Romeo and Juliet
How we cite our quotes:
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
Think of this like a mini-reading guide: here, Shakespeare (or the Chorus) tells us up front that, over the course of the play, "two households," or families in Verona, are going to get caught up (again) in a long standing feud, or "ancient grudge." Not only that, but things are going to get "blood[y]" when their children (the kids who came from their parents' "fatal loins") fall in love and then later "take their life." We also know that the deaths of the two "star-crossed lovers" will put an end to their families' hatred. In just a few lines, Shakespeare lays out the plot and a few of the major themes—done and done.
Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
I do bite my thumb, sir.
Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
[Aside to GREGORY] Is the law of our side, if I say
No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I
bite my thumb, sir. (1.1.1)
Okay, what is going on here? Basically, thumb biting, which involves biting and then flicking one's thumb from behind the upper teeth, is a Shakespearean version of flipping someone the bird. Now, Sampson (a Capulet servant) doesn't have a good reason to insult the Montagues' servants—he's just looking to stir up trouble because his masters are feuding with the Montagues, but probably more because he's bored. Plus, Sampson's too much of a coward to own up to his silly gesture because the "law" won't be on his "side" if his thumb biting causes a big old brawl (he doesn't want to get busted for causing a fracas). What's the point of all this? Well, the Capulet/Montague feud, which has obviously trickled down to involve their servants, is completely absurd. Just like Sampson's thumb biting.
What, ho! you men, you beasts,
That quench the fire of your pernicious rage
With purple fountains issuing from your veins,
On pain of torture, from those bloody hands
Throw your mistemper'd weapons to the ground […]
Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word,
By thee, old Capulet, and Montague,
Have thrice disturb'd the quiet of our streets,
And made Verona's ancient citizens
Cast by their grave beseeming ornaments,
To wield old partisans, in hands as old,
Canker'd with peace, to part your canker'd hate
When the Prince calls the Capulets and Montagues a bunch of "beasts," he implies that their hatred doesn't seem to have any rational cause – it is simply the result of passions they refuse to restrain. We also notice that there's never any real explanation of what caused the feud or why it even continues. The only thing we know is that there have been three big street fights that have "disturb'd the quiet of [the] streets" in Verona. The Prince's solution to all of this violence? Any man caught brawling in the future will be sentenced to "death."
Brain Snack: In West Side Story, an award winning musical adaptation of Shakespeare's play, the Capulet/Montague feud is turned into a racially motivated rivalry between two 1950s street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks.