How does Shakespeare use conflict in Romeo and Juliet Act 1 Scene 1?
In this essay I will address how conflict is successfully used in Act 1 Scene 1 to prepare the audience for the rest of the play. It will firstly show how Shakespeare uses physical conflict between the two feuding families. Secondly I will demonstrate the idea that Shakespeare introduces emotional conflict through the character of Romeo, and his outpourings of love for Rosaline. Finally I will show that the character of Romeo demonstrates both physical or external conflict and emotional or internal conflict. The purpose of the prologue is to clearly outline the plot of the whole play in fourteen lines and it also allows the audience to be settled before the actual play properly starts. The audience gets a glimpse of the rest of the play, it is introducing the idea that there is conflict; for instance “death-marked love” gives the idea of love not
being positive, but is hinting that love is in fact negative as it relates to death. The prologue is a fourteen-line sonnet; it rhymes alternately till the last two lines where the sentences end in rhyming couplets indicating to the audience that the first act is beginning. The audience watching the play would associate a sonnet with love. However the audience is made aware that death and violence are going to be a major part of the play due to very angry, violent and aggressive words; these include “death”, “rage” and also “mutiny”. We are also told that “from ancient grudge break to new mutiny” which describes a history “ancient” long standing conflict
between the two families. We also learn that there is a “continuance of the parents’ rage” indicating to the audience that this conflict is still on-going and unlikely to be easily resolved.
Act 1 Scene 1 opens with Gregory and Sampson of the house of Capulet, in a public place in Verona City which shows immediately where the story will take place. From the outset it is clear that the servants are looking for physical conflict, as they are ‘armed with swords and bucklers’. At this time gentlemen wore swords, but servants usually didn’t, so by being armed it is obvious that Gregory and Sampson are looking for trouble. The language of the two servants is very masculine “we’ll draw” (swords) gives the audience the idea that Sampson is looking for a fight. We learn that he “will take the wall of any man or maid of Montague”
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clearly demonstrating he will not run from any conflict with the Montagues. However, Gregory is not as interested in taking part in this conflict but is more interested in talking with his mouth rather than his sword. “If thou art moved, thou runn’st away” shows how he would rather goad Sampson and challenge his masculinity with the clever use of words. The language used during the interaction between the two servants, such as addressing each other as “thou” is very upper class and not the language of a servant. This would
appeal to the nobility and the upper classes in the audience. This scene is also very comedic; it does this to show the lighter side of the conflict within Romeo and Juliet. One way it is funny is when talking about the male sexual slurs “My naked weapon is out” is referring to his sword in a sexual way, which will entertain the audience. Another comedic feature is how Gregory can change the context of Samsons words. Sampson states that “we’ll not carry coals” meaning that they will not be accept any goading by the Montague then Gregory replies “No, for then we should be colliers” (coal miners) this is funny as he changed the context of carrying coals to mock Samson. The first encounter between the two families begins when servants of the two households Sampson and
Gregory (Capulet) meet Abraham and Balthasar (Montague). Sampson symbolically bites his thumb; this indicates that he is looking for a fight. Again we see conflict being introduced as biting your thumb at someone was an insulting gesture. He does this to stir things up between the two families; admitting that “I do bite my thumb, sir” the audience would probably see him as a trouble maker and the source of conflict. However their view of him could change because he starts to back down due to finding out the law isn’t on his side and we learn that he does “... not bite my thumb at you, sir.” At this point the audience would then begin to view him as weak. The noble Benvolio (cousin of Romeo) is the peacemaker as he tries to stop the fight and orders them to “Part, fools!” It is significant that it is Benvolio who is the peacemaker as his name means good will.
However, Tybalt (Capulet) comes along and will not “talk of peace! I hate the word,” leaving Benvolio with no choice but to continue the conflict. The citizens of Verona are obviously sick of the conflict that exists between the Capulets and Montague, as they shout “Down with the Capulets! Down with the Montague!” So it is clear that the people of Verona do not like the frequent civil wars. This negativity towards conflict could also be seen as a metaphor for maintaining the peace in Shakespearean society.
The prince is introduced as the person who tries to maintain order and peace in Verona; he does this firstly by calling to the mob. “Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace,” By addressing them as rebellious he shows them as being outside of the law. He also threatens them with torture to control the citizens so he has to address them with ferocity. This is something that the audience would relate to because peace existed at his time during Elizabeth’s rule. However to remain in power Tudor kings and Queens would use torture and execution to control any “Rebellious subjects”. Torture in the 16th century usually ended in death. With the loss of fingers and then larger limbs, death would usually follow. The rack was also being a predominant means of torture. Shakespeare uses metaphors to add dramatic effect, “purple fountains issuing from your veins” refers to spilled blood due to the civil brawl; this emphasises that he will not tolerate the feud. Personification is also used when the Prince tells the citizens to “throw your mistemper’d weapons to the ground” he is talking about the weapons having human traits when they are being used for the wrong reasons. Once again he is emphasising how he feels that fighting is not the answer.
Lady Montague’s dialogue shows she is worried about Romeo being involved in the fighting, because she cares about his well being, she asks Benvolio “Romeo? Saw you him to-day?” However Benvolio is able to tell lady Montague that Romeo wasn’t at the battle and that he was in the forests with a “troubled mind” introducing the idea of emotional conflict. We further learn of Romeo’s emotional state of mind when Montague describes Romeo’s behaviour as “black and portentous”. He says that even when it is day he “pens himself” in his “chamber” and “shuts up his windows”. This description of Romeo allows the first scene to change direction from physical conflict to emotional conflict.
The audience’s first impression of Romeo is that he is very dark and mysterious due to his habit of locking himself in his room. However the audience at the same time will be intrigued to find out what has caused this depressive behaviour. The question is asked by Benvolio “do you know the cause?” which would echo the audiences thoughts. The audience learns more of the character of Romeo when Montague compares his son
to a flower and how “the bud bit with an envious worm, Ere he can spread his sweet leaves to the air.” This metaphor enables the audience to learn more about Romeo’s nature, by comparing him to a flower the impression of Romeo is that he is more delicate than the previous characters. The audience learn that Romeo’s emotional inner conflict is due to his love for a beautiful woman (Rosaline) who has rejected his advances. This male suffering was a popular theme in love poetry of this time and was echoed by authors such as John Donne in Sweetest Love, I do not go “When thou weep'st, unkindly kind, my life's blood doth decay.” Romeos dilemma is similar to that of Petrarch who loved a girl called Laura, this identifies Romeo to the audience as a Petrarchan Lover. As the passage moves on we learn more of Romeos inner conflict. His state of mind is demonstrated by the use of oxymorons “loving hate” “heavy lightness” and “sick health” all give a clear indication of how the use of opposites echo the turbulent state of his mind. The sentences are also disjointed when he describes his love he jumps from “Mis-shapen chaos...” to “...cold fire, sick health!” which further reflects his confusion because of his unrequited love. However Romeos mood changes and this is indicated by blank verses (iambic pentameters) when he further describes what love means to him. This style of writing helps to make the script flow which demonstrates how Romeos love flows. His feelings of what love means to him are further reinforced by the inclusion of rhyme “shown, own” “sighs; eyes;” and “discreet, sweet”. This elevation in language is reiterated in the language that he uses when he later describes his feelings for Juliet.
The audience learns more about Romeos mysterious love when he compares her to Dian. Dian was the goddess of chastity and this gives the audience an indication of the true nature of his love. She is described as having “Dian’s wit” therefore by comparing her to a goddess she is intelligent and yet has the body of a goddess. The fact that she wants to “live chaste” and “Cuts beauty off from all posterity” supports the idea that she will never return his love and adds to his emotional conflict causing Romeo to become depressed. We learn that Romeo declares that he cannot even bare to say her name and he asks “Bid a sick man in sadness make his will:” Emphasizing the idea that to say her name would cause him to die. Conflict is again reinforced in his love for Rosaline, when he talks about his fight to win over Rosaline. He describes it as a battlefield where he uses words such as “siege.” These are not words usually associated with love but by saying them the conflict that exists can be seen as both emotional and physical. Benvolio gives Romeo the advice that he should “Examine other Beauties” Romeo says that this would only make things worse. He likens it to a man that is struck blind can’t forget that he once could see “his eyesight lost”. Once again Romeo is emphasising that he can never forget his love and the emotions that he is feeling can be related to something physical such as losing his sight.
The first act introduces the audience to more details of the physical conflict in Verona that was mentioned in the prologue. We learn that this long standing feud is between the Capulet and Montague families. However it is a feud “bred of an airy word” demonstrating that it is so longstanding that nobody really knows how it started. Romeo who is a member of the Montague family is key to the idea of conflict and brings together both physical and emotional conflicts. He is himself suffering inner emotional conflict because of his love for a woman who “hath forsworn to love” and so cannot return his love. Romeos father likens him to a flower that
has not “spread his sweet leaves” this points to the idea that he is not a strong and forceful male. But instead the ideal person to become embroiled in the love affair indicated in the prologue. The emotional conflict that he feels is linked to the physical conflict that is happening around him, by his choice of words when he likens his love to a battle by his use of the word “siege”. This linking is further reinforced when Romeo likens the idea of emotional conflict to the physical conflict of losing his sight. It is my belief that Shakespeare uses conflict in Act 1 Scene 1 to prepare the audience for the conflicts that exist between the two families and to introduce them to the character of Romeos and how his emotional instability will affect the rest of the play.