Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Act I, Scene 1

Summary

The play opens with Sampson and Gregory, two servants to the house of Capulet, strolling down a Verona street. They’re boasting about how they plan to respond (violently) if they encounter any servants of the house of Montague, Capulet’s longtime enemy. Their boasting, however, is revealed as hollow the moment Abraham and Balthasar, two of Montague’s servants, arrive on the scene. Sampson makes a rude gesture, but when Abraham calls him on it, Sampson backs down – at least until Gregory goads him into drawing his sword. The four servants duel until their fight is broken up by Benvolio, Montague’s nephew (and therefore Romeo’s cousin).

Just as Benvolio is breaking up the servants’ fight, Tybalt, Capulet’s nephew (and therefore Juliet’s cousin) appears and provokes Benvolio into a duel. A crowd gathers, including both Lord and Lady Capulet and Lord and Lady Montague. The fighting only stops on the arrival of Prince Escalus of Verona, who tells off both sides and announces that from now on, any Capulets or Montagues caught fighting each other in the streets will be put to death.

As the crowd disperses, Romeo enters. He and Benvolio discuss the cause of Romeo’s lovesickness: a girl named Rosaline, who despite Romeo’s romantic advances – and much to his dismay – has sworn to remain a virgin her entire life.

Analysis

The opening scene of the play is packed with both action and information setting up the main characters, motifs, themes, and literary devices used in the play. It begins with Sampson and Gregory trading puns, many containing sexual innuendo; throughout the play, puns are used to reveal that situations, like the words used in the puns, often have two meanings, one of which may be hidden. The action moves quickly into explaining the feud between the Capulets and Montagues while simultaneously raising the stakes: after Prince Escalus’s decree, what was once “just” a rivalry has become a capital offense. In a few short lines, the scene establishes Benvolio’s reputation as a peacemaker, Tybalt’s as a hothead, and Romeo’s as a lover. The scene ends by setting up the play’s major theme of all-consuming love and its message that nothing is entirely as it seems, which it does in Romeo’s lovesick speeches about Rosaline – which describe her in pairs of contrasting terms and constantly alternating points of view.

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