Inside the Capulet house, Peter and several serving men are rushing around, clearing tables and making things nice for the hosts while, at the same time, trying to enjoy the party themselves by stealing bits of marzipan and sneaking their friends in through the kitchen. Capulet gives a speech to his many guests, urging them to have a good time, be merry, and dance all night. Spotting Romeo and his friends—but unable to recognize them through their masks—he remarks on his many unexpected but nonetheless welcome guests.
Capulet is so obsessed with keeping up appearances and making things nice and impressive for his guests that he ignores all sorts of hijinks taking place right under his nose—or notices them but doesn’t make a scene for fear of damaging his reputation as a fun, generous, gracious host.
Romeo spots Juliet from across the room and asks a servant who she is. The servant says he doesn’t know. Romeo remarks upon how beautiful she is and swears that he “ne’er saw true beauty till this night.”
Tybalt overhears Romeo talking, and says he knows him by his voice—he is a Montague. He orders his page to fetch him his rapier, announcing his intent to kill the young man, but Capulet, realizing who Romeo really is, urges Tybalt to calm down and enjoy the party. Capulet doesn’t want any killing in his house—and he doesn’t want to break the peace agreement between House Capulet and House Montague. Tybalt is still angry, but Capulet orders the “saucy” Tybalt to keep quiet and enjoy the party. As Capulet rejoins the dance, Tybalt quietly vows to make Romeo regret intruding on the Capulets’ party.
Even though the Montague/Capulet feud is the most important thing to Tybalt, Capulet himself is more concerned with keeping up appearances—so much so that he’s willing to let Romeo’s presence at the feast slide in order to maintain peace and the illusion of order.
Romeo approaches Juliet and takes her hand, calling it a “holy shrine.” He says that if his touch is too rough, he’ll smooth it with a kiss. Juliet assures Romeo that his hands are soft—their meeting palms feel to her like a pilgrim’s soft, chaste kiss. Romeo jokingly asks whether saints and pilgrims have lips as well as hands, and Juliet retorts that though they have lips, they must use them only in prayer. Romeo urges Juliet to “let lips do what hands do.” He kisses her, and she states that he kisses “by th’ book.” Juliet’s nurse catches them and tells Juliet her mother wants to speak to her—Juliet hurries away. Romeo asks the nurse who Juliet’s mother is, and the nurse answers that Juliet’s mother is the lady of the house.
Romeo and Juliet’s flirtation is chaste and sweet, but tinged with intense desire. As they make puns back and forth, their jokes center around religion and holiness—thus, when Juliet says that Romeo kisses “by th’ book,” she’s referencing the Bible, suggesting that he’s such a good kisser that he’s made the “sin” of kissing holy.
Romeo is shocked and dismayed to realize that he has fallen in love with the daughter of his family’s foe. Benvolio approaches Romeo and tells him that they should leave before getting into any trouble. Capulet calls out to his guests, announcing that the evening is drawing to an end. Romeo and his kinsmen begin sneaking out of the party. Juliet asks her nurse who Romeo is. The nurse pretends she doesn’t see Romeo, and when she does admit to seeing him, says she doesn’t know who he is. Juliet urges the nurse to go ask his name. The nurse returns and reports Romeo’s name—then adds that he is a Montague. Juliet laments that her “only love [has] sprung from [her] only hate.”
As Romeo and Juliet realize each other’s identity, they’re both stricken with grief. They have fallen in love fast and hard but know that the feud between their families means that there will be serious obstacles to their desire to be together. They know it is their duty to hate each another, but are about to begin questioning what the meaning of filial duty even is, and what they truly owe their families.