Enter Chorus. 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-crossed lovers take their life; Whose misadventured piteous overthrows Do with their death bury their parents' strife. The fearful passage of their death-marked 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; (Prologue.1-12)
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.
Act 1, Scene 1
ROMEO O me! What fray was here? Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all. Here's much to do with hate, but more with love. Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate, O anything of nothing first create! O heavy lightness, serious vanity, Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms! Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health, Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is! This love feel I, that feel no love in this. Dost thou not laugh? (1.1.178-188)
Romeo is a bit of a drama queen when he spots blood from the recent street brawl between the Capulet and Montague servants. He dizzies himself here by relating the extremes of hate and love. We should also point out that the phrases, "O brawling love! O loving hate!", are perfect examples of "oxymoron." An "oxymoron," by the way, is the combination of two terms ordinarily seen as opposites. Keep your eyes open for these because Shakespeare uses a lot of them in the play.
ABRAHAM Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
SAMPSON I do bite my thumb, sir.
ABRAHAM Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
SAMPSON, aside to Gregory Is the law of our side, if I say "Ay"?
GREGORY, aside to Sampson No.
SAMPSON No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir. (1.1.45-52)
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.
The Prince of Verona
PRINCE 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 mistempered weapons to the ground, […] Three civil brawls bred of an airy word By thee, old Capulet, and Montague, Have thrice disturbed 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, Cankered with peace, to part your cankered hate (1.1.85-89; 91-97)
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.
Act 1, Scene 5
JULIET My only love sprung from my only hate! Too early seen unknown, and known too late! Prodigious birth of love it is to me That I must love a loathèd enemy. (1.5.152-155)
Juliet is devastated when she learns that her "only love" (that would be Romeo) has "sprung from [her] only hate" (is the son of her family's only enemies, the Montagues). Romeo's response to the news that Juliet is a Capulet is pretty similar. He says "O dear account! My life is my foe's debt!" (1.5.8). But are they both just overreacting? In an earlier passage, we heard Juliet's dad say that Romeo is a nice kid. Early on in the play, Capulet also says that he's too old too keep on feuding with the Montagues (1.2.1).
TYBALT Uncle, this is a Montague, our foe, A villain that is hither come in spite To scorn at our solemnity this night. (1.5.69-71)
Tybalt would never fall in love with Juliet, no matter how pretty she is: hatred turns all his enemies into the equivalent of cartoon villains. He can't see them as individual people or imagine them outside the context of the feud.
TYBALT This, by his voice, should be a Montague.—
Fetch me my rapier, boy. Page exits. What dares the slave Come hither covered with an antic face To fleer and scorn at our solemnity? Now, by the stock and honor of my kin, To strike him dead I hold it not a sin. (1.5.61-67)
When Tybalt discovers that Romeo has crashed the Capulet's party, his first response is … to start a sword fight. But Tybalt is easily provoked. Does he really hate the Montagues so much, or does he just love hating as much as Romeo loves loving?
CAPULET Content thee, gentle coz. Let him alone. He bears him like a portly gentleman, And, to say truth, Verona brags of him To be a virtuous and well-governed youth. I would not for the wealth of all the town Here in my house do him disparagement. Therefore be patient. Take no note of him. It is my will, the which if thou respect, Show a fair presence and put off these frowns, And ill-beseeming semblance for a feast. (1.5.74-83)
Now, this is interesting. Tybalt's first response to seeing Romeo at the Capulet party is to kill him. But head honcho Capulet himself (Juliet's dad) doesn't seem to mind that a Montague is in his home. In fact, Capulet says that Romeo is basically a nice kid so Tybalt should just calm down and leave him alone. Does this mean that the big Capulet/Montague feud isn't as big a deal as everybody thinks it is? It seems like the family drama is much more important to the younger generation (Tybalt, Romeo, Juliet) than it is to the older generation.
Act 2, Scene 3
FRIAR LAURENCE But come, young waverer, come, go with me. In one respect I'll thy assistant be, For this alliance may so happy prove To turn your households' rancor to pure love. (2.3.96-99)
Friar Laurence doesn't believe that Romeo's love for Juliet is authentic (especially since Romeo was "in love" with Rosaline about two seconds ago), but he agrees to marry them anyway. What gives? Well, the Friar believes that a marriage between a young Capulet and a young Montague might be able to put an end to the long-standing family feud. Pretty conniving, don't you think?
Act 3, Scene 1
TYBALT Romeo, the love I bear thee can afford No better term than this: thou art a villain. ROMEO Tybalt, the reason that I have to love thee Doth much excuse the appertaining rage To such a greeting. Villain am I none. Therefore farewell. I see thou know'st me not. TYBALT Boy, this shall not excuse the injuries That thou hast done me. Therefore turn and draw. ROMEO I do protest I never injured thee But love thee better than thou canst devise Till thou shalt know the reason of my love. And so, good Capulet, which name I tender As dearly as my own, be satisfied. MERCUTIO O calm, dishonorable, vile submission! (3.1.61-74)
Romeo refuses to fight Tybalt because he's just married to Juliet, Tybalt's cousin. According to Tybalt, Romeo has "dishonour[ed]" himself by refusing to fight. Basically, Tybalt is calling Romeo a sissy. You can read more about how the play associates violence with masculinity by checking out our "Character Analysis" of Romeo, or by reading "Quotes" for "Gender."
TYBALT Boy, this shall not excuse the injuries That thou hast done me. Therefore turn and draw.
ROMEO I do protest, I never injured thee But love thee better than thou canst devise Till thou shalt know the reason of my love. And so, good Capulet, which name I tender As dearly as my own, be satisfied.
MERCUTIO O calm, dishonorable, vile submission! (3.1.67-74)
Romeo refuses to fight Tybalt because he's just married to Juliet, Tybalt's cousin. According to Tybalt, Romeo has "dishonour[ed]" himself by refusing to fight. Basically, both Tybalt and Mercutio are calling Romeo a sissy—which makes the tragedy much more about dumb ideas of masculinity than about a dumb feud. You can read more about how the play associates violence with masculinity by checking out our "Character Analysis" of Romeo, or by reading "Quotes" for "Gender."
BENVOLIO I pray thee, good Mercutio, let's retire. The day is hot, the Capels abroad, And if we meet we shall not 'scape a brawl, For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring. (3.1.1-4)
Benvolio, who always seems to play the role of peacekeeper in the play, wisely notes that a "brawl" will be inevitable if they meet up with the Capulets. According to Benvolio, violence is always inflamed by the summer's heat.
We interrupt this program for a brain snack: rates of violence increase during periods of hot weather source (source). Thank goodness for air-conditioning.
Act 3, Scene 3
ROMEO, rising up Spakest thou of Juliet? How is it with her? Doth she not think me an old murderer, Now I have stained the childhood of our joy With blood removed but little from her own? Where is she? And how doth she? And what says My concealed lady to our cancelled love? (3.3.101-106)
Romeo worries that his murder of Tybalt, an act of hatred, may have destroyed Juliet's love for him.
PRINCE Where be these enemies?—Capulet, Montague, See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate, That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love. And I for winking at your discords too, Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punished. (5.3.301-305)
There's a lot going on here. Translated, the Prince is just pointing out that the feuding has caused some truly unnecessary deaths. But we're kind of stuck on that word "brace." "Brace" in this context means "pair," but it has associations with game and hunting—like, you'd shoot a "brace" of pigeons, or ducks, or rabbits, or whatever creature you were after. So, it's oddly dehumanizing, at least to modern ears. And then there's the fact that both Romeo and Juliet seem to be related to the Prince—he calls them a "brace" of kinsmen. How could the families hate each other so much, if they have relatives (high-ranking relatives) in common?