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ACT I, SCENE I
The Prologue has warned us about the terrible, senseless feud between the Montagues and the Capulets and that it will cause the death of innocent lovers. The play opens in a public place in Verona where a fight is about to break out. We're ready to see evil, bloodthirsty men, but we're in for a surprise. Instead of seeing Lord Montague or Lord Capulet, we see their hired servants, who aren't even part of the family. And instead of acting like evil men, they act like clowns!
The first people on stage are the Capulets' servants, Sampson and Gregory. They're out on this lazy Sunday morning, acting a lot like bored kids. They talk big about what they'll do to the Montagues, make racy comments, use awful puns, and insult each other as often as they insult the Montagues. They're in a good mood and we can't help but laugh at how truly terrible their jokes are.
We're caught off guard. We're expecting a tragedy, and instead we've got comedy. Could this be another paradox? Could Shakespeare be saying that the silly, harmless events in the first two acts can actually cause the serious, deadly outcome of the final three? Can't all of us think of a time that we've done something we never meant to do, and all we could say was, "I was only kidding!"?
Soon servants of the Montagues join the Capulets', and the scene gets funnier. In a way, they're like two street gangs. But in this scene, they aren't angry or vicious, they just want some action. The two sides are glad to see each other, because they're all in the mood for something to happen. There doesn't seem to be any ill will between them; in fact, their only argument is over who's going to start the fight. Like children, they want to fight, but they don't want to get in trouble for having started it.
Imagine that the streets are suddenly full of people shouting and swords clashing. Once the fight has started, we begin to meet some of the important characters. They come on one or two at a time, and we can tell something about their personalities right away by how they react to the feud.
A young cousin of the Montagues, Benvolio is a man of peace. He is the first one to find the servants brawling, and he seems to be able to read our thoughts. Look what he says:
Part, fools! Put up your swords. You know not what you do. (I, i, 66) He sees them as fools, like we do; and he also sees that the fighting is more than harmless fun. From the very beginning, Benvolio tries to keep the peace, and from the very beginning he fails. His is the voice of reason, and he doesn't stand a chance against Tybalt, the next person who arrives.
Tybalt is the opposite of Benvolio in more ways than one. He's a cousin of the Capulets and a troublemaker: quick-tempered, violent, and irrational. He says it himself in his second speech to Benvolio:
What, drawn, and talk of peace? I hate the word As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee. (I, i, 72-73)
LORD AND LADY CAPULET
The Capulets seem to have as much trouble getting along with each other as they have getting along with the Montagues. We first see Lord Capulet running in to join the fight, calling for a sword. His wife is right behind him, telling him in public that a crutch would be more appropriate. We can't help but wonder how their antagonistic relationship affects their daughter.
LORD AND LADY MONTAGUE
The Montagues enter just after the Capulets. Lady Montague urges her husband not to join the fighting, but her anger is directed at the feud rather than at her husband. We'll learn more about them shortly.