In the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet, the Chorus tells us of an “ancient grudge” between two households of equal dignity that has broken out into a “new mutiny” that will cause blood to flow in the streets of Verona and will ultimately result in the deaths of the “star-cross’d lovers.” The Chorus points to the heads of these two families as the source of the strife at hand, the rage of their parents causing the deaths of their children.
We soon learn the surnames of the warring clans, Capulet and Montague, and both patriarchs (as well as their respective ladies) appear in the flesh in the play’s first scene. Although Tybalt of the Capulets is the most aggressive character on the stage, Mercutio’s twice-spoken curse, “a plague a’ both houses!” (III, i., ll.91, 106), makes it plain that the sides are equally to blame for his death, and by extension, for the tragedy that befalls the lovers.
Beyond this, however, we are never told what the original cause of the war between the Capulets and Montagues was.
The inference here is that the conflict is an archaic rivalry based upon the very equality of the families’ social standing that has been driven forward by a long skein of injuries and slights. Not only has the issue at odds been lost to time and the overlay of fresh events, there is no effective mechanism to resolve it at hand. While the parental figures of the play, most notably Old Capulet, act as tyrants, civil authority is wanting in Verona. That being so, the cause of the ongoing mutiny that is played out before us does not stem solely from strong parental domination but also from the weak authority of the state as embodied in Prince Escalus.
The play moves directly from the Prologue to a lower case example of the mutiny as a confrontation unfolds between servants of the Capulet and Montague households. As Sampson and Gregory square off against Abram and Balthasar, the vulgar obscenities and gestures which they exchange undercut any sense of real danger. The interplay among these underlings is stylized and restrained; before any threshold is crossed, Samson checks with Gregory about whether the law is on their side if they assent to an implied challenge. The foot soldiers in the war between the families are far less serious than the Prologue forebodes.
The comic aspect of the feud is reinforced when Old Capulet arrives in person in his gown, calls to his wife for a “long sword” and is punctured roundly when she tells him that a crutch is all that he can handle at his advanced age. Montague arrives, mimics the mindless behavior of the servants and is duly restrained by his wife. This is not the stuff of menace or of chivalry, and the humor woven into this first display of mutiny in Verona mutes any sense of immediate threat.
There is, however, the showdown between Benvolio and Tybalt that erupts after the servants have had their say, and in the character of Tybalt we do see a deadly menace. When the level-headed Benvolio seeks to avoid a fight by engage his adversary as a partner in peace, Tybalt issues the challenge: “What, drawn and talk of peace? I hate the word/As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee/Have at thee coward” (I, i., ll.69-71). What matters here is not that Benvolio (or the Montagues) are less at fault than Tybalt (or the Capulets) but that there are differences of degree in the animosity levels of individuals within each camp. In Act II, scene iv, after Benvolio apprises Mercutio that Tybalt has challenged Romeo to a duel, we learn from Mercutio that, Tybalt, the “Prince of Cats,” is a “duellist” and “a gentleman of the first house.”
Tybalt’s membership in the Capulet family confers a certain status upon him, but his lethal intentions and the skill to act upon them put him at a particularly high “rank” within his clan and, in the eyes of those on his level, notably Mercutio himself. The bloodshed that occurs in the duel scene (Act I, scene iii) is not simply an inevitable outcome of two families at war, but of a social structure or sub-culture that has evolved over generations through which Tybalt is matched with Mercutio.
Returning to the play’s opening scene, following a crowd of citizens shouting Down with the Capulets. Down with the Montagues,” Prince Escalus enters and angrily complains to the heads of the warring factions that three times “civil brawls” have arisen from an “airy word” between Old Capulet and Montague. The Prince is not entirely accurate in his charge; the elderly men have had no hand in provoking the fracas. Escalus then lays down the law, saying to both of the patriarchs, “If ever you disturb our streets again/Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace” (I, i., ll.96-97). The Prince’s order seems harsh and extreme in its finality, but it raises the question of what the Prince did after the first two outbreaks.
The chinks in the Prince’s authority widen after the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt at the outset of Act III. Romeo is not sentenced to death for his crime, but merely exiled, and as for Old Montague and Old Capulet they are punished with fines for their responsibility in an incident much more serious than the hurly-burly of the first scene. Escalus only partially acknowledges his weakness as an enabling force in the conflicts that (seem to) end with the deaths of Romeo and Juliet when he casts his judgment:
Where be these enemies? Capulet! Montague!
See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That finds means to kill your joys with love.
And for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punished (V, iii., ll.291-295).
While pronouncing all guilty, Escalus does not indicate what the punishment is to be, and in the last line before the play’s concluding couplet, the Prince wavers still further, asserting for the future that “some shall be pardon’d, and some punished” (l.308). Worse, although the standard interpretation of their joint pledge to erect statutes to the memory of the ancient lovers takes this to be a sign of reconciliation, rivalry persist between Old Capulet and Old Montague, the latter claiming to have the capacity to give more than his counterpart demands of him. In the end, the deaths of Romeo and Juliet are ordained by the war between their houses, but that conflict is also the result of actions by individual characters, like Tybalt and Mercutio, and inaction by a weak and wavering sovereign.