The scene opens with a brawl on the streets of Verona between servants from the affluent Montague and Capulet households. While attempting to stop the fight, Benvolio (Romeo's cousin) is drawn into the fray by Tybalt, kinsman of the Capulets. The fight rapidly escalates as more citizens become involved and soon the heads of both households appear on the scene. At last, Prince Escalus arrives and stops the riot, forbidding any further outbreaks of violence on pain of death.
After Escalus dismisses both sides, Montague and his wife discuss Romeo's recent melancholy behavior with Benvolio and ask him to discover its cause. They exit as Romeo enters in his sad state — a victim of an unrequited love for the cold and unresponsive Rosaline. Benvolio advises him to forget Rosaline by looking for another, but Romeo insists that this would be impossible.
A spirited exchange of vulgar jokes between servants opens the play and immediately links sex with conflict. In their bawdy quarrel, the servants' references to "tool" and "naked weapon," together with repeated images of striking and thrusting, illustrate how images of love and sex are intertwined with violence and death — and will continue to be throughout the play.
The sudden switch from the comedic interplay between the servants to a potentially life-threatening situation demonstrates the rapidly changing pace that drives the action of the rest of the play. For instance, Benvolio, whose name means "goodwill," tries to act as a peacemaker by dividing the servants, but the quick-tempered "fiery Tybalt" forces him to draw his sword, and the atmosphere changes from harmony to hatred within a few lines. This undercurrent of uncertain fortune wrenches the characters into and out of pleasure and pain as fate seemingly preempts each of their hopes with another tragic turn of events.
When the elderly, hot-tempered Capulet calls for his long sword to jump into a duel with the young swordsmen wielding light, modern weapons, both the absurdity of the feud and the gulf between the old and the young are evident. Both patriarchs are chastised by their wives for such impetuous behavior: "A crutch. Why call you for a sword?" chides Capulet's wife. Though Romeo and Juliet try to separate themselves from such archaic grudges and foolish fighting, the couple can't escape the repercussions of the feud, which ultimately deals their love a fatal wound.
The second half of the scene switches its focus from the theme of feuding and violence to the play's other key theme, love. Romeo woefully bemoans his plight as an unrequited, Petrarchan lover. The term Petrarchan comes from the poet, Petrarch, who wrote sonnets obsessively consumed with his unrequited love for Laura. Romeo's feelings of love have not been reciprocated by Rosaline, and this predicament causes him to dwell on his emotional torment.
Shakespeare chooses language that reflects youthful, idealized notions of romance. Romeo describes his state of mind through a series of oxymorons — setting contradictory words together — blending the joys of love with the emotional desolation of unrequited love: "O brawling love, O loving hate." That he can express such extreme emotions for a woman he barely knows demonstrates both his immaturity and his potential for deeper love.
Romeo's use of traditional, hackneyed poetry in the early stages of the play show him as a young, inexperienced lover who is more interested in the concept of being in love, than actually loving another human being. As the play progresses, Romeo's use of language shifts as he begins to speak in blank verse as well as rhyme. Through this development, his expressions sound more genuine rather than like a poem learned by rote. Shakespeare elevates Romeo's language as he elevates Romeo's love for Juliet.
Romeo's emotional turmoil also reflects the chaos of Verona, a city divided by the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. Just as the city is embattled by the feud between the families, Romeo is embattled by his unrequited love for Rosaline. Romeo illustrates his idea of love as a battlefield by using military terms to describe the ways in which he has used his eyes and words of love in a combined attack to win the lady over, but without success: "She will not stay the siege of loving terms / Nor bide th' encounter of assailing eyes." Shakespeare repeatedly demonstrates how closely intertwined battles of love and hate can be. These conflicting images of love and violence ominously anticipate the play's conclusion when the deaths of Romeo and Juliet "win" the end of the feud.
we'll not carry coals an old-fashioned saying, which meant to submit to insults.
colliers coal miners.
draw your neck out of collar Gregory puns on the word "draw" here, implying that Sampson will draw or slip his head out of a hangman's noose (collar).
I will bite my thumb at them, which is a disgrace to them if they bear it an Italian insult, a provocative, probably obscene gesture.
bills medieval weapons having a hook-shaped blade with a spike at the back, mounted on a long staff.
partisans broad-bladed weapons with a long shaft, used especially in the 16th century.
purple fountains jets of blood.
mistemper'd bad-tempered, angry; here, also referring to weapons which have been tempered, or made hard, in blood rather than water.
artificial night Romeo's behavior is unnatural (artificial).
true shrift confession.
love so gentle in his view love, often represented as Cupid, appears gentle.
in proof when actually experienced.
posterity Rosaline's celibacy will prevent her passing on her beauty to her children or descendants.
forsworn promised not to love.
do I live dead Romeo regards Rosaline's decision to remain chaste as a form of living death.