Explore the ways that Shakespeare makes Act I Scene I of 'Romeo and Juliet' dramatically effective.
Eleri Williams February 17th 2005
Explore the ways that Shakespeare makes Act I Scene I of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ dramatically effective.
The predominant themes of the play are love and hate, and the idea of honor, which are dramatized into a tragic love story. We learn this from the prologue “ A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life”. Also in the prologue it outlines these themes- hate from two families (set in Verona, Italy), which have been quarreling for decades “From ancient grudge break to new mutiny” that convey an element of conflict in the play. The theme of love is a young man (Romeo) from one family that falls in love with a young woman (Juliet) from another family; which results in both the families being involved in this feud. In this scene Shakespeare introduces these main themes immediately. In Act I Scene i we see this being acted out by Tybalt and Benvolio. Therefore with an opening full of rousing action it captures the audience’s attention instantly. We also get an insight into the other key characters of the play in this scene; Montague and Lady Montague, Capulet and Lady Capulet, Romeo, the servants of Capulet; Sampson and Gregory.
The origin of the brawl starts with the two servants quarrelling. This introduces the importance of the theme of manly honor. Masculine honor does not function in the play as some sort of stoic indifference to pain or insult. The men feel as if they must defend their honor whenever it is tested against, in the form of violence or verbal abuse. Tybalt, Gregory and Sampson animate the theme of manly honor perfectly. As we see in the scene when Sampson bites his thumb: which was considered a very offensive gesture at this time. The atmosphere is very anxious because right at the beginning of the scene we are caught up in the thrilling action as Benvolio and Tybalt fight. Thus we see the honor for ourselves and their ever-growing pride and passion to be faithful to their families.
As the action pinnacles Benvolio is introduced. He is excellently portrayed to the audience as thoughtful and fearful of the law. In the play, Benvolio is the peacemaker “I do but keep the peace”. We know this because he says, “ Put up thy sword, Or manage it to part these men…” Which means for the men to put away their swords or use them to help part the other men. He would rather use peaceful methods of compromising than violence, yet he is not a coward because he says he will not fight unless it is for good cause. His name comes from the Latin meaning “good-will”. On the contrary Tybalt is the complete opposite to Benvolio. He is a fiery and pugnacious character; full of rage “ I hate the word, As I hate hell, all Montagues and Thee”. Also he is very dramatic compared to Benvolio. We see a complete contrast between the two characters. This contrast between Benvolio and Tybalt is dramatically effective because it enlivens the mood and excites the audience in seeing pure, long-standing hatred and scorn between the two, rather than having two characters that are civilized which would be rather bland for the audience to watch.
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Amidst all the conflict between the Capulets and the Montagues; Prince Escalus appears with a speech. When the men refuse to refrain from fighting he calls them “Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace”. As they were fighting he does not consider them as being civilized, so refers to them as “beasts”. Shakespeare uses a very powerful metaphor to describe their anger “That quench the fire of your pernicious rage” this adds to the drama by emphasizing the passionate anger they feel towards each other. To describe the blood they have spilt he uses the metaphor “ With purple fountains issuing from your veins!” This is effective as it portrays a lucid image in the audiences’ heads, just how much blood has been spilt over the years. Recently the families have fought three times “Have thrice disturb’d the quiet of our streets” They have disturbed the peace in their neighborhood three times. The cause of the fight was “Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word”. Therefore it indicates the whole fight has started by a small (trivial) remark and after this has blown out of proportion. Prince Escalus is specifically talking to the Montagues and Capulets “Old Capulet, and Montague” He threatens if they “disturb the streets again” they will pay the penalty of death “ Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace”. His motives for this are because the entire town is impatient with the families’ constant feud. The whole town is affected by their differences. As the two families are too blinded by disgust and hatred for each other they fail to recognize this. The prince then sends everyone away except for one man- Capulet “ Capulet, shall go along with me” and he wishes to see Montague “this afternoon”.
Finally the first scene also introduces us to Romeo the foremost protagonist. Leading up to his introduction we merely hear about him in the conversation between Montague, lady Montague and Benvolio. From this, we learn that Romeo is troubled and lovesick and generally has a rather bleak outlook on life “ Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs”. Romeo is so sad because he is lovesick over Rosaline. It is a case of unrequited love and she does not return his feelings. He feels this way and is careless about his image, which is reflected upon others : for example his family and Benvolio. It is as if he is lost in his own world, dragged down by depression and sorrow where there is no hope to be found. He is trapped in this world. His language reflects his emotions marvelously, the diction Shakespeare uses in Romeo’s speech; such as “sad” and “loving hate,” reveal the astounding sadness he feels. He says, “Ay me, sad hours seem long” it is like the hours seem so long and tedious because of the hurt he feels inside and that this pain could be everlasting. In the scene Shakespeare presents Romeo as having a passionate nature, which would go to great lengths to have his love returned. He is somewhat dreamy and mild and perhaps placid.
The universal themes that are brought forward are close-mindedness and powerful hatred and also the tragedy of love. Naturally the dominant theme in the play is love. It has relevance in our society today because we as young adults can learn from the play these important aspects to get us through life. For example; we learn a valuable lesson not to get caught up in meaningless arguments, as it not only affects people around us but everyone. As Shakespeare’s characterizations are so skillful we get an insight into human nature. It gives us an opportunity to learn valuable morals to guide us through life.
In conclusion, Act I Scene I is very dramatic because immediately from the beginning of the scene we see the encounter of the servants battling it out, in honor of their families. After hearing the prologue we see the hate that was mentioned being dramatized by Sampson foolishly biting his thumb at the Montagues. The thumb biting, as an essentially meaningless gesture, represents the foolishness of the entire Capulet/Montague feud and the stupidity of violence in general. Therefore, we get a glimpse of the relevant themes from the start. All of this contributes into capturing the audiences’ attention so that this that is happening on stage enthralls them. Shakespeare has purposefully done this, and has been successful in making the scene dramatically effective from the beginning to the ending of the scene.
Personally I thoroughly enjoyed this scene as it outlines the entire play just in the opening, so we know what is going to happen from the prologue but we are eagerly waiting to know how it happens. We as the audience get an excellent insight to the contradicting mix of characters and we want to see how they are developed in the play. Therefore Shakespeare gives us a taste, but as the action unfolds we are hungering for more.