For the first time thus far in the Canon, Romeo and Juliet opens with an honest-to-goodness prologue, a Chorus in fourteen intricately rhymed lines of iambic pentameter. That’s right, a sonnet. And while we’ll go further into the use of the sonnet form in the play later in the month, let’s just get to the meat of the meaning: if you thought this was a love story, that’s ok… just be prepared for their “death” (1 Chorus, 8).
you mean they die????
And they just don’t die, they commit suicide (“take their life” [1 Chorus, 6]). Yes, there is love, but it is a “death-marked love” (1 Chorus, 9); this could mean either that their love was marked for death by the fates, or that their love is marked by death (and not just theirs).
Why do they kill themselves? We’re not sure from this prologue, though we do know that they come from two families in “fair Verona” (1 Chorus, 2), two families that have an “ancient grudge” (1 Chorus, 5). What caused the feud? The Chorus doesn’t tell us (and neither does the play…). The Chorus tells us twice that there is a feud (the aforementioned “ancient grudge” and “their parents’ rage” [1 Chorus, 10]), and then tells us twice that the lovers’ deaths end it (“with their death bury their parents’ strife” [1 Chorus, 8] and “which, but their children’s end, naught could remove” [1 Chorus, 11]).
The Chorus then takes us out of the play: the action will take the next “two hours” [1 Chorus, 12] of the audience’s time, but in those two hours, the play will serve as a kind of cautionary tale, morality play, or object lesson, as “what here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend” [1 Chorus, 14].
It’s really a take-no-prisoners opening. It sums up the play in one broad stroke, and says that we all might learn something from this… very cool.
And instantly the play begins.
Act One, Scene One begins on a street in Verona. We learn immediately that this is a troubled town. Two servants of the “house of Capulet” (I.i opening stage direction) enter with swords and small shields (“bucklers” [I.i opening stage direction]). Just as soon as we hear them speak, we also learn that they expect to fight. The first servant and the real hothead of the two (Sampson) declares that he will not be insulted (“carry coals” [I.i.1]); his bantering partner (Gregory) responds that if they did carry coals, they’d be coal workers (“colliers” [I.i.2]). They go back and forth, Sampson verbally puffing out his chest, Gregory deflating him. They talk a little dirty (as young men will… and we’ll talk more about that later in the month). And THEN they see two servants of the house of Montague, Abram and Balthasar.
The hothead Sampson then says, “My naked weapon is out. Quarrel! I will back thee” (I.i.32-33). He’s drawn his sword, but he wants Gregory to actually start the fight. It’s a wonderfully comic and ironic moment. Sampson then preaches patience and hopes that the Montague men will start the fight; as a catalyst, he “bite(s his) thumb at them, which is a disgrace to them if they bear it” (I.i.40-41).
The Montague men are willing to fight, but they do not want to break the law, either. When they see a kinsman, Benvolio, they see that they have greater numbers and begin the brawl. Benvolio [take note of that name folks] immediately attempts to stop the fight, calling out, “Part, fools! // Put up your swords. You know not what you do” (I.i.62-63).
It doesn’t work, and it doesn’t help that another Capulet, another hothead, Tybalt, has entered and joined the fray. The fight goes on, as the citizens arrive with “clubs, bills, and partisans” (I.i.71), weapons to break up the brawl. The citizens are on one side, the side against BOTH the Capulets and the Montagues, as they call out, “Down with the Capulets! Down with the Montagues!” (I.ii.72-73).
The heads of the households arrive, and call for their weapons; the wives, for their parts, are much less supportive: Lady Capulet derisively responds to his demand for his sword, “A crutch, a crutch! Why call you for a sword” (I.i.75); Lady Montague demands of her husband, “Thou shalt not stir one foot to seek a foe” (I.i.79).
The Prince arrives, and for the first few moments, cannot control the situation (“Will they not hear?” [I.i.82]). When he finally stops the fight, he is not pleased, and he gives us some background. Recently, there have been “three civil brawls… (that) have thrice disturbed the quiet of our streets” (88, 90). And he’s had enough:
If ever you disturb our streets again,
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.
He will hold the heads of the household mortally responsible for any further brawls. He then orders Capulet to come with him now, and for Montague to meet with him later today. And the scene clears, leaving Montague and his wife, and Benvolio onstage. Benvolio recounts the events of the brawl. Lady Montague asks if Benvolio has seen Romeo; Benvolio has… earlier that morning (when “a troubled mind dr(o)ve (him) to walk abroad” [I.i.119]), he saw Romeo, but when Romeo saw him, the Montague son left into the woods.
Montague discusses Romeo’s depressed mood, and neither parent knows the cause; they ask Benvolio to find out for them. Benvolio agrees and sends them away when he sees Romeo’s approach.
Romeo opens up to Benvolio almost immediately: his depression stems from love troubles. When he learns of the brawl, we waxes so poetical that even Benvolio “laugh(s)” (I.i.182) and attempts to steer back onto the subject of love. While we don’t know her name, we do know why he’s upset:
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 unharmed.
She will not stay the siege of loving terms,
Nor bide th'encounter of assailing eyes,
Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold.
O, she is rich in beauty; only poor,
That when she dies with beauty dies her store.
So that’s it. He’s in love (or more likely lust) and he’s not getting any. She’s decided to join a convent (not only is she chaste, but her beauty will die “her store” as she will not pass along her beauty to future generations). And he’s tried everything: love poetry (“loving terms”); googoo eyes (“assailing eyes”), even jewelry (“saint-seducing gold”). Nothing has worked: the girl simply will not “ope(n) her lap”… THAT‘s the issue… it’s not so much that she doesn’t return his feelings, it’s that she won’t have sex with him.
and who said that Shakespeare doesn’t work in a modern age!
Benvolio has a solution: look at other women and “examine other beauties” (I..227). Romeo says that there are no beauties, and as they leave the stage, Benvolio is sure that he can still “teach (Romeo) to forget (the object of his lust)” (I.i.236).
Act One, Scene Two sends us to the Capulet household, where we find Capulet in mid-conversation (the first word of the scene is “But…”) with the count(y)–and thus a kinsman to the Prince–Paris. Capulet thinks that “men so old as” the heads of the households should be able to “keep the peace” (both I.ii.3). Paris agrees, and moves on to more pressing matters: he has an offer on the table to marry Juliet.
Capulet is reluctant: his daughter is only THIRTEEN (“she hath not seen the change of fourteen years” [I.ii.9]), and — possibly even more importantly — she is his last remaining child (“Earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she” [I.ii.14]). And just as Benvolio wants Romeo to look at other women, so too does Capulet want Paris to look at “Earth-treading stars” (I.ii.25), and he has an opportunity: tonight Capulet is throwing a party (“an old accustomed feast” [I.ii.20]). For this party, Capulet sends his servant Peter out with an invitation list. There is only one problem: he is illiterate. He, in his own words, “must to the learned” (I.ii.44), and who should happen by but Benvolio, still attempting to convince Romeo of the existence of other women. Peter asks for assistance and Romeo reads the guest list aloud, including three names of note: Mercutio (we’ll meet him later), Tybalt (the hotheaded Capulet from the brawl), and Rosaline (more on her in a second). Peter thanks them for their assistance, and for that help invites them to the party “if (they) be not of the house of Montagues” (I.ii.81-82).
And who is Rosaline? After Peter leaves to invite his now memorized guests, Benvolio says that the list included “the fair Rosaline whom thou so lovest” (I.ii.85). He then tells Romeo to “go thither” (I.ii.87) to the party so Benvolio can show him more beautiful women. Romeo at first refuses, but not because of the reason we would assume: it’s not the feud he’s worried about, he’s just sure that he wouldn’t find anyone there “fairer than (his) love” (94), so why bother? At the further insistence of Benvolio, Romeo relents, but only to “rejoice in the splendor” (I.ii.103) of his love.
neither Benvolio nor Romeo seems bothered in the least about crashing the Capulet party… why? is the feud simply not as bad as it appears? or are these two young stupid adolescent boys?
Act One, Scene Three sends us back to the Capulet household, where we meet Lady Capulet and their Nurse. Two things: the Nurse has a name, but it isn’t mentioned until much later in the play (and then only once); the Nurse is not a medical professional, but a “woman employed to suckle, and otherwise attend to, an infant; also, one who has general care and charge of a young child or children” (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]).
Lady Capulet wants to know where her daughter is; the Nurse calls for her. We learn of the Juliet’s age (again), learn of the Nurse’s history within the Capulet household, and a rather bawdy tale from Juliet’s early childhood. When Juliet arrives, Lady Capulet delivers the marriage offer from Paris. Juliet says that she has not yet “dream(t) of” (I.iii.66) becoming a wife. Lady Capulet counsels her to think of marriage now, since
younger than you,
Here in Verona, ladies of esteem,
Are made already mothers: by my count,
I was your mother much upon these years
That you are now a maid.
Ladies of esteem at 13 or even 12 are already mothers, and Lady Capulet herself was the mother of Juliet at roughly (“much upon”) the same age. The Nurse praises Paris as handsome (“a man of wax” [I.iii.76]). Lady Capulet asks her to meet Paris at the party and decide if she will become his bride. After a brief bawdy statement (no surprise) from the Nurse, Juliet agrees, saying,
I'll look to like, if looking liking move;
But no more deep will I endart mine eye
Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.
She says that she will attempt to find him of her liking, if in any way the intention can create the perception. However, she says, she will not fall in love with him without her parents’ consent. This is an incredibly politic statement for a thirteen year-old girl to make.
Romeo, in comparison, is a callow, stupid boy…
We get one last bawdy reference by the Nurse (“seek happy nights to happy days” [I.iii.105]), and the scene ends.