We open Romeo and Juliet with two servingmen, Sampson and Gregory, trading insults with two Montague men and spoiling for a fight. Why open with a fight, not with our titular lovers, you may ask?
Because of the family feud!
The feud is possibly the most important element in Romeo and Juliet; it is the problem that causes so much of the tragic action in this play. Without the feud we don’t have love “sprung from my only hate”, we don’t have the fight scene in Act 3, we don’t have the conflict. And while every plot needs conflict, this is a conflict so fundamental that it seeps in to every aspect of the play. It cannot be overcome (except, of course, in death).
Therefore, it seems entirely necessary that the play opens with a war of words turning in to a brawl with swords drawn. We meet Benvolio, peacemaking friend of Romeo. We meet Tybalt, hot-headed Capulet who’ll run any Montague through with a sword given half a chance. We meet the Prince, demanding they “throw [their] mistempered weapons to the ground” and aim for peace – but this is not a peace that will be achieved.
In many respects, this scene puts every element of this play in to place minus the lovers. Because, of course, they are the ones that will defy the feud; they cannot be engaging in the feud in the start or we would never believe their love true when they meet at the Capulet ball. But we as the audience know what they’re up against, and they therefore already have our sympathies (knowing, as we do from the prologue, that their love is fated).
The interesting aspect of the feud is where it comes from. We never truly discover the reason for the feud. But what we can conclude is that the “hatred of the older generations, in which the young participate… as victims involved in a situation which is not of their choosing.” [An Approach To Shakespeare Vol. I, Traversi, Third Edition]. In this, we can see that the ones actually engaging in the feud are doing so simply as a result of the example set by their elders. It almost renders them helpless; as if it is not their choice to hate.
This blamelessness of the younger generation is sewn in to the fabric of this play. It is not their fault they hate each other and brawl on the streets, for it is following in their father’s footsteps. It is not Romeo or Juliet’s fault that their “only love [is] sprung from [their] only hate” – had they fallen in love in any other situation, they would be at leisure to do so. Shakespeare has decided that Fate and Destiny are the important players in this story, and the feud is the living embodiment of that. The feud decides the fate of all the characters in this play; their destiny is written in the stars, and cannot be changed. Shakespeare’s prologue tells us that, despite us perhaps forgetting these words as the play rushes on.
And of course, it is only with the death of our lovers that the feud ends. As the Prince says: “See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate” and “all are punished”. It is only with such tragic events that the feud can be stopped; the feud cannot end until all has been destroyed by it.
I guess the only comfort we can draw from this is that humans will, eventually, learn their lesson. Even if it is, to quote another of my favourite plays, An Inspector Calls, it is “in fire and blood and anguish”.
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What do you think of the feud in Romeo and Juliet? Let’s chat in the comments!