Prince Escalus storms into the first scene of Romeo and Juliet to discover that the ancient feud between the Capulets and Montagues has once again flared up into a violent brawl in the town square.
This ancient feud between the two oldest families of Verona has become a staple issue in the streets of Verona and as the highest authority, it is the Prince’s job to lay down the law.
Language & Thought Breakdown
What stands out immediately for me when I look at the language in this monologue is the rhythm. The Prince speaks with authority in verse. The rhythm is constant iambic pentameter. It screams power and self assuredness.
Another thing that stood out for me was the repetition and imagery of blood, weapons and violence. It really sets the tone for the play and raises some major themes the play may cover.
I’ve broken the language down into thought and beat changes. I’ve also highlighted any feminine endings (the end of a line that has an extra beat outside of the usual rhythm).
Thought Change: /
Beat Change: Space
Feminine Ending: (F)
Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace, /
Profaners of this neighbour-stained steel— /
Will they not hear? / 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 of your moved prince. /
Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word, /
By thee, old Capulet, and Montague, /
Have thrice disturb’d 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, /
Canker’d with peace, / to part your canker’d hate: /
If ever you disturb our streets again, /
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace. /
For this time, all the rest depart away: /
You Capulet; shall go along with me: /
And, Montague, come you this afternoon, /
To know our further pleasure in this case, /
To old Free-town, our common judgment-place. /
Once more, on pain of death, all men depart. /
Rebellious subjects, enemies of peace,
That desecrate your swords by using them against your neighbour —
Will they not listen? Listen! You men, you animals,
That will only put out the fire of your hatred
By drenching it with blood from your veins:
On punishment of torture, from your bloodied hands,
Throw your misguided weapons to the ground,
And hear the judgment of your enraged Prince.
Three civilian brawls, started over a indifferent comment,
By you Old Capulet and Montague,
Have three times disturbed the quiet of our streets,
And made the elderly citizens of Verona
Take off their dignified garments and jewellery,
And take up arms with old weapons, as old as their hands,
Rusty from disuse, to end your evil hate:
If you ever disturb the peace again,
You will pay for it with your lives.
Now, everyone else, leave.
You Capulet will come with me,
And Montague, you will come this afternoon,
(To know my further decisions on this matter)
To old Freetown, my usual place of judgment.
Once again, on penalty of death, everyone leave.
Unfamiliar Words & Phrases
Profaners: Defilers. Desecraters. In other words; Those who defile their weapons by using them against their fellow citizens.
Neighbour-stained: In other words; stained with blood.
Quench: Put out.
Pernicious: Harmful and destructive.
Purple fountains: In other words; fountains of blood.
Mistempered: Disordered, created for wrongful purpose. Plays on ‘distempered’ and a misguided ‘mis-made’ hate.
Civil: Civilian, as in civil war.
Airy Word: Indifferent or casual comment.
Thrice: Three times.
Grave beseeming ornaments: dignified clothes or accessories appropriate to those of old age.
Old partisans: Old weapons, spears, swords etc.
Cankered: Rusted or corroded with disuse, infected, evil.
Pleasure: Intentions, judgment, resolution.
This is a cracker of a monologue. The Prince is the highest status character in the play, holding all the cards and it is up to the actor to decide how they want to present that status.
Tragedy in Shakespeare occurs when private grievances are made public and play out in the public domain. This scene is a clear example of that. The ancient quarrel between the two families is so old that beyond an ‘airy word’, no one can say why it began. Yet here, a full blown sword fight erupts when someone bites their thumb (the equivalent of ‘giving the finger’) at another.
While this speech takes place early on in the script and contains some exposition, it never feels to me like an expositional piece. It comes across as a human at the end of his tether trying to create peace in a city that feels out of control. The Prince is rendered so enraged by the ongoing violence that he threatens any that disobey him, with death. So I think it is safe to assume that the play opens with the highest stakes possible!
In performance, something interesting to note is the stage directions that Shakespeare has given from the grave. It would seem that the lines “will they not hear”? And “throw your mistempered weapons to the ground and hear the sentence of you moved Prince” suggest that the fighting is still carrying on until this point. How does this inform the delivery with which you approach the text? It seems to me that the Prince has to work very hard, particularly during that opening beat to settle the crowd before launching into the rest of the monologue.
With all this in mind, and starting the monologue with stakes as high as possible, where do you take the piece? How do you compose yourself and be rational? Is the Prince rational at all? Every speech has an arc and in this one, the argument seems very clear – ‘No more fighting or I will put you to death to end the feud once and fall all’. Get curious with this speech because there are endless possibilities on how to play it.