Duelling and street violence in Romeo and Juliet

Last week I was stumped by an inquisitive year 11 student. We had read act three scene one of Romeo and Juliet and she wanted to know whether, given expectations of men at the time, Romeo could have feasibly walked away from Tybalt’s challenge. She had pierced my lack of subject knowledge with the thrust of her question. Lukcily, many kind folk on twitter replied to my tweet with some stuff I could read. Below is an account of what I’ve found out.

The rapier

Rapiers, it seems, were not especially common weapons in Elizabthan England, or at least there were not many cases of ‘death by rapier’ going through the courts. Rapiers were, however, a status symbol associated with the aristocracy and growing in popularity. If you wanted to be a ‘gentlemen’ you would carry a sword, and if you wanted to appear especially high status you may have carried a rapier. The growing middle class may therefore have picked up the rapier as a status symbol, even though they not have been as experienced with the code of conduct involved with carryng and bearing arms. And as is made clear in Shakepspeare’s Restless World, if men are carrying around dangerous weapons as a fashion accessory when they’re out on the town, it’s perhaps unsuprising that fights often broke out.

Although rapiers are swords, they are not the type of sword that would perhaps be used in a battle or melee. They were faster, more precise, not for wild cutting or cleaving and would produce deep internal wounds, rather than external ones. I think this helps explain why a single, precise thrust from Tybalt is fatal for Meructio. Primarily, the rapier is an urban weapon and also the weapon that would later be associated with the sport of fencing, rather than warfare.

The British libary’s article on Elizbathan fencing helps us see how this new trend for stylised use of the rapier was emerging. It also helps give context to Mercutio’s scorn for Tybalt and his pretentious, highly stylised method of fighting, mocked by Mercutio in act two scene four described as fighting ‘by the book of arithmetic’ after he receives his fatal blow. Tybalt is not only a skilled and dangerous oppent then, he is a fashionable one too, whose reputation for fighting is precedes him.

The swords and bucklers carried by the servants at the beginning of the play would have marked themselves as belonging to a lower social class than the rapier carrying teenagers of the Montague and Capulet nobility. And yet, they are still carrying weapons, absolutely prepared for violence should the opportunity arise.

Honour and male violence

There seems to be lots of evidence that men were expected to be violent. The Folger Shakespeare podcast suggests we think about honour as a commodity, bestowed upon men by their peers. Violence was a way for men to preseve their honour as well as defend their home and good name. There is also nothing close to a police force that we might recognise today. Therefore, it may have often been left to individuals to exact moral justice in the form of male violence.  As a result of this, male on male fights made up the huge majority of violent deaths. As the judicial system developed, many of these conflicts would increasingly not have to be dealt with by individuals. Urban violence was a huge issue during Shakepsearen England.

Men were also expected to react violently to other moments of civil unrest. We see this in the opening scene when the ‘citizens’ of Verona flood the streets and begin to wield their ‘clubs’ and ‘partisans’ against the brawling Capulets and Montagues, even before the Prince arrives.

The pervasieness of male violence is suggested in Act Three Scene 1, even before any physical violence takes place, in a section of the play I’ve often overlooked and not properlay understood. When Benvolio suggest to Meructio that they ‘retire’ to ‘scape a brawl’, Mercutio immediately retorts with a long list of times when Benvolio has been quick to quarrel. Although there may some hyperbole on Mercutio’s part here (suggesting Benvolio quarrel with another man based on the length of his beard) I think there is good reason to believe that Benvolio has been in his fair share of dust ups, despite his peaceful behaviour elsewhere in the play.*

In previous years, I have led classes to believe that Benvolio is solely a peaceful character. This is not entirely true.

The law and duelling

A certain amount of male violence seems to be expected, and indeed condoned by the law. The Folger Shakespeare podcast suggests a myriad of excuses that men may have put forward to avoid being charged with murder, the punishment for which could be public hanging. These excuses range from being provoked, to suggesting that another individual had ‘run onto your sword’ and that you had no intention of killing another man. Clearly, whilst a certain amount of violence was expected, people did not want to be put to death and were becoming adept at the type of story they’d have to tell in order to be found not guilt of murder.

This is true in Romeo and Juliet. ‘Is the law of our side if I say ‘Ay’?’ asks the Capulet, Samson, in the opening scene. The sword wiedling servants, whilst prepared for violence, were also attuned to the various nuances of legal proceedings. Yes I want to fight, no I don’t want to end up in jail, or worse: killed by the state. This would perhaps have been an especially pressing concern for a servant lacking the money or influence to settle cases outside of court.

Formal duelling is not outlawed until well into the 19th century, even though duels were officially frowned upon. In matters of honour and duelling, men seem to be able to define when their honour has been slighted, and when a duel might be appropriate. Apparently, Tybalt believes Romeo’s presence in act one scene 5 is a significant enough slight on his honour to make challening Romeo to a deul reasonable. The nature of this challenge seems highly bound by custom and code, first sending an official letter then seeking out Romeo in public to give a very public insult and provcation. After all, if there is little point preserving yoru honour in private without a number of peers to bear witness.

Would Romeo have to accept such a challenge? How much would his reputation be affected if he didn’t? Benvolio seems to expect that ‘being dared’ Romeo will certainly take up the challenge (Act 2 Scene 4), even though Mercutio is more doubtful.

Resisting the urge to fight, as Romeo initially does when challenged by Tybalt, could be a legitimate, legal response. Despite his behaviour going against masculine expectations, he may have helped preserve a sense of his innocence. Indeed, when the rest of the town floods the stage and Benvolio is left to give his (arguably biased and self serving) testamony, Romeo’s inital peaceful behaviour and his ‘calm look’ could have helped him avoid a more severe punishment.

That being said, Mercutio ties his flag quite clearly to the mast, describing Romeo’s ‘submission’ to Tybalt as ‘vile’ and ‘dishonourable’. Romeo also seems to accept that Tybalt’s insults and his failure to accept the challenge has ‘stained’ his reputation. In the past, I wonder if I have judged Romeo’s behaviour in this scene too harshly.

*Or, as has been suggested to me by @DavidDidau, Benvolio really is a peaceful character. Mercutio is prone to exaggeration and fantastical speeches and this could be an example which Benvolio chooses to indulge because arguing against Mercutio is too tiresome.

References / Links:

Thanks to the following for their helpful links and suggestions:



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