“Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?”

Romeo and Juliet

Act One

Part One of Two

By Dennis Abrams

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Act One:  Verona is torn apart by a feud between the Capulets and the Montagues, powerful local families.  Even a minor skirmish between servants rapidly escalates into a full-scale riot, halted only by the sudden arrival of the Prince.  After order is restored, Montague asks Benvolio to find out why his son Romeo is so melancholy; when Romeo reveals that he’s in love with a woman who has sworn never to marry, Benvolio sensibly suggests that he find another lover.  The Capulets, in the meantime, have agreed to let Paris, the Prince’s kinsman, woo their thirteen year old daughter, Juliet, and invite him to a feat to be held that night.  Learning of the feast from a servant, Benvolio persuades that the two of them should attend.  Despite Romeo’s misgivings that it will end badly, they put on masks and – joined by their friend Mercutio – succeed in gaining admittance.  Romeo catches sight of Juliet while dancing, and is immediately captivated.  Though recognized by Tybalt, Romeo succeeds in speaking with her and they exchange kisses before Juliet is called away.

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MAJOR CHARACTERS

The Montagues

Romeo, a young man from Verona

Montague, Romeo’s father, head of the household

Lady Montague, Montague’s wife

Benvolio, Romeo’s cousin and friend

Abraham, Montague’s servant

Balthasar, Romeo’s servant

The Capulets

Juliet, a young lady from Verona

Capulet, Juliet’s father, head of the household

Lady Capulet, Capulet’s wife

Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin

Juliet’s Nurse

Peter, Samson and Gregory, the Capulet’s servants

Others

Escalus, Prince of Verona

Mercutio, a young nobleman related to the Prince, Romeo’s friend

Count Paris, a young nobleman related to the Prince

Paris’ Page

Friars Laurence and John, Franciscan monks

An Apothecary

Chorus, introducing the action

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DATE

Given its stylistic similarities to Love’s Labour’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, probably 1595 or 1596.

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SOURCES

Arthur Brooke’s 1562 poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet is the play’s largest source (The Two Gentlemen of Verona also makes use of it), though the basic tale exists in many other versions – one of which, William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure (1566-67), Shakespeare may have consulted.

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TEXTS

Trading on the play’s apparent and immediate popularity, an unlicensed text (Q1) was pirated in 1597, probably reconstructed from memory.  Q2, apparently set from Shakespeare’s papers, appeared two years later and was reprinted in 1609.  The 1623 Folio version uses the 1609 printing.

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I want to take my time going through this play, so I’m going to break up my commentary on Act One into two parts, and we’ll then move on to Act Two over the weekend.

For now, I want to start at the beginning, by looking at the basic source material that Shakespeare used, and how he transformed it for his own purposes.

The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, was published in 1562 by Arthur Brooke, poet, translator, and soldier (he drowned the following year while traveling to fight abroad), and his 3000-line poem provided Shakespeare with the most accessible narrative version of an old story.  Like the play’s Prince, Brooke is eager to impose a strict way of interpreting the story he is about to tell, as his note “To the Reader” attests:

“And to this end (good Reader) is this tragical matter written, to describe unto thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thrilling themselves to unhonest desire, neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends, conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips, and superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity) attempting all adventures of peril, for the attaining of their wished lust…abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage, to cloak the shame of stolen contracts, finally, by all means of unhonest life, hasting to most unhappy death.”

Brooke intends to make an example of the lovers, but in the darker sense of that phrase.  Far from being caught up in a series of fateful events far beyond their control – still less being tragic victims whose only sin, as Othello will say of himself, is to love “not wisely but too well” – the damning fault of the lovers is their selfishness.  They reject the sensible advice of “parents and friends,” allow themselves to be overtaken by “unhonest desire” and in the end, get exactly what they deserve.  Brooke pits the lovers against the rest of the city, but in this case, they are decisively on the wrong side.

Reading Brooke, Shakespeare evidently noted that the same story could be told in the same way – and at the same time quite differently.  Instead of providing a cautionary tale addressed to young lovers, warning them to listen to their elders or face the music, he demonstrates in graphic terms where the “will” of senior Capulets and Montagues has actually landed Verona.  His Chorus sketches out the terms:

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.

In those remorseless puns on the word “civil,” the Chorus prepares the ground for the “new mutiny” that immediately and brutally follows, the argument between servants from the two opposing houses which rapidly disintegrates into a full-blown brawl.  Aggression is total in Verona:  the city’s streets are war zones.  (Which is one of the reasons, I think, why Baz Luhrmann’s film version was so effective.)  At pains to emphasize this, Shakespeare has the play open with Capulet servants Samson and Gregory, clearly spoiling for a fight:

Gregory:

The quarrel is between our masters and us their men.

Samson:

‘Tis all one.  I will show myself a tyrant:  when I have fought with the men I will be civil with their maids – I will cut off their heads.

Gregory:

The heads of the maids?

Samson:

Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads, take in what sense thou wilt.

Even though both are Capulets, the instinct to vie is inveterate – and in striving to outbrag each other, Gregory and Samson further twist that ‘civil’ into still darker realms, those of sexual violence.  Raping and killing Montague women is just another way to get one over on the enemy.

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Garber has an interesting look at the play’s beginning:

“From the opening moments of The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet the audience is made aware that there is something seriously wrong in the play’s world.  The Chorus who speaks the prologue uses a literary form that was traditional for love poetry, the sonnet.  Yet the content of the sonnet, however Petrarchan in its use of verbal oppositions and repetitions, is both political and deeply disquieting:

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.

No sooner have we heard this sonnet though, with its literary references to ‘[a] pair of star-crossed lovers’ and the ‘two-hours’ traffic of our stage that will be the actual theatrical playing time, than on the stage appear two pairs of quarreling servants, Samson and Gregory, Abraham and Balthasar, and what had a moment before seemed a pretty piece of poetry erupts into a full-scale civil war on the streets of Verona.   Samson makes the rude gesture sometimes known as the ‘fig of Spain,’ or as ‘giving the fit,’ thrusting his thumb between two closed figures or into his mouth, an early modern version of an equally rude hand gesture popular today.  Notice that the ‘civil hands’ of the sonnet have already become very uncivil, and anatomically explicit, fingers:

Abraham:

Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

Samson:

I do bite my thumb, sir.

Abraham:

Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?…

Samson:

No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir.

Obviously pretty poetry and formal sonnets cannot contain this kind of anarchic energy and disorder.  The sonnet prologues that introduce and frame act 1 and act 2 will have disappeared by the beginning of act 3.  ‘Reality’ in the form of death and loss overtakes literary artifice, and the play is forced, early on, to acknowledge its own tragic shape, which stylized language cannot contain.

Over and over in the first few acts we encounter lines like this:  ‘Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean’; ‘My only love sprung from my only hate’; ‘These violent delights have violent ends;’ ‘Tempering extremity with extreme sweet.’  These are the building blocks of Petrarchism:  antithesis and paradox, once powerfully original, but by the time of the writing of Shakespeare’s play already subsiding into the territory of cliché.  Love and hate.  Delight and violence.  Extremity and extreme sweet.  Once again, as with the Chorus’s opening sonnet, the poetry is pretending that it can control contradiction and disorder.  Throughout R&J artificiality in language will be a sign of lack of self-knowledge, a failure to acknowledge what is wrong in Verona – all the way to the County Paris’s final and futile rhyming speech at Juliet’s tomb.  This kind of balanced line – ‘My only love sprung from my only hate’ – will also disappear as the play turns the corner toward tragedy, with the fateful death of Mercutio in the third act, the middle of the play and its fulcrum.  But disorder is present from the beginning.  Even old Capulet, lame and feeble, tries to propel himself into the action:

Capulet:

What noise is this?  Give me my long sword, ho!

Capulet’s Wife:

A crutch, a crutch – why call you for a sword?

Enter old Montague [with his sword drawn], and his wife

Capulet:

My sword, I say.  Old Montague is come,

And flourishes his blade in spite of me.

The audience is confronted with the ludicrous spectacle of two old men, vainly flailing long-swords at each other while each is held back by his wife.  Age pretending to be youth:  ‘A crutch, a crutch – why call you for a sword?’  Lady Capulet is clearly casting doubt on her husband’s martial – and perhaps his marital – swordsmanship.  In this play as in so many others of the period a capacity to handle one’s sword is – hundreds of years before Freud – seen as a sign of manliness.  For other examples, consider Falstaff’s bawdy joking in 1 Henry IV, Viola/Cesario’s terror at the idea of a swordfight with the equally terrified Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, and Lady Macbeth’s scornful ‘Infirm of purpose/Give me the daggers.’

Moreover, this is not the first sight between these two houses.  As Prince Escalus, the voice of law in Verona, declares,

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.

Partisans were nine-foot-long-spears, but the spear-wielders are also ‘partisans,’ factionaries in an ongoing dispute.

Escalus, although in title a prince, occupied a structural place analogous to that of the Duke in plays like The Comedy of Errors or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  He ordains and enforces a law that is inflexible and will lead, potentially, to tragedy.  His name, an unusual one for Shakespeare, is surely intended to call to mind the Greek playwright Aeschylus, the author of the Oresteia, the story of the fall of the House of Atreus, a warring family’s rise and catastrophic fall.  The law this Escalus now proclaims is a response to the ‘[t]here civil brawls’ that have disturbed the city streets:  in order to keep peace and order in Verona, public fighting will now be crime punishable by death.  Thus R&J, like many of Shakespeare’s plays, begins with an edict, a stern attempt to create order through an unbending law.  As in so many cases, especially in the comedies, this law will lead not to order but to a new and more sweeping kind of disorder.  Its repressiveness will backfire, just as the King of Navarre’s no-girls-allowed rule backfired in Love’s Labour’s Lost.  In Romeo and Juliet, however, the stern law and its consequences will lead to tragedy.”

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A question for you:  As we work our way through the plays, are you finding it easier to read Shakespeare?

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My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning – a further examination of Act One of Romeo and Juliet.

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12 Responses to “Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?”

  1. wayne says:

    I have enticed my 16 year old senior grandson to read this play with us. He was complaining about the reading as being dull. Your clips changed his attitude greatly. I love Shakespeare but the plays were definitely written to be performed. The first link where R&J is set in the modern world is almost too powerful in imagery. I will never understand killing oneself for lost love but I do appreciate the tale.

  2. cricketmuse says:

    This is an amazing find. I will be starting Romeo and Juliet in April, and even though I have taught it for years, I welcome new resources. I just finished Julius Caesar with my tenth graders, and Hamlet with my seniors. You might want to check out my post “Lost in Translation”. I will be following your blog to keep informed of the Verona folks.
    Happy Pages,
    CricketMuse

  3. GGG says:

    There is such a sense of menace in the beginning, not just from the prologue, but also from the opening conversation with the servants who are looking for a fight. I remembered the Capulets being against the Montagues of course, but was surprised to read in Act I where the citizens arm themselves and shout: “Down with the Capulets! Down with the Montagues!” Any political commentary here?

  4. Eddie C. says:

    Dennis, since you discuss the source material for the play here, I thought I’d just point out that the movie Shakespeare in Love gives a fictionalized version of how this play was written. Rather than be bothered by the inaccuracy, I just think of it as being similar to what Shakespeare himself did when writing his histories.

  5. cricketmuse says:

    Do I have your permission to use your material in my teaching PPT (I will cite your blog as the reference?)
    Thanks again for this wonderful resource…
    CricketMuse

      • cricketmuse says:

        Thanks much. For some of them this is the first time they’ve come across Shakespeare. They are very excited about starting the play. They are divided into groups and will present their act to the class. The entire class rates one another on their dramatic reading, preparedness, and style. I hope this will incite them to read beyond stumbling monotone. Giving them background on the play (I hope) might give them better insight on how to “read” their character.
        Happy Pages,
        CricketMuse

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