During the heat of the day, Benvolio and Mercutio are loitering on the streets of Verona when Tybalt arrives looking for Romeo. Benvolio wishes to avoid a confrontation with the Capulets; however, Mercutio is deliberately provocative and tries to draw Tybalt into an argument so that they can fight.
Romeo appears and Tybalt insults him, hoping he will respond to the challenge, but Romeo refuses because he is now related to Tybalt through his marriage to Juliet. Mercutio, disgusted by Romeo's reluctance to fight, answers Tybalt's insults on Romeo's behalf. Tybalt and Mercutio draw their swords and fight. To stop the battle, Romeo steps between them and Tybalt stabs Mercutio under Romeo's arm. Mercutio's wound is fatal and he dies crying "A plague o' both your houses!" Blinded by rage over Mercutio's death, Romeo attacks Tybalt and kills him.
Romeo is forced to flee a mob of citizens as the Prince, the heads of the two households, and their wives appear at the scene. After Benvolio gives an account of what has happened, the Prince banishes Romeo from Verona under the penalty of death and orders Lords Montague and Capulet to pay a heavy fine.
The hopeful tone of Act II changes dramatically at the beginning of Act III as Romeo becomes embroiled in the brutal conflict between the families. The searing heat, flaring tempers, and sudden violence of this scene contrast sharply with the romantic, peaceful previous night. The play reaches a dramatic crescendo as Romeo and Juliet's private world clashes with the public feud with tragic consequences. Mercutio's death is the catalyst for the tragic turn the play takes from this point onward.
True to character, the hot-headed Mercutio starts a quarrel the instant Tybalt requests a word with him, by responding, "make it a word and a blow." Tybalt at first ignores Mercutio's insults because, ironically again, he's saving his blade for Romeo.
Romeo, by contrast, is as passionate about love as Tybalt and Mercutio are about hostility. Romeo appears, cheerful and contented with having wed Juliet only hours before, and unaware that he's even been challenged to a duel. Until Mercutio dies, Romeo remains emotionally distinct from the other characters in the scene. Romeo walks atop his euphoric cloud buoyed by blissful thoughts of marriage to Juliet, peace, unity, and harmony. In response to Tybalt's attempts to initiate a fight, Romeo tells Tybalt that he loves "thee better than thou canst devise." Ironically, Romeo's refusal to duel with Tybalt brings about the very acceleration of violence he sought to prevent.
In Romeo's mind, he has shed his identity as a Montague and has become one with Juliet, his wife. Romeo's separation echoes the balcony scene where he said "Call me but love…Henceforth I never will be Romeo." However, Tybalt seeks revenge against Romeo because a Montague appeared at a Capulet ball. While Romeo no longer labels himself Montague, Tybalt still sees Romeo as standing on the wrong side of a clear line that divides the families.
Mercutio is disgusted by Romeo's abandonment of traditionally masculine aggression. Tybalt does not understand why Romeo will not respond to his dueling challenge — a traditional mechanism to assert and protect masculine nobility. Romeo's separation from these typical modes of interaction is both an abandonment of traditional masculinity and a departure from the temporal and divisive perspective of the feud. Romeo and Juliet's love embraces a transcendent, intensely unified concept of love. Their extraordinary love removes them from the animosity that drives the feud; however, that love is also flawed by Romeo acting out of anger rather than out of his love for Juliet.
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