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In William Shakespeare’s Elizabethan tragedy Romeo and Juliet, written in 1595 and set in Verona – Italy, there is a great mixture of tension, anger and violence which clashes together in Act III Scene I.
This idea of tension between the two houses (Montague and Capulet) is brought to the audience’s attention from the opening line “Two households, both alike in dignity…” Then this is followed by a fight between servants from both households which is created from a small comment made by the Montagues.
Tybalt, a Capulet, states in this scene (Act I scene I) “Peace? I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.” This phrase really signifies how much he despises the Montagues because he thinks of them in the same category as hell. He also shows he never wants there to be peace between the two families.
Prince Escalus however forbids any further brawls between them.
In Elizabethan England the characters from the two houses would have been made to look different from each other.
They did this by wearing contrasting coloured costumes and would have used different entrances and exits to each other to separate them even more.
There were many different parts to the Elizabethan ‘wooden O’ playhouse (called this because of its shape.) The stage itself included pillars, galleries, two main doors (as well as a few trap doors) and an inner stage as well as the main acting platform. This was called the tiring house.
Despite what Prince Escalus has said another conflict is not far around the corner.
In Act I scene V, Romeo, Mercutio, Benvolio and the servants arrive at the Capulet’s Masque feast; they wear masks to hide their identity. Tybalt recognises Romeo’s voice and wants to fight Romeo because he has trespassed on the Capulet house. Capulet doesn’t want his feast ruined so he restrains Tybalt from doing so. Tybalt says ” ”
It is also not until this scene that Romeo sees Juliet and falls instantly ‘in love’ with her.
In the scene prior to Act III scene I, Romeo and Juliet are married in secret by Friar Lawrence. The marriage has to be in secret or their families would be outraged and forbid it.
In modern films and stagings of Romeo of Juliet the script so far could have taken over an hour to perform whereas in the Elizabethan times the lines would have been delivered more quickly. The audience in those days would have been likely to get bored if it was delivered slowly and would show this by throwing rotten vegetables etc onto the stage. Also the poorer people in the centre of the ‘O’ shape at ground level would be getting restless as they had poor seating – or none at all. If the weather was poor they would have no roof over their heads either.
In these scenes running up to Act III scene I the tension is constant and we realise this ‘love tragedy’ is as much about hate as it is love. It was important for me to mention these previous scenes as they are what makes Act III scene I such a significant turning point.
This scene is set on a hot day in a public place. Italians usually have a siesta (a nap after lunch) when the sun is really hot, in the height of summer this heat is said to create madness. They’d show this by scattering a few more actors on the stage to make it look busy and looking hot and bothered; they are just for atmosphere, not to distract from the main characters. Tybalt is looking for Romeo and asks Benvolio and Mercutio “Gentlemen, good den, a word with one of you.” This is a very tense moment because Tybalt is being very civilised and polite; although t is known by both groups of men that Tybalt is putting on an act.
Mercutio, who is shown to be a rather loud, emotional character throughout the play, which is magnified by the heat of the Veronese sun and closeness of his surroundings, is angry at this remark and threatens Tybalt ” And but one word with one of us? Couple it with something, make it a word and a blow.” This signifies that Mercutio wants to fight even though the Capulets are trying to be polite as they are in a public place. Mercutio is so angry he wont let these things get in his way.
Benvolio tends to be a peacemaker; although he hates the Capulets he doesn’t like bloodshed or getting into trouble. He reminds them of what Prince Escalus had said. Benvolio adds further effect by reminding the audience of the previous events that relate to Act III scene I.
Romeo then enters onto the stage and Tybalt wants to draw Romeo into a fight. Romeo however has just been married to Juliet and is not willing to fight – especially not his wife’s cousin. Tybalt tries insulting Romeo to ‘fire him up’ for a fight “Thou art a villain.” To Tybalt’s annoyance Romeo answers these insults by saying he will not fight because he tenders the name Capulet as dearly as the name Montague. Romeo is taking a tremendous sacrifice for his love but to his bystanders it looks like cowardice. “Thou art a villain” is a very strong form of challenge to a duel. Duels were against the law but still everyone was familiar with the rules.To decline a duel as Romeo had done shows weakness and declares loss of manhood and nobility.
Mercutio is outraged by this response “Oh calm, dishonourable, vile submission!” and continues antagonising Tybalt to start a fight
” Tybalt you rat-catcher, will you walk?”
As the insults grow Mercutio and Tybalt proceed to fight, despite Romeo and Benvolio trying to prevent them. When Romeo steps in between the two, Tybalt stabs Mercutio under Romeo’s arm. Tybalt leaves the stage at this point.
Stage fighting was quite (and still is!) quite difficult to perform especially as this scene is rather confusing with quite a few characters involved. From contemporary accounts we’ve found out that the actor would hide the gut of a sheep inside their costume so that they can appear to be bleeding to make the murder seem more realistic, violent and graphic.
The days in which Shakespeare wrote were very violent, cruel and hazardous times. People were publicly executed and the streets were very aggressive. The audience liked to watch a fight and would have probably cheered whether they were on the ground in front of the stage or seated up in the heavens (the highest part of the theatre.)
Mercutio is very hurt but diverts the other characters and the audience by continuing his ironic comments ” No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, …”
Just as the audience is thinking that Mercutio is going to survive the ordeal he asks Benvolio to take him inside before he faints. He exclaims “They have made worm’s meat of me.” This creates rather gruesome images showing Mercutio’s corpse being eaten by worms.
Mercutio also sets a curse saying “A plague a’both your houses!” Then in the Elizabethan theatre he would have been taken off stage, or possibly to the inner stage where more intimate or enclosed scenes (such as the death of Romeo, Juliet and County Paris) would take place and have the curtain drawn. You would not see Mercutios death in Elizabethan times however today in films there are many special effects and opportunities to show this. The main stage in Elizabethan theatre, unlike most theatres today, had no curtain. If props were needed on stage the characters would have had to do it themselves. Neither did they have big painted backdrops for scene change as we do in many modern theatres.
Romeo then says a short soliloquy summing up what has just happened and how he feels.
Tybalt enters back again but unlike last time Romeo is now consumed with “fire-eyed fury” at Tybalt for killing Mercutio.
Romeo says to Tybalt that Mercutio’s soul is waiting close by for either his soul or that of Tybalt to keep him company- meaning one, or both of them will die. They fight and Romeo slays Tybalt.
Shakespeare never wrote any stage directions for any of the fights, it simply says in the script [They fight.]
Romeo is rapt in what he has just done and stays rooted to the spot and says “O, I am fortune’s fool.” This is not only good use of alliteration, it shows that fortune has made a fool of him by killing Tybalt because he has gone against what the Prince has said and will be severely punished and possibly killed for these actions. Most of all I think he is scared that he will not be able to see Juliet again. He then exits when Benvolio tells him to run. The Prince immediately enters on the opposite side of the stage so they don’t run into each other.
Historically in Elizabethan times the actors were very ‘lower class’ people, probably peasants, whereas nowadays it is looked upon as quite a glamorous job. You would never see a woman acting on the stage. All the female characters would be played by males, whose voices hadn’t yet broken. They would wear wigs and dresses. For a royal part they would have one expensive item such as a cloak, the actors were not very rich so their costumes and props weren’t always very extravagant.
Prince Escalus and his officer order Benvolio to go with them. Old Montague, Capulet and their wives then enter and Benvolio is asked to tell them what has happened. Benvolio’s speech is talking about how he saw the traumatic events that have just happened. He is obviously quite emotional at this time.
The rhythm of the regular metre lets it flow well and adds weight. It reiterates what has just happened to the audience, which helps them understand the scene and brings it back to life by using dramatic adjectives such as “piercing steel” and “envious thrust.” It also ends neatly and effectively with rhyme, which is continued pretty much throughout the rest of the scene. Prince ends the scene with a rhyming couplet.
“Bear hence this body, and attend our will;
Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill.”
The play is also ended using a rhyming couplet.
“Never was there a tale of such woe,
than that of Juliet and her Romeo.”
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