Romeo and Juliet: The Importance of Act One, Scene One

West Side Story famously opens with members of the rival gangs crossing paths via jazzy music, snapping fingers, and high jumping, thereby setting the stage for the inevitable rumble between the Jets and the Sharks. West Side Story is a Broadway and Hollywood musical that was based on William Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet and it is easy to see where the creators of this exciting opening sequence got the inspiration.

Act One, scene one of Romeo and Juliet encapsulates all the action that is to come later in the play by introducing the feud that exists between the houses of Capulet and Montague, as well as by introducing many of the important secondary characters. In a twist that fans of The Simpsons probably enjoy, however, Romeo and Juliet themselves play little or no part in this foundational scene.

Act One, scene one of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet opens with two servants of the Capulets walking through the streets of Verona, joking about conquesting both Montague women and men. (Violent conquest in regard to the former, and sexual conquest in regard to the latter.) As John Lydon and Public Image, Ltd. sang, anger is an energy and the energy built up by this disrespecting of the Montagues comes to a boil when two servants of that house are seen by Sampson and Gregory. A funny little scene involving a rude gesture and insulting words soon erupts into something far more serious both dramatically and thematically.

The star-crossed romance of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet turns tragic later in the play because of an insult over masculine honor. Act one, scene one foreshadows that scene with the introduction of a major player involved in the tragic turn, Tybalt. Tybalt cries out “As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee” (Shakespeare 1.1.65) to Benvolio as the feud escalates beyond the servants to actual family members of the noble houses. Eventually, Mr. Montague and Mr. Capulet arrive and it is only because of their respective wives that these two old men are not fighting when Prince Escalus arrives to bring order.

Act one begins with the punning humor of two lowly servants, but in less than 75 lines William Shakespeare introduces into Romeo and Juliet relatives two noble families, the heads of those families and a Prince. The Prince arrives, views the madness taking place due to the longstanding feud between the Montagues and Capulets, and promptly sets down an edict of punishment for those found feuding on the streets of Verona again: “Your lives shall pay the forfeit of that peace” (Shakespeare 1.1.91). Missing from the cast of characters who will play such an important part in the play, missing from the cast of characters involved in the defense of masculine honor, is Romeo himself.

Once everyone else disperses, Montague’s wife asks Benvolio where Romeo was. Romeo’s cousin answers that he saw her son earlier in the day walking among the trees outside the city. Montague and his wife express concern about their son’s melancholy. When Benvolio sees Romeo approaching, he promises to find out what exactly is causing Romeo to make of “himself an artificial night” (Shakespeare 1.1.135).

As they speak, Benvolio discovers that Romeo is in love with a woman who does not return his love. First time readers may be shocked to find out that the woman he is pining for is not Juliet. Also of interest is the fact that Romeo dismisses the fray that recently took place as part of the feud. In the first act of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is of no consequence in the fighting between the two houses, and is hopelessly in love with someone other than Juliet.

Considering his absence from the effects of the feud that kicks off the events of the play, it is quite ironic that the tragic circumstances will turn on Romeo’s undying love for a girl he has yet to meet, and his ultimate stabbing to death of one of the most fearsome swordsmen in Verona. Act one, scene one begins with an exciting fight scene and ends with declarations of love. Both fight scenes and love scenes will commingle throughout the rest of play, leading to the tragic downfall with which the play ends.

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