which dissociates Romeo from the feud; but it immediately adds two scenes which position the character within her family and add up to a biographical sketch. The fictions present a stereotypical beauty at her father's celebration, ‘a maid, right fair of perfect shape’, who attracts Romeo's eye (Brooke 197). Anticipating the party, the second and third scenes of the drama portray the young Juliet as she is viewed through the eyes of others: her father, a potential suitor, her mother, and her nurse. When she appears in the third scene, Juliet has little to say, barely hinting the complexities to come, but she is well-defined in social terms. If the play conceals her state of mind, it announces her age, her status as an only child and heir, her suitability for betrothal, and her condition of total dependency on her parents. She belongs to an affluent early modern household run by her father. In addition to the immediate family there are servants for everything from delivering messages to serving food.6 Later scenes will show them moving furniture, providing torches, gathering provisions for the cook, and collecting logs for a fire. Interpolations, these episodes portray an establishment bustling with male and female servants, some more experienced and responsible than others. The household includes Samson and Gregory, the serving-men inclined towards sex and violence: Shakespeare created them to open the play.

Certainly the Nurse holds a privileged position among the rest; she shares the counsel of Juliet and her mother during 1.3. A nurse in every sense of the word, she breast-fed the infant Juliet and cared for the growing child. She delivers the history of Juliet's brief life, allowing the audience to imagine a toddler being weaned, taking her first steps, going through the initial stage of separation from a mother-figure with its attendant hazards: Juliet fell out with the breast, and she toppled over as she ran. When the Nurse repeats her husband's joke about Juliet losing her balance—‘Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit’ (1.3.44, 58)—unknowingly she not only mocks the narrative in progress, but calls attention to the second stage of development now under way. Whatever the age of puberty for girls in Elizabethan England, Juliet has apparently reached it in Shakespeare's Italy.7 ‘Well, think of marriage now’ (1. 71), her mother advises Juliet, who is almost fourteen. Younger girls have become mothers, and Capulet's Wife herself gave birth to Juliet when she was about Juliet's age (ll. 71-5).

After the first act, the play invents little narrative around the character of Juliet. Instead, it makes adjustments to the Capulet family of the novellas, in particular to Capulet himself, which strengthen initial impressions of Juliet's place in the household. From the beginning this father busily engages in his daughter's marriage arrangements, rushing them along from 3.4. His interference generates irony and suspense in the third act; his negotiations with Paris continue while Juliet consummates her marriage with Romeo. Significantly, his efforts call attention to the conflict which results when Juliet attempts to escape his authority. In 3.5 this confrontation, which starts with Capulet's Wife, occupies most of the long scene: nearly two hundred lines of dialogue follow the sixty-five-line parting of Romeo and Juliet. The family episode, in its sheer bulk, represents the obduracy which the lovers face. Here social and economic considerations are primary; and the adolescent girl who tries to assert independence hears, in blunt terms, that she is her father's property. Many of Capulet's insults—‘green-sickness carrion’ (l. 155), ‘wretched puling fool’ (l. 183), ‘whining maumet’ (l. 184)—emphasize Juliet's youth. In 4.2 he will stress her intractableness: ‘A peevish self-willed harlotry it is’, ‘How now, my headstrong’ (ll. 13, 15); but he will express approval when she seems to concede:

I have learned me to repent the sin Of disobedient opposition To you and your behests; …

(ll. 16-18)

In effect, the play simulates what Anna Freud calls ‘the atmosphere in which the adolescent lives’:

… [the] anxieties, the height of elation or depth of despair, the quickly rising enthusiasms, the utter hopelessness, the burning—or at other times sterile—intellectual and philosophical preoccupations, the yearning for freedom, the sense of loneliness, the feeling of oppression by the parents, the impotent rages or active hates directed against the adult world, the erotic crushes—whether homosexually or heterosexually directed—the suicidal fantasies, etc.8

Although writers since antiquity had recognized and recorded the experience of adolescence, none had dramatized it so comprehensively.9

The play observes the transitional phase from an adult's point of view as the younger generation assume the attitudes typical of the process; it also adopts the adolescent's point of view as the developing personality responds to family and other social values and beliefs. Consequently it presents adolescence in Verona not only as it is perceived by those who have survived it, usually in a distant or vanished past, but also as it is felt by those who are growing through it until violence abruptly stops their progress. Finally the play totalizes this experience, which psychoanalytic theory and recent data continue to link with emotional turmoil: the whole adolescent population, including the most stable personalities, feel the pressures of new sexual impulses and socialization as adults.10 The dramatic action displays a range of adolescent behaviours from Benvolio to Tybalt, less disturbed to more disturbed, showing these figures in relation to one another and to adults, especially father-figures.11 But only spectators, and perhaps actors, have access to the entire prospect. None of the characters fully apprehends the decisive changes in the younger generation which will profoundly disrupt their society, ending the Capulet and Montague lines and killing Mercutio and Paris, two of the Prince's kinsmen.

Clearly Shakespeare's additions and adjustments contribute to the narrative's inclusiveness as well as its various ironies. One modern study of adolescence begins with Romeo and Juliet 2.2, the exchange between Romeo and Friar Laurence about Romeo's inconstancy. Original to the play, this dialogue sets adolescent intensity and impatience against adult perplexity and rationalization; its tension is diverted rather than resolved. Friar Laurence may joke about Romeo's passions—tears, sighs, and groans over changing objects of love—but he never acknowledges their sources, and at last he will indulge them in an attempt to end the feud (ll. 90-2).12 Through the rest of the play this pattern continues: Friar Laurence redirects not only Juliet's suicidal inclinations (4.1), as his prototypes had, but also Romeo's (3.3), both efforts to reconcile the families. In a few days the repressed feelings overwhelm both the protagonists and Friar Laurence. They also overwhelm the other adults in the play, from Montague to the Nurse, who misunderstand the younger generation in their charge. Again and again the drama focuses on this kind of misunderstanding which is probably, in Peter Blos's summation, ‘as old as generations themselves’.13 The lovers and parent-figures never confront their growing distance from one another; and the parent-figures, from one angle, represent adults in adolescent fantasy and perception.14

The peer group which centres on Mercutio, the leader of high social status who takes the greatest risks, represents a constant of adolescent experience observed by Aristotle in his Rhetoric: ‘[Young men] are fonder of their friends, intimates, and companions than older men are, because they like spending their days in the company of others’.15 In Western cultures the male peer group provides space for transition from childhood dependencies to adult relationships: the adolescent experiments with social conventions—dress, gesture, vocabulary—as he establishes his sexual identity according to the group's standard; he may also experiment with fantasy and introspection.16 Nevertheless, the family remains a source of shelter and security: Romeo, still a ward, will follow Mercutio and Benvolio to dinner at his father's house (2.3.130-2).17

Like the signs of dissonance between generations, those of interaction within the peer group are obvious in the play. From the approach to Capulet's party, the three named members show concern with style and decorum, sometimes pointedly dismissing what others think. When Romeo asks if they will enter with a formal speech, for example, Benvolio responds, ‘The date is out of such prolixity’, and he concludes:

But let them measure us by what they will, We'll measure them a measure and be gone.


Mercutio, putting on a mask required by the occasion, asks; ‘What care I / What curious eye doth quote deformities?’ (ll. 28-9). Since they plan to present themselves in a uniform way, Mercutio attempts to talk Romeo out of the loverlike attitude that sets him apart. His idiom of choice is the pun, unsubtle and ribald, characteristic of the language these young men share. Although not unique to them—Samson and Gregory introduce bawdy wordplay as contest when the play opens—the pun combines with other rhetorical figures to produce a distinct mode of expression, what Erik Homburger Erikson would call a ‘strange code’.18 Mercutio is aware of this distinction and what it means. After the long match of wits with Romeo in 2.3, which ultimately becomes more and more obscene until it stops, he is convinced that Romeo has returned to the fold: ‘Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo, now art thou what thou art by art as well as by nature’ (ll. 84-5).

As Romeo begins to remove himself from the group, testing sexual partnership, Mercutio seems to consolidate his own position. Mercutio remains witty to the end, a trait Aristotle calls ‘well-bred insolence’; and he argues to the end, another acceptable way to release feelings he may not understand.19 Moreover, he stereotypes everyone he encounters, including that person in the group or, more often, excluding a misfit.20 Sometimes he plays with the stereotypes, describing the peacemaker Benvolio as a quarrelsome gallant (3.1.5-29). But his portrayal of Tybalt as totally unfashionable—in his duelling style, his affected speech, and his other social habits—distinguishes the young Capulet as an outsider (2.3.18-34); and the differences emphasize what Mercutio promotes as the values of his own group. Among the other simplifications, Mercutio stereotypes women, from the elusive Rosaline to the down-to-earth Nurse, always in demeaning them. From Mercutio's point of view women debilitate men, reducing them to impotence and effeminacy: infatuated Romeo appears to him ‘[w]ithout his roe, like a dried herring’ (2.3.36), that is, sexually depleted. All women objectify sex, even the Nurse (‘A bawd, a bawd, a bawd!’, 2.3.122). At a stage of psychological development which may be slightly earlier than Romeo's, Mercutio expresses more interest in his friend's sex life than in his own: Romeo's body supplies images for his phallic wordplay, most strikingly in a series of puns at 1.4.20-6 and 2.1.35-9. With their friendship, typifying the androgynous world of male adolescents, the play enacts not only male bonding but Mercutio's unacknowledged homoerotic desire.21

Romeo and Juliet meet in this incoherent world of shifting identities and relationships, each at a different phase of adolescent development. According to 1.2 and 1.3, Juliet has just entered adolescence from latency, its juncture with childhood. When she first appears she reveals no consciousness of her sexuality, behaviour characteristic of girls her age, despite the subject of the conversation: ‘How stands your dispositions to be married?’ (1.3.67). ‘It is an honour that I dream not of’ (l. 68), Juliet responds, and she is just as abstract when her mother asks, ‘can you like of Paris' love?’ (l. 98):

I'll look to like, if looking liking move. But no more deep will I indart mine eye Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.

(ll. 99-101)

At this point Juliet accommodates herself to social conventions which take no account of the transitional period she has begun: her mother and nurse expect the child to turn into a woman without delay.22

By comparison Romeo has advanced farther, both in becoming autonomous and in directing his sexual feelings towards an object. Shakespeare makes this object Rosaline, a Capulet, identifying the anonymous lady of the sources with the enemy house. As a result Romeo's first love anticipates his second, and both externalize the emotional conflict which he attempts to articulate in formal, poetic terms; they represent not only unattainable but forbidden desire, sexual impulses which may revive his earliest, Oedipal sensations.23 In isolation or company Romeo seeks the ‘sharp, intense affective states’ which compensate for the losses of adolescence, especially detachment from parental figures.24 He uses Petrarchan language to describe the anxiety of a self-conscious personality loosed from its moorings: ‘Tut, I have lost myself, I am not here; / This is not Romeo, he's some other where’ (see 1.1.193-4 n. and ‘Tragedy, Comedy, Sonnet’ below).

The meeting of Romeo and Juliet in 1.4 initiates a series of events which both deepen and particularize their story. If the broad outline of young love reappears—instant attraction and complementarity—the play fills it in with shades of meaning. Instead of the first conversation which Romeo dominates in the sources, the lovers share verse as sensitive children might share a game: each ‘not only enters the other's imaginative world but also transforms that world by his or her presence’. They take part in a dialogue through which they begin to perceive each other, not narcissistically as mirror images, but mutually as distinct personalities.25 Through the course of their dramatic narrative, continuing transformations allow them the full interplay of male and female roles which C. L. Barber and Richard P. Wheeler noticed in Shakespeare's plays to 1595, an exchange developed in Romeo and Juliet from suggestions in the novellas.26 On the stage Romeo condemns his own effeminacy at Mercutio's death (3.1.113-15), as Friar Laurence will condemn it later (3.3.108-12, 125-6, 142-3), but he will act until his suicide with the emotion and impulsiveness Friar Laurence assigns to women; Juliet accepts the sleeping potion and in the end kills herself with manly resolve, admitting ‘no inconstant toy nor womanish fear’ (4.1.119).27 The intensity of the passion which recasts gender roles changes Romeo and Juliet in other ways: it is audible in the constant modulations of their speech; and it is palpable in the urgent rhythms of their actions, as the play compresses time from months in Brooke and Painter to less than a week.28 Always it collaborates with the conditions which rush the lovers through adolescence to the edge of adulthood, a paradoxical state of independence and relatedness. Together passion and contingencies accelerate the irregular phases of progress or regression for both protagonists.

Yet each lover remains singular.29 As Edward Snow argues persuasively, their voices express their differences. Romeo and Juliet articulate little of their experience as conscious thought; rather, they expose facets of their personalities in idiosyncrasies of diction.30 Characteristically Romeo's figurative language, dominated by eyesight, gives material forms to his desire which rationalize and contain it; Juliet's, generated by all the senses, allows hers a formlessness which slips through boundaries. He frames images to reduce their immediacy; she releases them to take the measure of emotion. ‘Thus where Romeo tells [Juliet] to “look” out her window at the “envious streaks” that “lace the severing clouds in yonder east”, she in turn tries to convince him it is the nightingale that “pierc'd the fearful hollow” of his ear (3.5.1.-10)’.31 When they share an image cluster, these divergences become particularly noticeable. In their first private conversation, for example, just over a dozen speeches produce two distinctive marine conceits. Both figures are attempts to define love, his conceivable and hers difficult to imagine:

I am no pilot, yet wert thou as far As that vast shore washed with the farthest sea, I should adventure for such merchandise.


My bounty is as boundless as the sea, My love as deep; the more I give to thee, The more I have, for both are infinite.


The signs of masculine and feminine sensibilities, his restraint contrasts with her self-abandonment, his distancing of experience with her absorption in it.

Often Romeo links desire with death, a vein of morbidity pronounced in his speeches from 1.1, his devotion to Rosaline a living death (l. 220), to 5.3, his perception of himself as ‘a dead man’ interring Paris (l. 87).32 After marrying Juliet he associates desire with guilt as well, first about the death of Mercutio, then about his own sexual initiation. At the beginning of 5.1 the soliloquy which conveys his dream reflects not only an adolescent wish to create a new self through the beloved person (his lady's kiss makes Romeo an emperor, ll. 8-9), but also fear of a dreadful price for sexual manhood (‘I dreamt my lady came and found me dead’, l. 6).33 Momentarily Romeo's dream suppresses his guilt as the dreamer takes control, reviving as a powerful man of authority; but Romeo's other speeches in this act emphasize his implication in the destructiveness which perpetuates the feud. His last dialogue and soliloquies—addressing the Apothecary, Paris, Tybalt, and Juliet—define injustice and futility as he perceives them in the world of the play. Since adult Verona is oblivious to crises like this and affords no means to defuse them, Romeo is forced to extemporize a ritual of escape. The dramatic catastrophe elaborates the fictional ones: he kills himself after confronting Paris, who re-enacts his earlier role as lover, a fragmented character to the end.34

For Juliet sexuality is a pleasure and an affirmation that satisfy her need for connectedness.35 After 1.3 she acts on these feelings, a personality who insists on their fulfilment and imagines it vividly in the doomed hours before her wedding night (3.2.1-31). Until the last scene she overcomes morbidity or, as Friar Laurence puts it, ‘cop'st with death himself to scape from it’ (4.1.75). Beginning with the first dialogue on the balcony she faces danger with strategies, actively seeking to avoid the consequences of union with Romeo. Unlike him, she quickly suppresses guilt. When it surfaces in 4.3, for example, in her soliloquy on the vial of potion—she envisions herself mad in her forefathers' vault and Romeo threatened by Tybalt's ghost—she stops the fantasy by taking the drug: ‘Romeo, Romeo, Romeo! Here's drink—I drink to thee’ (l. 57). She says little about injustice in the world and she dies with few words, leaving an impression more consistent and focused than that of her lover. By the end of the play her character may be more firmly centred as well, an integrity aware of itself just before it disappears. Her prototypes wake from deathlike sleep confused by light in the tomb: ‘She wist not if she saw a dream, or sprite that walked by night’ (Brooke 2708; cf. Painter, 118). But Shakespeare's Juliet tells Friar Laurence: ‘I do remember well where I should be, / And there I am’ (5.3.149-50). ‘“[R]emembering well” … enables her to venture over the threshold between life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, the self and the non-self, and find herself where she “should be” when she returns.’36


Where Brooke and Painter deleted cultural history from the Romeo and Juliet narrative, Shakespeare restores it with late Elizabethan background. Once again the lovers come together in what Jacques Derrida terms ‘contretemps’, ‘produced at the intersection between interior experience … and its chronological or topographical marks’.37 The feud, more complex in the play than in the fictions, surrounds the protagonists with an ideology which affects the way they think and act. As Susan Snyder has shown, the feud represents how ideology works: beliefs, assumptions, and especially practices which reduce everything and everyone to sameness. Enemy Montagues and Capulets share this social terrain, where even the peacemaking Benvolio fights with Tybalt as if by reflex. At the same time this feud enacts a particular ideology which inscribes the play with its chronological or topographical marks.38 Patriarchy, the system which licenses individual men of power to transfer their authority to other individual men, had already added historical dimensions to the novellas.39 In the drama it is more of a presence, filling all the public space and intruding on privacy as well, not only in the family but in the subjective experience of individuals. Some of its most prominent features match current realities more exactly than they do in the sources, making the play immediate and critical.40

Extended in these ways, the feud allows the narrative to draw correspondences between patriarchal state and patriarchal family, political and social order. Prince Escalus attempts to regulate his city, Capulet his family, and both fail because of conflicts within the system. In the early modern era, this juxtaposition contributed more to the play than symmetry. It set unpredictable state against predictable family; eruptive Verona against an established household; forms subject to change—political, economic, cultural—against ‘old-accustomed’ forms (1.2.20).41 Finally the most stable unit of the larger community cannot avoid the stresses inherent in the ideology, but it endures, and Verona endures. Only the younger generation, who internalize imperatives of the feud in the process of becoming adults, pay the ultimate price for its unreasonable demands. The play depicts their crisis in contemporary terms, heightening correspondences in the fiction with analogies from Elizabethan life.

In the earliest texts of Romeo and Juliet, unlawful violence is the most obvious sign of pressure within the system as a whole. As Derek Cohen says, writing about other Shakespearian plays, ‘[a]cts of violence belong to patriarchy as surely as fathers do’.

They appear … to issue directly from that system, indeed, are often logical, rational products of it. … Violence, both criminal and legitimate, is an essential form of cultural expression though it is always the dominant culture within society which gets to define criminality and legitimacy. For this reason acts of violence are all political in that they are absorbed by and conform to and, additionally, are produced by a social code which valorizes order as a social value.42

Violence in Romeo and Juliet, generally unauthorized, not only facilitates the mechanics of plot but adds political implications. At the centre of each novella one dangerous confrontation had occurred: the brawl between Montagues and Capulets that leads to Romeo's banishment. Shakespeare invents two more conflicts, the row in 1.1 and the duel in 5.3, producing a narrative driven by social disorder through violence.43 Like the ideology in which they originate, the signs are pervasive.

Always ready for armed conflict, weapons appear everywhere in Romeo and Juliet. They range from current to obsolete—the rapiers of young gentlemen to the long sword of old Capulet—giving the familiar story new menace as well as concrete signifiers.44 Repeatedly the text calls for weapons as props; often the props make emblematic comments on the action.45 In the first scene Prince Escalus commands, ‘Throw your mistempered weapons to the ground’ (1.1.83), and they lie on the stage in disarray for Romeo to notice soon after he enters (l. 169). In the last scene Friar Laurence finds the ‘masterless and gory swords’ dropped by Paris and Romeo (5.3.142), and Capulet discovers Romeo's dagger ‘mis-sheathèd in my daughter's bosom’ (l. 205). The text seems to require all of the male characters, except Friar Laurence, to wear weapons or have ready access to them; it reflects Elizabethan practice. At the Capulet ball Tybalt, outraged by Romeo's presence, orders his page, ‘Fetch me my rapier, boy’ (1.4.168); on the day after the feast Peter neglects to defend the Nurse with the weapon he carries (2.3.146-9). Friar Laurence, like the Apothecary, has poison at hand (2.2.23-4); Capulet's Wife plans to order some (3.5.88-91).

Weapons and fighting occur not only in the play's action but in the dialogue. As a topic of conversation they open the exchange between Samson and Gregory, a conversation that will be echoed later by Peter and the Musicians at the end of 4.4. They distinguish Mercutio's speeches: his fantasy of Queen Mab includes the soldier who dreams ‘of cutting foreign throats, / Of breaches, ambuscados, Spanish blades’ (1.4.81-2); his characterization of Tybalt portrays a duellist in the Spanish style:46

O, he's the courageous captain of compliments. He fights as you sing prick-song, keeps time, distance, and proportion; he rests his minim rests, one, two, and the third in your bosom—the very butcher of a silk button—a duellist, a duellist, a gentleman of the very first house of the first and second cause. Ah, the immortal passado, the punto riverso, the hay!


Mercutio's caricature of Benvolio as a quarreller trivializes the causes for which gentlemen fight: ‘Thou hast quarrelled with a man for coughing in the street, because he hath wakened thy dog that hath lain asleep in the sun’ (3.1.23-6).

While furnishing content, implements and acts of combat also provide the dialogue with metaphors. These figures blend with standard topoi of the Petrarchan idiom through which all of the dramatis personae express themselves; a social code animates a literary one.47 As Leonard Forster explains, the play enacts a conventional stereotype of amatory poetry: ‘The enmity of Montague and Capulet makes the cliché of the “dear enemy” into a concrete predicament; the whole drama is devoted to bringing this cliché to life’.48 Among the tropes connected with this stereotype are military equipment and assault.49

The fusion of metaphors begins crudely in the conversation of Samson and Gregory: ‘I will push Montague's men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall’, ‘when I have fought with the men, I will be civil with the maids, I will cut off their heads’ (1.1.15-17, 20-2). With Romeo's description of Rosaline the conflated tropes, though still extreme, become more refined:

… she'll not be hit With Cupid's arrow, she hath Dian's wit; And in strong proof of chastity well armed, From love's weak childish bow she lives uncharmed. She will not stay the siege of loving terms, Nor bide th'encounter of assailing eyes …


The conceits often assume this second form through the rest of the play. In the orchard scene, for instance, Romeo finds more peril in Juliet's eye than in twenty of her kinsmen's swords: ‘Look thou but sweet, / And I am proof against their enmity’ (2.1.115-16). Immediately he reports to Friar Laurence that he has been feasting with his enemy, ‘Where on a sudden one hath wounded me / That's by me wounded’ (2.2.50-1). Mercutio describes the lovelorn Romeo as unfit to answer Tybalt's challenge: ‘he is already dead, stabbed with a white wench's black eye, run through the ear with a love-song, the very pin of his heart cleft with the blind bow-boy's butt-shaft’ (2.3.12-15). Before the wedding, in a famous passage Friar Laurence imagines the ends of violent delights as the igniting of gunpowder by fire (2.5.9-10). When the lovers part the lark, whose sound pierced their ears, serves as herald to the morning; streaks of light seem envious and clouds severing (3.5.3-8). Finally Romeo defies the stars, determined to end his grief with poison so potent

that the trunk may be discharged of breath As violently as hasty powder fired Doth hurry from the fatal cannon's womb.


Charged with its ideology, violence determines all forms of expression in Verona, from public conversations to dress to the vocabulary of desire. It spans generations, and it infiltrates the love-story through both incident and verbal style. In the late sixteenth century it gained immediacy from the current events it reflected: violence was an intransigent reality in early modern England. Proclamations against fighting in public had been issued by Henry VII, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth.50 Despite these and other measures, civil disorder erupted in town and countryside until the turn of the century: brawls disturbed Fleet Street and the Strand; dangerous feuds threatened the peace of whole counties.51 As the Tudors attempted to contain the capacity for violence, and therefore the power, of the aristocracy, infractions continued to escape them. By the 1590s Queen Elizabeth's policies were beginning to take hold, defusing violence through litigation or limiting it to private confrontation in duels, but street outbreaks persisted and the number of recorded duels and challenges jumped from five in the 1580s to nearly twenty in this decade.52 With its feud, street fight, duelling, casualties, and deployment of combat imagery, Romeo and Juliet offers a panoramic view of violence in Elizabethan England. In the midst of its chaos and death Prince Escalus seems to mirror Elizabeth's conduct towards the élite: temporizing procrastination, ‘studied neutrality’.53

More specifically, the play's most striking outbursts of violence reflect a contemporary preoccupation with duelling. According to Diane Bornstein, Elizabethan gentlemen not actively engaged in duels constantly read about them, trained for them by learning to fence, and discussed them.54 By the time Romeo and Juliet was composed in the mid-1590s, three manuals dealt with both the art and its ethical code: Sir William Segar's The Book of Honor and Armes (1590), Giacomo di Grassi's His True Arte of Defence (1594), and Vincentio Saviolo's Practise (1595).55 Like members of his audience, Shakespeare was familiar with the material in these publications, and he may even have known Segar and Saviolo.56 Certainly he parodied the more absurd fine points throughout his dramatic career, from Love's Labour's Lost to Cymbeline.57 With Hamlet he would explore a contradiction most noticeable in Saviolo but present in di Grassi and Segar: both skill and moral self-consciousness determine victory in a duel; both decorum and providential justice govern the outcome. With Romeo and Juliet he examines this contradiction less than he diminishes its moral terms and, by extension, the violence they rationalize. In the fight scenes moralizing and its paradoxes, central to the duelling code, remain conspicuous by their virtual absence: all of the duellists finally ignore not only the procedures but also the ethics of fighting. Three times the play shows a visually stunning match ending in chaos or death. It follows the issuing of a challenge to its conclusion in two fatal duels and exile. Throughout it echoes instruction published by Saviolo—from appropriate behaviour at great feasts to strategies for avoiding conflict with a ‘friend’58—demonstrating over and over again that it does not work.

Violence in all of its manifestations urgently signals disruptions in the patriarchal state of Verona: ‘civil blood makes civil hands unclean’ (Prologue 4); unlawful outbreaks betray a faltering system which cannot enforce regulations distinguishing criminality from legitimacy. With less force it makes a similar point about the patriarchal family, bound to the state in the play and in fact. What Natalie Zemon Davis writes about the patriarchal family from the sixteenth century to the eighteenth applies to Capulet's situation: ‘In the little world of the family, with its conspicuous tension between intimacy and power, the larger matters of political and social order could find ready symbolization’.59

From the first scene violence intrudes on Capulet's household, calling him from it on a Sunday morning as he responds to Montague, armed and also drawn from his home, by demanding his long sword.60 Soon violence will intrude on Capulet's marriage negotiations with Paris: their first exchange about Paris's suit in 1.2 follows Capulet's allusion to the feud and the Prince's efforts to suppress it; the festivities for viewing Juliet in 1.4 are threatened by Tybalt's fury over Romeo's appearance; and the wedding plans in 3.4 and the fourth act go awry, as far as Capulet knows, with the death of Tybalt. Of course these disturbances are superficial, little tremors from a deep cataclysm. With Juliet's defection and its terrible consequences Capulet loses his grip, more visibly than Montague, on his authority as a patriarch.

By the second scene it becomes clear that Capulet has in sight the main objective for marriage arrangements in the Elizabethan age:

Although children were theoretically able to negotiate their own marriages, parents, especially upper-class parents, continued to regulate spousals in order to achieve or maintain status, cement alliances, gain economic advantage, and ensure continuity of family and property. Indeed, parental pressures may have been especially strong in the period (as they certainly are in the plays) due to economic and demographic factors that tended to increase competition for suitable matches.61

The dialogue with Paris, which Shakespeare invented, reveals that old Capulet feels his mortality; later episodes, in particular an exchange with his relative at the party (1.4.143-53), will reinforce the effect. At this point the scene positions Capulet to begin transacting his succession. According to the first stage direction Paris is a count, a titled suitor whose status Capulet's Wife will soon confirm (1.3.106). Capulet describes Juliet as his only...


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