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What do you think are the dramatic functions of the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet? How effective do you think this scene is as an introduction to the rest of the play?
The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet the full name of a play to which for 400 years every other romantic tragedy has been compared “for never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo”. A story of forbidden love between two so young but also of hate between two houses ages old and how it destroys the hearts and minds of men.
It also shows us, in a way that love conquers over hate because even though in the end the lovers die they do “with their death bury their parents’ strife”.
In the opening of the play Act I scene I we see the many of the aspects of the whole play embodied in one scene. We have the hate between the two household manifest themselves in their servants and citizens of Verona when they start a fight.
It seems that everybody is affected by the hate everyone is drawn in and infected by it. But we also see love in this scene at least we think its love. Romeo’s apparent love for Rosaline, which we find out later to be mere desire.
Although the first print of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was in published in 1597, the story dates back to 1476, more than a century earlier. In these times marriage played a very important role in society.
Young women would be married off to older men to form profitable alliances between families. It was rare for people to marry for love. You would not marry anyone who was outside your social class and those social boundaries were very hard to break, there was a very big gap between the rich and poor of society. But in Romeo and Juliet we see everyone is drawn into the fight: the rich and poor, the servants and the gentlemen and the fact Romeo and Juliet do marry for love over such great opposition magnifies their love for each other in the audiences eyes.
Although in Romeo and Juliet we can see many connotations to modern day life it was written in the 16th century and we can see this in the way they fight, with swords, the way in which they speak and the acceptability of Juliet marrying at the tender age of just fourteen. Religion also seems to play a big role such as when Romeo compares himself to a blushing pilgrim and Juliet a saint and religion was also extremely important in 16th century life, everything revolved around the church.
Shakespeare uses many dramatic functions to achieve the desired reactions and emotion from his audience. The first scene opens on Sunday morning in a “public place” this is no-mans land we are neither here nor there this shows us that the feud is very public and open. It also gives uncertainty to the audience because anything could happen. The first line of act I scene I “Gregory on my word, we’ll not carry coals” sets the play off on a light note. Just two man having a wrestle with words. Its all a bit of a joke really but joking often conceals a much bigger problem and in this case its true because this comment also introduces to us in the very first line that there is conflict and insults involved which all equates to hate. Sampson and Gregory’s conversation together is full of hidden meanings puns and metaphors: “a dog of the house of Montague moves me” we now find out that the afore mentioned conflict is between them and the Montagues this again suggests that the two are trying to make light of the conversation however it is a very serious one.
We know that this feeling of hate is mutual very early in the play and the fact that we see the servants declaring their revulsion towards members of the opposite households shows us how much the bad feeling has spread we also see a bit later on in the scene through the stage direction that citizens join in a fight between the Montagues and Capulets . The servants also use very crude sexual language, as Sampson says he is known as “a pretty piece of flesh”, this would not have been the done thing in Elizabethan times and that kind of crude language would probably have shocked the audiences so getting a reaction which perhaps would lead to further dislike of the Capulet family. It was also an easy way to distinguish their status. Elizabethan audiences knew that a nobleman would not speak in such a manner.
Shakespeare further emphasizes the hate by quickly introducing the rival household: The Montagues. As soon as the Montague’s enter the scene we get a sense of everything becoming tense. The first line after the entrance of Abram and Balthasar, “my naked weapon is out. Quarrel and, I will back thee,” says Sampson and that sets the ball rolling, immediately we see aggression and talk of fighting and Shakespeare keeps his audience engaged by taking them quickly to the action. The line is also very short and this type of sentence is carried in the rest of this part of the scene. “Do you bite your thumb at us, Sir?” “I do bite my thumb. Sir.” This builds tension throughout as does the question and exclamation marks which are abundant here, every time a question is asked and answered the tension seems go up a notch till its almost unbearable.
In this fight we also see the introduction of Tybalt and Benvolio, the polar opposites of the two families. We see straight away that Benvolio is the peacemaker, he tells the servants to “Part, fools! Put up your swords,” upon which enters Tybalt and his words are totally different to Benvolio’s “Peace? I hate the word as I hate hell, all Montagues.” The way Tybalt and Benvolio are introduced to us emphasizes the contrast between the two. We need to dislike Tybalt so that when he is killed by our hero, Romeo later on we don’t mind and don’t resent Romeo. As well as this we can see from the period of time that the hate that Tybalt conveys would have meant an awful lot more than today. In a society that that was centered around the church hell would have been a place violently feared by all and a reality to them which only furthers the dislike for Tybalt. We also see Tybalt’s feisty character being developed in Act I Scene V upon seeing Romeo at the Capulet’s party Tybalt says he will “strike him dead I hold it not a sin.”
Shakespeare next focuses us on the reality of this feud and gives us a look into the history of the feud through Prince Escales. We see him as a Keeper of the law willing to threaten “on pain of death”. He tells us that “Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word” “have thrice disturb’d the quiet of our streets,” this tells us of the foolishness of this conflict. We see violent imagery “purple fountains issuing from your veins” a metaphor, this could be trying to say that they are all alike for everybody bleeds the same so why cant they bury the dispute but then why not have the blood as red? Perhaps its to show the status of the person, the Prince is saying that the blood which is shed is that of the higher class because purple has always been a colour that represented the aristocracy. We also find out that the conflict is “ancient” but if the conflict is not stopped then their “lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace”. This hate must be very great to withstand such threats unshaken.
At this point we see a turnabout in the scene. With Lady Montague’s opening lines “O where is Romeo? Saw you him today? Right glad I am he was not at this fray.” we see one of the first uses of verse. The sentence length grows and this makes us relax from the previous action, it sets us up for the love that is to be portrayed later. It also shows us the status of the speaker, they are well educated and this was an easy way to show this to his audience, because in Elizabethan times only the rich would have got anything near a decent education. We see Montague and Benvolio speaking in this manner of verse and upon Romeo entrance we see him also using it. This is where we see Romeo supposedly in love. The use of verse by Romeo while he conveys his emotions leads the audience to believe that there is a connection between the use of verse and love and this is reflected later on in the play whenever love is involved we also see verse.
We grow to like Romeo through his first speech because he seems a peaceful character much like that of Benvolio “O me what fray was here?” expresses Romeo’s disappointment at there being a fight and also in this we see Romeo interacting very closely with Benvolio who is obviously not only just a cousin but a loyal friend. We see them carrying on rhyming couplets between them “teach me to forget” and Benvolio “or else die in debt” this shows a very close bond between the two. We also emphasize with Romeo here, he’s just a young guy confused with his feelings. This is important to how the audience views Romeo throughout the rest of the play as we see him evolve from confused to assured later on. Romeo confusion in this speech is highlighted by the numerous Oxymoron’s: “feather of lead, bright smoke” and expressive O’s. Romeo is so confused. the contrast that this introduces from when Romeo is in love and now is very important so that the audience can distinguish love from lust.
Another way in which Shakespeare separates these two emotions is the way Romeo talks of a girl, who we find out later to be named as Rosaline as if she is an object to be possessed but when he is in love with Juliet he just wants to be with her. Its real and with Rosaline it isn’t, all we get is an idea. Romeo’s love of Juliet makes him happy he is not sad to be in love he is joyous but with Rosaline he talks of his feelings being “heavy in my breast” and he is quick to forget her when he meets Juliet “I have forgotten that name, and that name’s woe” perhaps this shows us that young love is fickle and very changeable or that Romeo just wanted to get Rosaline into bed “nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold” which could be seen as being related to the act of sex. We see Romeo describe himself as a saint but in Act I Scene V we see him describe himself as “blushing pilgrims” and Juliet as the “dear saint”, a total role reversal, she is now the saint and he is the one praying for her attention this metaphor is again something which would be made all the more important in Elizabethan times by the ever present church because of its religious connotations.
The fact that in this, the opening scene we see all the major themes and character of the play introduced is quite important. Its kind of Romeo and Juliet in miniature except without the death at the end. It gets the emotions roaring, we already dislike Tybalt and like Romeo and Benvolio. Its like a child being told what is right from wrong, Montagues are good Capulets are bad and like a child these concepts must be introduced to the audience early on. We also get a good overview of the history from the Prince’s speech and an idea of the magnitude of the hate from the fight and Tybalt’s vicious taunts. We learn a lot about Romeo and his emotions and reaction to certain things, we know that he thinks he is in love but is he? The scene basically introduces the story and leaves the audience wanting more thus introducing the play very well.
In the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet many dramatic functions are used and all are used to set the audience up for what is to come. They are tools to make the audience think what Shakespeare wants them to think and react how he wants them to react. In this way the scene is a very effective introduction to the play as a whole.
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