What Makes Act 1 Scene 1 Of “Romeo & Juliet” Such An Effective Opening
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Act 1 Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet is an effective start to the play for many reasons. It helps set the story and this scene very well, and introduces the characters to the audience very well.
Firstly, it sets the plot very well. From the very start, we get an understanding of sense of place and purpose. We are clearly told that this is set in Verona, Italy, just by the Scene title. We can also pick out from the start that Capulet’s servants, Sampson and Gregory, are joking around together, and boasting they are better than their rival family, the Montagues. The latter family’s servant, Abram, soon appears, and we can all envisage a fight commencing. From then on, other characters come in, including Benevolio and Tybalt, but both those have different attitudes to the fight. The Prince eventually stops the fight, as fighting in public back then was not permitted, and they are threatened with death if it happened again. Romeo later comes into the Scene, telling his cousin and good friend, Benevolio, about his unrequited love for Rosaline, and he expresses his thoughts sentimentally.
Nevertheless, the plot on its own is nothing. We gain a lot of insight about sense of character. Immediately from the start, we can see that Samson and Gregory are quite snobbish, arrogant, and overly confident characters, completely diminishing the Capulets and making them seem inferior to them. We can also sense a side of them where they are very rude. They make crude, sexual innuendos, remarking about the ‘maidenheads’, or virginity, of the maids, in lines 22-23.
Immediately, after Benevolio enters, you can sense that he is a nice, peaceful and harmonising type of character. You can sense this in lines 55-56 – his first words in the whole play – when he says,
“Part fools! 55
Put up your swords, you know not what you do” 56
This shows he is a caring type of character, saying they are foolishly arrogant, and they do not know what they are doing by fighting so forcefully.
However, when Tybalt enters, you can immediately sense his rough manner and very aggressive character. He only seems interested in fighting Romeo’s family, and everything he says is full of anger and hatred, such as in line 62, where he states ‘I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee’. We can see this, because he asks Benevolio to look upon his death (line 58), and he states he hates the word ‘peace’ (line 61), something Benevolio is quite fond of.
We can also get a feel of what Capulet is like. He is determined to help fight the Montagues, such as in lines 66, and is a traditional type of father.
Other characters that played a part included the likes of the Prince, from which we can tell is a very serious, sincere, and commanding type of person, determined to help create peace in Verona, and this can be demonstrated with his dressing down in lines 73 to 94.
Romeo, when he comes in in the latter stages of the scene, can be seen as a very love-struck person, who cannot control his emotions well enough, hence his heart-to-heart with his cousin, Benevolio, about his non-mutual love for Rosaline. You can tell he is a very caring type of person though, not wanting to push Rosaline to turn away, but wary and wanting her to love him enough, and he is very confused over his love for her.
As well as plots and characters, the use of themes by Shakespeare is also very intricately chosen.
The most obvious theme in the whole of Romeo and Juliet is ‘love’, but for the most of Act 1 Scene 1, where it creates and sets the scene of the current situation effectively, the main theme seems to be ‘hatred’ and ‘conflict’. Certainly in the start, we get a full extent of the two rivalling, warring families, how they both despise and loathe each other, how even their servants hate one another, talking about rape with ‘their maidenheads’, or ‘I bite my thumb, sir’, meaning they will go head-to-head no matter what the law permits.
There is also a sense of ‘fate’. Romeo, though having not met Juliet yet, feels he is destined to find somebody to love, and even thought Rosaline turned him away, he struggles to forget her (line 217), and feels he is not himself when alone (line 189), but with such a ‘good heart’ (lines 176-186).
As well as that, of course, there is the theme of ‘love’ at its earliest stages. Romeo is too besotted with Rosaline, that when she turns him down, love confuses him and mixes all kinds of things up, such as in like 180,
“Doth add more grief to too much of mine own.” 180
You can sense his frustration, at how he believes there is something ‘sparkling in lovers’ eyes’ (line 182), yet he is pitying with himself for now.
Another key point in making Act 1 Scene 1 so good is how Shakespeare used the language. Shakespeare used several language techniques. As well as having The Prologue in sonnet form, he includes a lot of imagery and oxymorons in this scene.
For example, in lines 142-144, Montague is metaphorically comparing (imagery) Romeo to a bud, which is destroyed by an ‘envious worm’, really stating that Romeo is destroying himself by his inability to control his love (or lust, being so young?), and being caught in two-minds. In lines 162-163, Romeo states that ‘love’ is a person (hence the capital ‘L’ in ‘Love’), and he is saying that even though Love is blind, if it is meant to be, it will work on the two lovers.
Shakespeare also uses many oxymorons, which is especially effective when used with Romeo when he is pouring his heart out to Benevolio about his confused love for Rosaline.
For example, in the lines 167-172, which Romeo says,
“Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate, 167
O anything, of nothing first create! 168
O heavy lightness, serious vanity, 169
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms, 170
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health 171
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!” 172
I can clearly pick out the distinguishable oxymorons that Shakespeare used to create that sense of a confused man. ‘O loving hate’, ‘O heavy lightness’, ‘serious vanity’, ‘misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms’, ‘feather of lead’, ‘bright smoke’, ‘cold fire’, ‘sick health’, and ‘still-waking sleep’ all show the confused state of mind Romeo is in, and Shakespeare sells this off very well to the audience.
Finally, the use of words is also very good to bring out the sense of good and kindness in Benevolio. Shakespeare obviously purposely chose that name, which can be understood as ‘good wishes’. Whilst the more aggressive character in Tybalt has such name, probably because of the word ‘tyrant’, where someone has complete power over others, and uses it in an unjustly manner.
It is a very effective start to the play, with all the reasons I have gone on about, and Romeo and Juliet looks to get more exciting as it develops. Well done Shakespeare!