Montague And Capulet Feud Essay Definition

Due to the recent interest in this site, and seeing as how the publication of THE MASTER OF VERONA is upon us, it seems appropriate to explain how the book (and, in turn, the blog) came about.

Early in 1999 I was directing Romeo & Juliet at the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre (a great space that to my everlasting regret has since become a church). It was my fourth or fifth encounter with the play, but my first as director.

Getting ready to direct Shakespeare for the first time became an event. I read and re-read the script, watched other productions, even visited Verona as a lark – not that Shakespeare ever went there, but for the past hundred years or so the city has become, at least partially, an industry town for the play. 

As an actor, you focus on your role and leave the overall play to the director. But as a novice director, I was forced to explore the play as a whole for the first time since ninth grade English class. I looked at all the questions, including the perennial ‘What caused the feud?’

The cause is never actually mentioned in the play, and it’s not vital to either an actor’s or audience’s understanding of the show. At the top of Act One, the ‘ancient grudge’ is already an established fact. But still, I pondered it for a time, then set it aside for more immediate concerns.

Today when I direct, cutting a script is my least favorite chore. Back then it was murder – what to take out, what to keep? In Shakespeare there are many seeming repetitions, but it was impossible not to hear each one in my head as the best expression of a certain thought.

At last I made it to the final scene – Paris is slain, Romeo and Juliet are both dead, we’re firmly into the denouement. It was then that a line jumped out at me. Capulet and his wife find their daughter's bleeding body. Romeo’s father, Lord Montague, enters to tomb, and the Prince addresses him: ‘Come, Montague, for thou art early up / To see thy son and heir now early down.’

Montague replies:

    Alas, my liege, my wife is dead tonight;

    Grief of my son’s exile hath stopped her breath.

    What further woe conspires against my age?

These lines baffled me. Realize, I’d been looking at the show for days thinking about actors entering and exiting, who I could double-cast and so forth. I clearly didn’t need Lady Montague for the final scene – her husband just told us she’s dead. I flipped back to find her last scene. She’s listed as entering in Act Three, Scene Four, when Mercutio and Tybalt both buy it – but she’s strangely quiet in that scene. Lord Capulet, too, but at least people talk to him. No one addresses Romeo’s mom, even when her son is banished. In fact, looking at it harder, Lady Montague hasn't been heard from since Act One, Scene One, in which she uttered a mere two lines!

So this was my quandary – do I cut Montague’s lines at the end of the show? Why not? Here we are, the play is basically over. We’ve just watched the two romantic leads die pitiably, and young, kind, noble Paris just croaked it as well. Why do we care if some woman we barely remember is dead?

But it continued to bother me. There had to be a reason she was dead.

Of course, in Shakespeare’s day, there was a very good reason. The actor who played Lady Montague was probably needed in another role – the exigencies of the stage.

Even realizing this, I couldn't let go of the line. My wife is dead tonight. The rules of dramatic structure nagged at me. An off-stage death like that is supposed to be symbolic. But of what? Clueless, I left the line in, hoping my actors could figure it out.

In the event, they didn’t have to. I was going about my business later that week when it hit me – the feud! The thing that gets closure at the end of the show is the feud! Montague and Capulet bury the hatchet. ‘Brother Montague,’ Capulet calls him. They're even going to build statues to honor their dead kids.

Could Lady Montague’s death be symbolic of the end of the feud? The only way that could work would be –


If she were the cause of the feud.


I remember a heart-stopping moment as the idea formed – a love triangle a generation earlier, between the parents! Romeo’s mother, engaged to a young Capulet, runs off with a young Montague instead. That’s certainly cause for a feud, especially if young Capulet and Montague were friends. Best friends, childhood friends, torn apart by their love for a woman. A feud, born of love, dies with love.

This explains so much in the play – Lord Capulet, Juliet's doting father, suddenly threatening to kill her for refusing to marry the man he’s chosen for her. He tells her to ‘hang, beg, starve, die in the streets’ – this from a man who has called her ‘the hopeful lady of my earth.’ His fury seems to come out of nowhere and is brutally excessive. But if his own bride-to-be had jilted him and run off with his best friend instead, of course Juliet’s similar behavior would press his buttons.

This notion also goes on to inform much of Capulet's relationship with his wife – a younger wife, we know from the script, not well content in her match, married to a man who thinks she is ‘marred.’ It hints, in turn, at her relationship with Tybalt. In fact, the behavior of both families is wonderfully colored by this single, simple idea. Romeo’s mom jilted Juliet’s dad.

Oddly enough, all this doesn’t affect the actual performance of the show overmuch. It’s fun for the actors to play, and there are moments when it can be very clear, but the play stands, as it always has, on its action and language. The backstory ends up being superfluous.

But it was an idea that had its hooks in me and wouldn’t let go.

So I wrote a book

                                                                                                         - DB

Thanks for reading. For the actual books, drop by

The feud is the subject of the very first words of the play. The Prologue says, "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" (Prologue 1-4). The key word is "civil," and the phrase "civil blood" is a paradox. Citzens of a town ought to be civil; that is, they ought to show respect for one another and get along. But too often, they aren't. They engage in civil wars and shed "civil blood," which wouldn't happen if they were really civil. This paradoxical situation exists in "fair Verona," but the following phrase "where we lay our scene," implies that it could happen anywhere. Why? Not because one side is right and the other wrong. The households are "alike in dignity," and the "grudge" doesn't belong only to one or the other. It's "ancient," beyond memory. And, as the two sides share the grudge, they also share the guilt. Both sides mutiny against the peace of the town, making their "civil hands unclean." [Scene Summary]

Sampson, a Capulet servant, wants to take part in the feud, but only if it's not too dangerous. A would-be tough guy, Sampson boasts to Gregory of what he's going to do to the Montagues, saying, "when I have fought with the men, I will be civil with the maids, and cut off their heads" (1.1.21-23). This is Sampson's idea of a joke. He thinks of himself as a bad dude who breaks all the rules, so the only way he'll be "civil" is by politely cutting of the heads of the women. However, moments later he shows he's not as wild as he thinks. He makes a gesture at a Montague servant, and the man asks if he's trying to be insulting. At this, Sampson asks Gregory, "Is the law of our side, if I say ay?" (1.1.47-48). Faced with danger, Sampson the outlaw wants to be on the right side of the law.

The feud creates turmoil in Verona, turmoil which Prince Escalus has to deal with. When the Prince breaks up the riot of the first scene, he is enraged by the unnatural violation of civic order. His first words are, "Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace, / Profaners of this neighbor-stained steel,-- (1.1.81-82). "Steel" -- the swords being used by the combatants -- should be dedicated to the defense of the city; instead, the steel is being profaned by citizens who are staining it with the blood of their neighbors. Despite the prince's words, no one is listening and the swords are still flying, so he has to start over:

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 mistemper'd weapons to the ground,
And hear the sentence [judgment] of your moved [angry] prince. (1.1.83-88)
The prince is infuriated at the beastliness of his citizens. "Pernicious" means more than "bad"; it means persistently, progressively bad. Their "pernicious rage" is out of control, and they think that they can get satisfaction by only by drawing blood, "fountains" of blood. A fountain, where people gather to get their water, is a traditional symbol of the source of life, so a fountain of blood is an image of horror. To control his beastly citizens, the prince has to threaten them with torture. The prince's threat is followed by an order to "Throw your mistemper'd weapons to the ground." The weapons are "mistempered" in the sense that they are angry, that is, used by angry men. They are also mistempered in another sense. Swords are tempered (hardened) by being heated and then rapidly cooled in cold water; these swords are being tempered in their neighbors' blood.

Finally the Prince gets everyone to listen, but he speaks mainly to the heads of the families: "Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word, / By thee, old Capulet, and Montague, / Have thrice disturb'd the quiet of our streets . . . " (1.1.89-91). These brawls have stopped anyone from living in peace. They have "made Verona's ancient citizens / Cast by their grave beseeming ornaments, / To wield old partisans, in hands as old, / Canker'd with peace, to part your canker'd hate" (1.1.92-95). A "grave beseeming ornament" of an ancient citizen would be a staff of office. The Capulet-Montague feud has kept the ancient citizens from enjoying the respect they have earned. Instead, they have had to take up weapons of war ("partisans") which have grown rusty ("cankered") in peacetime, in order to separate ("part") the two sides and their malignant ("cankered") hate for each other. [Scene Summary]

As the second scene opens, Capulet is in the middle of a sentence: "But Montague is bound as well as I, / In penalty alike; and 'tis not hard, I think, / For men so old as we to keep the peace (1.2.1-3). It seems that he has just returned from his conference with Prince Escalus, and he's telling Paris about it. Capulet and Montague have been threatened with the same penalties if they disturb the peace, and Capulet is now trying to convince himself that it shouldn't be too hard for two old men to keep peace with each other. At this point it seems that the feud could just die out. [Scene Summary]

Of all the characters in the play, it is Tybalt who takes the feud most to heart. When he recognizes Romeo at Capulet's feast, he sends for his sword, but Capulet sees that Tybalt is angry and prevents the feast from turning into a fight. The heated discussion between Capulet and Tybalt is largely concerned with the matters of respect and seemliness.

When he first recognizes Romeo, Tybalt asks himself how Romeo dares to "Come hither, cover'd 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" (1.5.56-59). However, when Tybalt tells Capulet that Romeo's disrespect must be revenged, Capulet takes an entirely different point of view, saying, "Content thee, gentle coz, let him alone; / He bears him like a portly gentleman" (1.5.65-66). "Portly" does not mean "fat," but well-mannered, deserving of respect. And when Capulet calls Tybalt "gentle coz" he's asking Tybalt to be well-mannered, too. This doesn't have much effect on Tybalt, so Capulet adjures him in the name of respect for himself and the occasion, saying, "It is my will, the which if thou respect, / Show a fair presence and put off these frowns, / An ill-beseeming semblance for a feast" (1.5.72-74). However, Tybalt stubbornly insists on his point of view, and Capulet resorts to insults, scornfully exclaiming, "You'll make a mutiny among my guests! / You will set cock-a-hoop! you'll be the man!" (1.5.80-81). Thus Tybalt, who thought to take revenge on Romeo's perceived disrespect, is forced to back down in the face of Capulet's disrespect. [Scene Summary]

When Romeo asks Friar Laurence to marry himself and Juliet, the Friar chides Romeo for switching so quickly from love of Rosalind to love of Juliet, but he agrees to perform the ceremony, saying, "In one respect [for one good reason] I'll thy assistant be; / For this alliance may so happy prove, / To turn your households' rancour to pure love" (2.3.90-92). It appears the Friar believes that the end of the feud is the most important thing that will come out of the marriage. [Scene Summary]

After Tybalt stabs him, Mercutio says, "I am hurt. / A plague o' both your houses! I am sped. / Is he gone, and hath nothing? (3.1.90-92). "Sped" means "done for," and the dying Mercutio feels cheated. Neither the house of Capulet nor the house of Montague is worth dying for, and Tybalt has gotten away without a scratch.

After Tybalt has killed Mercutio and Romeo killed Tybalt, Prince Escalus has to clean up the moral mess. Montague and Lady Capulet both add to that mess by demanding that the law be on their side. Lady Capulet cries out to the Prince, "I beg for justice, which thou, prince, must give; / Romeo slew Tybalt, Romeo must not live" (3.1.180-181). The Prince answers, "Romeo slew him, he slew Mercutio; / Who now the price of his dear blood doth owe?" (3.1.182-183). Then Montague says, "Not Romeo, prince, he was Mercutio's friend; / His fault concludes but what the law should end, / The life of Tybalt" (3.1.184-186). Lady Capulet demands a life for a life; Montague says that Romeo only did what the law should do, take a life for a life. Neither one sees the difference between justice and revenge, and the Prince's reply makes this clear. He exiles Romeo and then says, "I have an interest in your hate's proceeding, / My blood for your rude brawls doth lie a-bleeding; / But I'll amerce you with so strong a fine / That you shall all repent the loss of mine" (3.1.188-191). His point is that since Mercutio is his kinsman, he has motivation to demand revenge for Mercutio's death, but as prince his job is to stop all of the killing and restore order, so he punishes everyone -- Romeo with exile, the Capulets and Montagues with heavy fines. If he doesn't punish everyone, he's not doing his job, because "Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill" (3.1.197). He means that if he gives mercy to a killer, he is giving permission to kill, and so murdering those who will be killed next. [Scene Summary]

After taking testimony from Frair Laurence, Balthasar, and Paris' Page, Prince Escalus has a full account of the facts concerning the deaths of Romeo, Juliet, and Paris. Now it is time for him to render judgment. He says, "Capulet! Montague! / See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate, / That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love" (5.3.291-293). The Prince adds, "And I for winking at your discords too / Have lost a brace of kinsmen [i.e., Mercutio and Paris]: all are punish'd" (5.3.294-295). The Prince hasn't exactly winked at the feud between the Capulets and Montagues; he's threatened them, fined them, and tried to strike a balance, but he feels that he should have punished them more heavily. However, now "heaven" has meted out the worst possible punishment, and it has its effect. Capulet offers his hand to Montague, Montague promises to raise a golden statue of Juliet, and Capulet says he will do the same for Romeo. The feud is over. [Scene Summary]

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