O sweet Juliet,/Thy beauty hath made me effeminate /And in my temper soften’d valour’s steel!

Romeo and Juliet

Act Three, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


Act Three:  Benvolio and Mercutio are walking through the streets when they are approached by an angry Tybalt, who is looking to challenge Romeo.  Arriving on the scene directly from his marriage to Juliet, Romeo fails to assuage Tybalt, who then fights with Mercutio, fatally wounding him.  Enraged by the death of his friend, Romeo fights and kills Tybalt.  When the Prince learns of the murder, he banishes Romeo.  The news quickly reaches Juliet, but the Nurse and Friar Laurence arrange for the newly married couple to spend the night together before Romeo flees to Mantua.  No sooner is Romeo gone, though, than Capulet insists that Juliet must marry Paris.



Has anyone noticed that the parents aren’t given real names?  They’re just Montague and Lady Montague, Capulet and Lady Capulet.


There’s obviously a lot that takes place in Act Three, so once again, I’ll be dividing my thoughts etc. into two posts.  Let’s start by taking a look at Act Three’s opening scene, as seen by (and I tend to agree with him) Harold Goddard, who has an interesting view of it all:

“The crisis of Romeo and Juliet, so far as Romeo is concerned, is the scene (just after the secret marriage of the two lovers) in which Mercutio and Tybalt are slain and Romeo banished.  It is only two hundred lines long.  Of these two hundred lines, some forty are introduction and sixty epilogue to the main action.  As for the other hundred that come between, it may be doubted whether Shakespeare to the end of his career ever wrote another hundred that surpassed them in the rapidity, inevitability, and psychologic truth of the succession of events that they comprise.  There are few things in dramatic literature to match them.  And yet I think they are generally misunderstood.  The scene is usually taken as the extreme precipitation in the play of the Capulet-Montague feud; whereas Shakespeare goes out of his way to prove that at most the feud is merely the occasion of the quarrel.  Its cause he places squarely in the temperament and character of Mercutio, and Mercutio, it is only too easy to forget, is neither a Capulet nor a Montague, but a kinsman of the Prince who rules Verona, and, as such, is under special obligation to preserve a neutral attitude between the two houses.

This will sound to some like mitigating the guilt of Tybalt.  But Tybalt has enough to answer for without making him responsible for Mercutio’s sins.

The nephew of Lady Capulet is as dour a son of pugnacity as Mercutio is a dashing one:

What, drawn, and talk of peace!  I hate the word,

As I hate hell.

These words – almost the first he speaks in the play – give Tybalt’s measure.  ‘More than prince of cats,’ Mercutio calls him, which is elevated to ‘king of cats’ in the scene in which he mounts the thrown of violence.  (It is a comment on the Nurse’s insight into human nature that she speaks of this fashionable desperado as ‘O courteous Tybalt!  honest gentleman!’)  Mercutio’s contempt for Tybalt is increased by the latter’s affectation of the latest form in fencing:  ‘He fights as you sing prick-song, keeps time, distance, and proportion…The pox of such antic, lisping, affecting fantasticoes; these new tuners of accents!’  Yet but a moment later, in an exchange of quips with Romeo, we find Mercutio doing with his wit just what he has scorned Tybalt for doing with his sword.  For all their differences, as far as fighting goes Mercutio and Tybalt are two of a kind and by the former’s rule are predestined to extinction:  ‘an there were two such, we should have none shortly, for one would kill the other.’  When one kills the other, there is not one left, but none.  That is the arithmetic of it.  The encounter is not long postponed.

Tybalt is outraged when he discovers that a Montague has invaded the Capulet mansion on the occasion of the ball when Romeo first sees Juliet.  But for his uncle he would assail the intruder on the spot:

Patience perforce with wilful choler meeting

Makes my flesh tremble in their different greeting.

I will withdraw; but this intrusion shall

Now seeming sweet convert to bitter gall.

[MY NOTE:  Nurse, II, iv, 171):  “Now, afore God, I am so vexed that every part about me quivers.”  An interesting analogy?

He is speaking of the clash between patience and provocation in himself.  But he might be prophesying his meeting with Romeo.  As the third act opens, he is hunting his man.

Tybalt is not the only one who is seeking trouble.  The first forty lines of the crisis scene are specifically devised to show that Mercutio was out to have a fight under any and all circumstances and at any price.  As well ask a small boy and a firecracker to keep apart as Mercutio and a quarrel.  Sensuality and pugnacity are the poles of his nature.  In the latter respect he is a sort of Mediterranean Hotspur, his frank southern animality taking the place of the idealistic ‘honour’ of his northern counterpart.  He is as fiery in a literal as Romeo as in a poetic sense.

The scene is a public place.  Enter Mercutio and Benvolio.  Benvolio knows his friend:

I pray thee, good Mercutio, let’s retire.

The day is hot, the Capulets abroad,

And, if we meet, we shall not ‘scape a brawl,

For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.

Mercutio retorts with a description of the cool-tempered Benvolio that makes him out an inveterate hothead:

Thou!  why thou wilt quarrel with a man that hath a hair more, or a hair less, in his beard, than thou hast.  Thou wilt quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason but because thou hast hazel eyes.  What eye but such an eye would spy out such a quarrel?  Thy head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat, and yet thy head hath been beaten as addle as an egg for quarreling.  Thou hast quarreled with a man for coughing in the street, because he hath wakened thy dog that hath lain asleep in the sun.  Didst thou not fall out with a tailor for wearing his new doublet before Easter?  with another, for tying his new shoes with old riband?

This, the cautious and temperate Benvolio!  As Mercutio knows, it is nothing of the sort.  It is an ironic description of himself.  It is he, not his friend, who will make a quarrel out of anything – out of nothing, rather, and give it a local habitation and a name, as a poet does with the creatures of his imagination.  Mercutio is pugnacity in its pure creative state.  At the risk of the Prince’s anger, he makes his friend Romeo’s cause his own and roams the streets in the hope of encountering some Capulet with whom to pick a quarrel.  The feud is only a pretext.  If it hadn’t been that, it would have been something else.  The Chorus may talk about ‘stars,’ but in this case Mars does not revolve in the skies on the other side of the Earth from Venus, but resides on earth right under the jerkin of this particular impulsive youth, Mercutio.  Or if this ‘fate’ be a god rather than a planet, then Mercutio has opened his heart and his home to him with unrestrained hospitality.  So Romeo is indeed ‘star-cross’d’ in having Mercutio for a friend.

Mercutio has no sooner finished his topsy-turvy portrait of Benvolio than Tybalt and his gang come in to reveal which of the two the description fits.  Tybalt is looking for Romeo, to whom he has just sent a challenge, and recognizing Romeo’s friends begs ‘a word with one of you.’  He wishes, presumably, to ask where Romeo is.  But Mercutio, bent on provocation, retorts, ‘make it a word and a blow.’  Benvolio tries in vain to intervene.  Just as things are getting critical, Romeo enters, and Tybalt turns from Mercutio to the man he is really seeking:

Romeo, the love I bear thee can afford

No better term than this, — thou art a villain.

Here is the most direct and galling of insults.  Here are Mercutio, Benvolio, and the rest waiting to see how Romeo will take it.  The temperature is blistering in all senses.  And what does Romeo say?

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.

We who are in the secret know that ‘the reason’ is Juliet and that his love for her is capable of wrapping all Capulets in its miraculous mantle, even ‘the king of cats.’

But Tybalt is intent on a fight and will not be put off by kindness however sincere or deep.  ‘Boy,’ he comes back insolently,

this shall not excuse the injuries

That thou hast done me; therefore turn and draw.

Romeo, however, is in the power of something that makes him impervious to insults:

I do protest I never injur’d thee,

But love thee better than thou cans’t 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.

The world has long since decided what to think of a man who lets himself be called a villain without retaliating.  Romeo, to put it in one word, proves himself, according to the world’s code, a mollycoddle.  And indeed a mollycoddle might act exactly as Romeo appears to.  But if Romeo is a mollycoddle, then Jesus was a fool to talk about loving one’s enemies, for Romeo, if anyone ever did, is doing just that at this moment.  And Juliet was demented to talk about love being boundless and infinite, for here Romeo is about to prove that faith precisely true.  Those who think that Jesus, and Juliet, and Romeo were fools will have plenty of backing.  The ‘fathers’ will be on their side.  They will have the authority of the ages and the crowd.  Only a philosopher or two, a few lovers, saints, and poets will be against them.  The others will echo the

O calm, dishonourable, vile submission!

with which Mercutio draws his rapier and begins hurling insults at Tybalt that makes Tybalt’s own seem tame:


Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you walk?


What wouldst thou have with me?


Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives.

And Mercutio threatens to stick him before he can draw if he does not do so instantly.  What can Tybalt do but draw?  ‘I am for you,’  he cries, as he does so.

Such, however, is the power of Romeo’s love that even now he attempts to prevent the duel:

Gentle Mercutio, put thy rapier up.

But Mercutio pays no attention and the two go to it.  If ever a quarrel scene defined the central offender and laid the responsibility at one man’s door, this is the scene and Mercutio is the man.  It takes two to make a quarrel.  Romeo, the Montague, will not fight.  Tybalt, the Capulet, cannot fight if Romeo will not.  With Mercutio Tybalt has no quarrel.  The poet takes pains to make that explicit in a startling way.  ‘Peace be with you, sir,’ are the words Tybalt addresses to Mercutio when Romeo first enters.  That from the man who once cried,

peace!  I hate the word,

As I hate  hell.

Now we see why Shakespeare had him say it.  It was in preparation for this scene.  Thus he lets one word exonerate Tybalt of the responsibility for what ensues between himself and Mercutio.

And now, condensed into the fractional part of a second, comes the crisis in Romeo’s life.  Not later, when he decides to kill Tybalt, but now.  Now is the moment when two totally different universes wait as it were on the turning of the hand.  There is nothing of its kind to surpass it in all Shakespeare, not even in Hamlet or King Lear, not, one is tempted to think, in all the drama of the world.  Here, if anywhere, Shakespeare shows that the fate we attribute to the stars lies in our own souls.

Our remedies oft in ourselves to lie,

Which we ascribe to heaven:  the fated sky

Gives us free scope.

[All’s Well That Ends Well, Act One, Scene One]

Romeo had free scope.  For, if we are free to choose between two compulsions, we are in so far free.  Romeo was free to act under the compulsion of force or under the compulsion of love – under the compulsion of the stars, that is, in either of two opposite senses.  Granted that the temptation to surrender to the former was at the moment immeasurably great, the power of the latter, if Juliet spoke true, was greater yet:

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,

My love as deep; the more I give to thee,

The more I have, for both are infinite.

Everything that has just preceded shows that the real Romeo wanted to have utter faith in Juliet’s faith.  ‘Genius trusts its faintest intimation,’ says Emerson, ‘against the testimony of all history.’  But Romeo, whose intimations were not faint but strong, falls back on the testimony of history that only force can overcome force.  He descends from the level of love to the level of violence and attempts to part the fighters with his sword.

Draw, Benvolio; beat down their weapons.

Gentlemen, for shame, forbear this outrage!

Tybalt, Mercutio, the prince expressly hath

Forbidden bandying in Verona streets.

Hold, Tybalt!  good Mercutio!

Here, if anywhere, the distinction between drama and poetry becomes clear.  Drama is a portrayal of human passions eventuating in acts.  Poetry is a picture of life in its essence.  On the level of drama, we are with Romeo absolutely.  His purpose is noble, his act endearingly impulsive.  We echo that purpose and identify ourselves with that act.  In the theater we do, I mean, and under the aspect of time.  But how different under the aspect of eternity!  There the scene is a symbolic picture of life itself, of faith surrendering to force, of love trying to gain its end by violence – only to discover, as it soon does, and as we do too, that what is has attained instead is death.  A noble motive never yet saved a man from the consequences of an unwise act, and Romeo’s own words to Mercutio as he draws his sword are an unconscious confession in advance of his mistake.  Having put aside his faith in Juliet’s faith, his appeal in the name of law rather than of love:  ‘The prince expressly hath forbidden.’  That, and his ‘good Mercutio,’ reveal a divided soul.  And it is that divided soul, in a last instant of hesitation, that causes an awkward or uncoordinated motion as he interferes and gives the cowardly Tybalt his chance to make a deadly thrust at Mercutio under Romeo’s arm.  If Romeo had only let those two firebrands fight it out, both might have lost blood with a cooling effect on their heated tempers, or, if it had gone to a finish, both might have been killed, as they ultimately were anyway, or, more likely, Mercutio would have killed Tybalt.  (‘An there were two such, we should have none shortly, for one would kill the other.’)  If any of these events, the feud between the two houses would not have been involved.  As it is, the moment of freedom passes, and the rest is fate.

The fallen Mercutio reveals his most appealing side in his good humor at death.  But why his reiterated ‘A plague o’both your houses’?  He is one more character in Shakespeare who ‘doth protest too much.’  Four times he repeats it, or three and half to be exact.  How ironical of Mercutio to attribute his death to the Capulet-Montague feud, when the Capulet who killed him had plainly been reluctant to fight with him, and the chief Montague present had begged and begged him to desist.  That ‘plague o’both your houses’ is Mercutio’s unwitting confession that his own intolerable pugnacity, not the feud at all, is responsible.  And if that be true, how much that has been written about this tragedy must be retracted.

What follows puts a final confirmation on Romeo’s error in trying to part the duelists by force.  With Mercutio dead as a direct result of his interference, what can Romeo Say?  We heard him fall from love to an appeal to law and order when the fight was on.  Now it is over, he descends even lower as he bemoans his ‘reputation stain’d with Tybalt’s slander,’ Reputation!  Iago’s word.

O sweet Juliet,

Thy beauty hath made me effeminate

And in my temper soften’d valour’s steel!

Were ever words more tragically inverted?  That fire should soften metal must have seemed a miracle to the man who first witnessed it.  How much greater the miracle whereby beauty melts violence into love!  That is the miracle that was on the verge of occurring in Romeo and Juliet.

Instead, Benvolio enters to announce Mercutio’s death.  Whereat Romeo, throwing the responsibility of his own mistake on destiny, exclaims:

This day’s black fate on more days doth depend;

This but begins the woe others must end.

Could words convey more clearly the fact that the crisis has passed?  Freedom has had its instant.  The consequences are now in control.

Tybalt re-enters.  Does Romeo now remember that his love for Juliet makes every Capulet sacred?  Does he recall his last words to her as he left the orchard at dawn? –

Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast!

Would I were sleep and peace, so sweet to rest!

Does he now use his sword merely to prevent bloodshed?

Away to heaven, respective lenity.

he cries, implying without realizing it the infernal character of his decision,

And fire-ey’d fury be my conduct now!

Fury!  Shakespeare’s invariable word for animal passion in man gone mad.  And in that fury Romeo’s willingness to forgive is devoured like a flower in a furnace:

Now, Tybalt, take the villain back again

That late thou gav’st me; for Mercutio’s soul

Is but a little way above our heads,

Staying for thine to keep him company.

Either thou, or I, or both, must go with him.

The spirit of Mercutio does indeed enter Romeo’s body, and though it is Tybalt who is to go with the slain man literally, it is Romeo who goes with him in the sense that he accepts his code and obeys his ghost.  Drawing his rapier, he sends Tybalt to instant death – to the immense gratification of practically everyone in the audience, so prone are we in the theater to surrender to the ancestral emotions.  How many a mother, suspecting the evil influence of some companion on her small son, has put her arms about him in a desperate gesture of protection.  Yet that same mother will attend a performance of R&J, and, seduced by the crowd, will applaud Romeo’s capitulation to the spirit of Mercutio to the echo.  So frail is the tenderness of mothers in the face of the force of the fathers.

In this respect the scene is like the court scene in The Merchant of Venice when we gloat over Shylock’s discomfiture.  Here, as there, not only our cooler judgment when we are alone but all the higher implications of the tragedy call for a reversal of our reaction when with the crowd.  In this calmer retrospect, we perceive that between his hero’s entrance and exit in this scene Shakespeare has given us three Romeos, or, if you will, one Romeo in three universes.  First we see him possessed by love and a spirit of universal forgiveness.  From this he falls, first to reason and an appeal to law, then to violence – but violence in a negative or ‘preventive’ sense.  Finally, following Mercutio’s death, he passes under the control of passion and fury, abetted by ‘honour,’ and thence to vengeance and offensive violence.  In astrological terms, he moves from Venus, through the Earth, to Mars.  It is as if Dante’s Divine Comedy were compressed into eighty lines and presented in reverse – Romeo in an inverted ‘pilgrimage’ passing from Paradise, through Purgatory, to the Inferno.

This way of taking the scene acquits Romeo of doing ‘wrong,’ unless we may be said to do wrong whenever we fail to live up to our highest selves.  Love is a realm beyond good and evil.  Under the aspect of time, of common sense, possibly even of reason and morality, certainly of ‘honour,’ Romeo’s conduct in the swift succession of events that ended in Tybalt’s death was unexceptionable.  What else could he have done?  But under the aspect of eternity, which is poetry’s aspect, it was less than that.  We cannot blame a man because he does not perform a miracle.  But when he offers proof of his power, and the very next moment has the opportunity to perform one, and does not, the failure is tragic.  Such as the ‘failure’ of Romeo.  And he himself admits it in so many words.  Death, like love, lifts us for a moment above time.  Just before he drinks the poison, catching sight of the body of Tybalt in the Capulet vault, Romeo cries, ‘Forgive me, cousin.’  Why should he ask forgiveness for what he did in honor, if honor be the guide to what is right?

Romeo as an honorable man avenges his friend.  But in proving himself a man in this sense, he proves himself less than the perfect lover.  ‘Give all to love,’ says Emerson:

Give all to love…

‘Tis a brave master;

Let is have scope:

Follow it utterly,

Hope beyond hope…

Heartily know,

When half-gods go,

The gods arrive.

Juliet’s love had bestowed on Romeo power to bring down a god, to pass even beyond the biblical seventy times seven to what Emily Bronte calls the ‘first of the seventy-first.’  But he did not.  The play is usually explained as the tragedy of the excess of love.  On the contrary it is the tragedy of a deficiency of it.  Romeo did not ‘follow it utterly,’ did not give quite ‘all’ to love.”



So…what are your thoughts on this?


My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning.


Enjoy.  And enjoy your Easter weekend.

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