Sampson and Gregory, two servingmen of House Capulet, enter with swords and bucklers. Sampson angrily says he doesn’t want to “carry coals”—in other words, he doesn’t want to put up with any of the Montagues’ nonsense. Gregory insists they will do no such thing. Sampson says he’s looking forward to drawing his sword should the Montagues try anything—he strikes quickly, he says, when he’s moved. Gregory accuses Sampson of often being too lazy to get moved in the first place. Sampson says that nothing moves him to a fight like “a dog of [the] house” of Montague. Gregory and Sampson continue bantering bawdily about killing, raping, and dominating the men and women of House Montague.
Gregory and Sampson are merely servingmen of House Capulet, yet it’s clear that they carry their masters’ grudges for them, even as they rail against the idea that they do too much for the nobles they serve in the first place. This introductory scene shows just how deep and angry the feud between the two houses really is—even their servants fantasize about harming and humiliating the members of the opposing clan.
Abraham and another servingman of the house of Montague enter. Sampson draws his weapon but urges Gregory to be the one to start the fight. When Gregory is hesitant to begin the quarrel, Sampson suggests they provoke the Montagues into a fight. Gregory says he’ll frown at the men, while Sampson says he’ll bite his thumb at them. Sampson bites his thumb, and Abraham immediately rises to the provocation. When Abraham asks Sampson if he is biting his thumb at him, Sampson says that while he’s not biting it at Abraham. Gregory asks if Abraham wants to fight. He says he doesn’t—but Gregory states that he’s ready to fight on his master’s behalf at any time.
Biting one’s thumb was an obscene gesture in Shakespeare’s time, which explains why Abraham is so quickly provoked. This comical scene shows, however, that though Gregory and Sampson privately claim to long for a fight so that they can stand up to the Montagues and prove the glory of House Capulet, they’re actually too nervous to confidently pick a fight with their professed enemies.
As a quarrel breaks out, Benvolio, a member of House Montague, enters onto the scene. Seeing the men swinging their swords at one another, Benvolio draws his own sword and orders the men to break up their fight. Tybalt, another Capulet man, enters. Seeing the fight, he assumes Benvolio is responsible, and threatens to kill him. Benvolio insists he’s trying to keep the peace, but Tybalt scoffs and says he “hate[s]” peace—just as he hates “hell, all Montagues, and thee.” Tybalt draws his sword and attacks Benvolio. A crowd of citizens, seeing the brawl, egg the men on as they fight.
This passage introduces two new major characters, one from each house—Benvolio and Tybalt. While Tybalt is quick to anger and desirous of the Montagues’ destruction, Benvolio is calmer, meeker, and longs to keep the tenuous peace between the two houses. As the men brawl, it becomes clear that the Montagues’ and Capulets’ frequent fights are a central part of life in Verona—though they often disturb the peace, the citizens, too, are often involved in the fights.
Capulet and Lady Capulet enter. Capulet calls for his sword, but Lady Capulet chides him for trying to join in the violence at his old age. Montague and Lady Montague enter, as well—Capulet begins taunting Montague, who in turn calls Capulet a “villain” and tries to fight him. Prince Escalus enters, ordering his “rebellious subjects” to lay down their weapons and stop their dangerous, infectious, “pernicious rage.” This is the third time a brawl between the Montagues and Capulets has disrupted the peace in Verona’s streets. If it happens again, the prince says, Montague and Capulet will pay for the strife with their lives. Montague and Capulet, the prince says, must come with him to his villa to explain themselves. Capulet and his wife follow him off, and the citizen spectators quickly disperse after a final threat from the prince.
As Prince Escalus arrives on the scene to try and defuse the violence and anger in the town square, his frustration with the ongoing feud between the two noble families becomes clear. The prince is at the end of his rope and is ready to take drastic measures to calm the incessant fighting between Montagues and Capulets. This passage also illustrates how though the seed of the feud seems to be between the two old men at the heads of their houses, their younger servants and kinsmen are often the ones who bear the burden of carrying on their grudge.
Montague and Lady Montague remain behind with Benvolio and order him to explain the reason for the fight. Benvolio explains that after he saw the Montagues’ servants fighting the Capulets’ servants, he was trying to step in when Tybalt arrived and escalated the dispute. Lady Montague says she’s relieved that her son Romeo wasn’t around for the fight and asks Benvolio if he’s seen him. Benvolio says that he saw Romeo earlier that morning, just past dawn in a sycamore grove on the edge of town, but could tell that Romeo wanted to be alone. Montague says that Romeo has been walking around the groves crying many mornings lately—and when he’s home, he stays shut up alone in his chambers. Benvolio asks Montague what’s wrong with Romeo, but Montague says that Romeo won’t tell anyone who asks what’s troubling him.
The way Romeo’s parents and kinsman talk about him in this passage shows that he is a loner, closed off from the rest of them and isolated in his own emotions. This sets up Romeo as a rogue character and positions him as an individual either uncomfortable within or dismissive of the larger family and community to which he belongs.
Romeo approaches. Benvolio urges Montague and Lady Montague to go with the prince while he stays behind to find out what’s the matter with Romeo. They wish him luck, then leave. Benvolio greets Romeo, bidding him good morning, and Romeo seems surprised that it’s so early. Benvolio asks Romeo what’s troubling him and making the hours seem so long, and Romeo retorts that he doesn’t have the one thing which would “make them short.” Benvolio asks Romeo if he is in love, but Romeo quips that he is “out” of it. Benvolio laments that there’s nothing worse than a broken heart. Romeo notices drops of blood in the street and chastises Benvolio for fighting—all fights, he says, are more to do with love than hatred, as counterintuitive as it may seem.
As Romeo tells Benvolio what’s troubling him, he attempts to play off his own misery by couching his problems in wordplay. This passage also makes it clear that Romeo conceives of love as a powerful force, one which can even lead to bloodshed and death, setting up the play’s theme of love (and expressions thereof) as being intertwined with violence.
Benvolio expresses his sadness for Romeo’s “good heart’s oppression.” Meanwhile, Romeo continues waxing poetic—in language that is on the one hand passionate but on the other hand somewhat clichéd—about the “transgression[s]” of love. Benvolio begs Romeo to tell him who has broken his heart. Romeo says the woman he loves refuses to love him back and has sworn to remain chaste. Romeo laments about what a “waste” it is for such a beautiful woman to live her life as a virgin. Benvolio promises to help Romeo move on—or die trying.
Romeo's despondency about his unrequited feelings for the woman he loves speaks to his passion for love, and his sense that love is painful, full of "oppression" and "transgressions." But the clichéd language that Romeo uses to describe love also suggests that his understanding of love is superficial, and that he may be more in love with the idea of being in love than he is actually in love. Benvolio's advice that Romeo should look at other women and his vow to cure Romeo of his melancholy is a further sign that Romeo's behavior, while passionate, is also somewhat silly and naive.