These violent delights have violent ends
Fights, brawls, feuds and duels in Romeo and Juliet and Elizabethan England
What’s the first thing you think of when someone says Romeo and Juliet? It’s probably ‘love’. But it might surprise you that its original audiences were just as likely to have regarded violence as the leitmotif of the play – in the form of civil brawls, street fights and family discord.
Violence was an insistent reality for the Elizabethans, a constant danger but also a sensational experience when performed on stage. The Curtain playhouse in Shoreditch, where Romeo and Juliet was probably first performed, was an unfortunate centre for street violence. The scholar Chris Fitter, in an article about quarrels on the streets of London, notes a large-scale brawl taking place outside the Curtain in 1584. 1590s London was driven by violence, fuelled by class conflicts and the anxiety caused by cripplingly high grain prices. One can imagine what resonance Benvolio’s words ‘For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring’ (3.1) had for the audience watching Romeo and Juliet, many of whom had memories of the riots of June 1595, when Londoners took to the streets to protest a food shortage that was fast becoming famine.
Shakespeare’s first audiences were also wearily familiar with upper-class gang feuds, like that between the Montagues and the Capulets.
Shakespeare’s first audiences were also wearily familiar with upper-class gang feuds, like that between the Montagues and the Capulets. The social historian Lawrence Stone records bloody battles in Fleet Street and the Strand, which often escaped the authorities. The Tudor monarchs all issued proclamations against fighting in public. In the 1590s, Elizabeth attempted to limit elite violence to the less destructive private confrontation of the duel. As a result, the number of recorded duels and challenges jumped from just five in the 1580s to nearly twenty a decade later. However, the street fights didn’t cease. Elizabethan violence seemed untameable, even if aristocratic brawling did decline in the face of climbing duelling rates.
Duels generally caused less damage and were bound by etiquette and rules, unlike street fights. Italian fencing manuals were popular among young men, and Italian fencing instructors thrived in London in the 1580s and 90s (when Shakespeare was writing Romeo and Juliet). The Italian vocabulary seeped through to the language of violence of Romeo and Juliet as well. Mercutio uses Italian fencing terms, such as ‘alla stoccado’, ‘passado’ and ‘punto reverso’ (different kinds of rapier thrusts), which mild-natured Benvolio fails to understand.
However, it was not only the Italian fencing language and the new weapons that fueled dueling in England. An underlying and more significant reason was a crisis in masculine honour among aristocracy. Jennifer Low, in Manhood and the Duel: Masculinity in Early Modern Drama and Culture, argues that the practice of duelling was so central to the notion of the courtier that its meaning helped to define the aristocracy of the period as a whole. Offending a gentleman’s honour could easily provoke a duel – and these so-called honour duels worked to publicise and enhance the masculinity of the gentlemen involved. Viewed in this light, Romeo and Juliet seems very much a play of its age, offering what Jill Levenson calls ‘a panoramic view of violence in Elizabethan England’.