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Some people believe that Act 3, scene 1 marks the transition from the relatively carefree, light-hearted (even amusing) atmosphere of the first two acts, to the gradual and inevitable progression towards the downfall of the two lovers and the ultimate grizzly tragedy. In this essay I will be examining the evidence for and against this point of view.
The play is set in the northern Italian city of Verona; the significance of this seems to be that in the minds of Shakespeare’s audience, the Italians were associated with hot-blooded and quick tempered behaviour.
In this context, the audience is given warning at the very beginning of the play that the subject will not just be a conventional romance but one that is doomed and at the mercy of the extreme passions around it. For example the lovers are referred to as ‘star-crossed’ and we are told that their love is ‘death-marked’ (Prologue). In Act 1, scene 4 Romeo ironically foresees his own death being associated with love, ‘my mind misgives some consequence …….
by some vile forfeit of untimely death’.
Despite the coded warnings to the audience of forthcoming tragedy the mood and tone of the first few two acts is, on the whole, without menace and gives no obvious indication that the romance between the young couple will lead to disastrous consequences. Romeo for example, is a classic courtly lover, like many an adolescent boy, he is always falling in love and when he is not talking about ‘a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes’ or about his ‘brawling love’ he was quite literally just having cheerful banter with his friends.
However, in the first two acts, there is one major difference between Romeo and the stereotypical teenage boy, he lacks the urge to fight, he does not come across as someone to hold a grudge against the world, and he most certainly does not go looking for trouble. The play appears to be heading into a fun, frolicking comedy, largely because of the nurse’s character. It was almost an essential to have a comedic figure in Shakespeare’s happier plays, usually perceived in the form of a nurse, friar, or jester.
Therefore the nurse seems like she is heading towards this vital role, which would normally leave the audience expecting a rather jolly play. By the time of the Capulet’s party, although we are extremely aware of the seriousness and despair of the feud, it is not hard to hope that there really are signs of it dying away. For example, when Tybalt tells Capulet of Romeo’s arrival at the masked dance, we can expect a tremendous brawl. However Capulet speaks about Romeo with a surprising air of sympathy and admiration so at this point in the play Tybalt seems to be the only character still believing and fighting in the feud. Perhaps this is why Capulet reprimands him, and insults him, calling him a ‘goodman’, ‘saucy’ and ‘princox’ boy. He also tells him ‘this trick may chance to scathe you’, saying that if Tybalt goes on like this, he will suffer for it. It would be nice to believe that Tybalt then just drops it, and leaves Romeo alone, but obviously, this can not be the case.
There are many obvious and immediately noticeable changes in the scene, for example the mood and tone. We can see this straight away by the ominous, foreboding first few lines said by Benvolio ‘for now these hot days, is the mad blood stirring’. This automatically gives us a premonition that something bad will happen, and the characters, unbeknown to themselves are heading inexorably towards their downfall. The mood is bleaker and more solemn, and the humour, instead of being light-hearted, is sarcastic, dry and more meaningful, an example being Mercutio purposely misunderstanding Tybalt in the consortest/consort argument. The pace of the play also speeds up rapidly, going from long, detailed, romantic speeches, to quick comebacks and fast action. If we imagine how this would be to watch onstage when the play was first shown, the first two acts would have been slow and it would be very possible not to give full attention to the actions happening on stage. However as soon as Act 3 starts, you realise that this may well be the turning point of the play that was so clearly pointed out in the Prologue. At this point, the audience would have been captured by the sombre mood and the anticipation of something dark coming round the corner.
In Act 3 scene 1, it can be argued that Tybalt is the catalyst for the dramatic development which follows. Although in the first two acts Tybalt seems like the only person determined to continue feud, Capulets rebuke at the masked dance, easily lead us to believe that this would be sufficient to put the young hot-head in his place. Act 3 scene 1 makes it absolutely clear that we were wrong. His part in this scene can easily be thought of as the most important. Perhaps if it weren’t for Tybalt, this terrible tale may not have succeeded in its tragic ending, on the other hand, the part of destiny may have been big enough to still secure the catastrophic events that were to follow. At the beginning of the scene Tybalt seems perfectly fine to talk to Mercutio and Romeo in a relatively civil way, ‘gentlemen, good den; a word with one of you’, ‘well, peace be with you sir, here comes my man’, even though Mercutio provokes him enormously, Tybalt is not interested in fighting him. Maybe the audience could have thought of him as a changed man, yet as soon as Romeo arrived he is very much the same person we knew at the beginning of the play.
Tybalts is the epitome of masculinity, his classic ‘bully’ character does change slightly in this scene though; before, the fact that Mercutio was friends with the Montague’s, and Benvolio, an actual Montague, would have been reason enough to fight them. However in this scene he is only interested in fighting Romeo. Perhaps he thought that there was no point in fighting Mercutio because he had not done enough to offend him, therefore making him a bigger person than he used to be, or perhaps, on this occasion he felt that fighting Mercutio would not be as satisfying as fighting Romeo whom he obviously despises. Tybalt knows nothing about the marriage, although Romeo gives hints, ‘I love you more than you can understand until you know the reason why I love you. And so, good Capulet-which is a name I love like my own name’, obviously Tybalt does not pick up on this, and even if he did, he could not expect it to be true in any way, because marriage would have been out of the question.
Mercutio is a very ambiguous character. Although he is funny, witty and cheeky, he is no mere jester. He is very deep and raises many philosophical issues and dark points in the play. Mercutio ridicules Romeo, for believing in tragic fate, and romantic love. However he is still seen by many as a comic character in the play, and perhaps the comedy dies with him. Another interesting point is the fact that, Mercutio, being such a mercurial (possibly the derivation of his name) character, mirrors the plays confusion in the first two acts. It seems perfectly happy and romantic, but we were all expecting a tragic love story full of death and despair; therefore leaving many people confused. However once this confusing character dies, any ambiguity in the play seems to die with him as well as the comic; from now on events assume their unambiguous course towards the heartbreaking finale.
His repetition of the phrase ‘a plague on both your houses’, whilst a shocking significance for an audience of that period (the great plague of London had only recently subsided) shows that Mercutio holds the feud between the two families as responsible for his own death, his words are also ironic in the sense that a plague will visit both families in the deaths of a member of each family. The dramatic imagery in the Queen Mab speech shows us his fertile imagination and eloquent word play. He uses many sexual innuendos, especially when talking to the nurse, ‘for the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon’. One thing we can be certain of his character is how he is making puns till the very end, right before he dies he says ‘ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man’, this shows his amazing play on words, and also how even if he didn’t die he would become a lot more serious after being stabbed.
Romeo in the first two scenes of the play, can really only be described as a courtly lover. As a big reader of love poetry, he wants his life to be like it is in the book, and even when not in love, with for example Rosaline, enjoys pretending to be so. Although we probably should doubt Romeo’s true feelings for Juliet at the party when he first sees her, after all she could just be another Rosaline, we don’t because somehow we know that they are destined to be. At the beginning of the play Romeo’s love seems to be fake, if not extremely over-exaggerated, however we watch Romeo’s love mature to an intense and meaningful passion.
The death of Mercutio causes Romeo to change from the starry-eyed lover living in an ideal romantic world to a man who understands his role and responsibilities in the real world. His language is reflects this fact, in Act 3 scene 1 he says things like ‘O sweet Juliet, thy beauty hath made me effeminate, and in my temper softened valour’s steel’ whereas just a few minutes before he was telling Tybalt he loved him and saying he thought not fighting was ‘all for the best’. There are two lines which I believe mark the complete turning point of the play, ‘this day’s blackfate on moe days doth depend, this but begins the woe others must end’ and ‘fire-eyed fury be my conduct now’. These two lines tell you in an instant that no more will Romeo be sweet, kind and forgiving, and that rage will guide his actions now, from now on he is very much a part of this world, like everyone else subject to emotions and feelings aroused by events around them.
The genre of the play was always a confusing one, if it wasn’t for the opening sonnet, the first two acts would most definitely fall into the romantic comedy. However by the end of the play it is a tragedy, with a bit of revenge tragedy, and a whole lot of romance. It begins rather sombre, with the prologue, but then the prologue is practically forgotten, if it wasn’t for the subtle hints to do with destiny and fate, it would be forgotten all together. For the next two acts it is heart-warmingly romantic, with a touch of humour in there as well. Which is why in Act 3, scene 1, we are upset and anxious about the massive change of events, but we are not altogether surprised, after all we were warned.
Benvolio doesn’t seem to be a massive part of the play at all. However, we need him a lot more than we realise. He doesn’t do that much in the scene in the action sense of the word but his long speeches and annoyingly two faced ways, really help the play along. He is, quite literally, a hidden narrator, which explains why he just seems to disappear after this scene; the prologue now acts as our narration as the play follows its general direction. Benvolio is somewhat of a symbol for many things: he symbolises the openness the play has, we all know what’s going on, including the characters and there is not much secrecy at all. However as soon as his character goes, the play’s control seems to go with him, and we are left with a complex web of lies and mystery. When he does go we are also left without his long speeches, therefore the pace of the play spirals and we are forced to concentrate on what is going on.
We can see the extent of how bad the fight scene in Act 3 scene 1 really is by referring back to the brawl that took place in Act 1 scene 1. The difference is shocking; of course the first fight scene isn’t completely innocent and friendly but it is a lot less vicious. You almost get the sense that they are all rather enjoying themselves. A lot of the fight is just quick-banter and extravagant (but not particularly harmful), shadow fighting.
In conclusion, I believe that Act 3 scene 1 is to a large extent the hinge on which the dramatic development of the tragedy develops. Even though as an audience we were given plenty of signs in both the prologue and the first act that calamity was imminent those signs were easily overlooked in the prevailing light-hearted tone of the first two acts. It is only in Act 3 scene 1 that the play and its plot become hard-edged in terms of both character and mood. The death of Mercutio resurrects the bitter feud which in the early part of the play seemed to lie dormant. From now on the protagonists are unmasked, revenge has to be taken and the warnings of tragedy ahead turn into reality.
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