Benvolio and Mercutio enter, discussing how Romeo did not come home the night before. They believe he is still out chasing after Rosaline. Benvolio reports that Tybalt has sent a letter to Montague’s house—Mercutio is certain it is a challenge to a duel, and Benvolio believes Romeo will accept Tybalt’s provocation. Mercutio says Romeo can’t face Tybalt in his depressed state—Tybalt is masterful and even artistic duelist who could “butcher […] a silk button.” As Romeo approaches, Benvolio urges Mercutio to be quiet. Romeo comes near, and Mercutio laments to Benvolio how lovelorn he looks.
Benvolio and Mercutio pity Romeo. They know how intensely he feels things, and are aware of how profoundly those feelings affect his day-to-day life. They worry that in his strange, lovelorn state he’ll do something rash, like rise to Tybalt’s insult, and are determined to protect Romeo from himself.
Romeo greets Mercutio and Benvolio, and Mercutio accuses Romeo of giving them both “the slip” the night before. Romeo assures Mercutio that he had “business” to attend to and was forced to “strain courtesy” in pursuit of it. Mercutio makes a pun on Romeo’s response, suggesting that his business strained his “hams,” or legs—in other words, Mercutio suggests that Romeo went off to sleep with a woman. The two exchange sexual barbs, joking back and forth, until Mercutio accuses Romeo of wearing the “jest” out. Romeo continues joking and making puns, however, and Mercutio expresses his surprise at Romeo’s much-improved mood. Romeo is Romeo again, Mercutio says—and all because he has “hid his bauble in a hole.”
Mercutio really leans into his role as Romeo’s funny, almost jester-like friend in this passage. He has often, as of late, been preoccupied with how to cheer Romeo up—but now that he believes Romeo has taken the cheering-up into his own hands, he’s ready to rejoice in his friend’s having moved on from Rosaline and distracted himself with other things. At the same time, there’s clearly a limit to Mercutio’s ability to sustain his live-wire energy—a fact that foreshadows the darker side of his personality which will soon emerge.
Juliet’s nurse and Peter enter and greet the Montague men. The nurse wishes them good morning, but Mercutio tells her that “the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon.” The nurse chides Mercutio for making such a dirty joke, then tells Romeo she wants to have a private conversation with him. Benvolio and Mercutio make sexual jokes about the nurse desiring alone time with Romeo, then head back to Romeo’s father’s house for lunch, inviting Romeo to join them when he’s finished with the nurse.
Romeo’s friends engage in sexually-charged wordplay with the nurse—a woman who is below their social station and appears an easy target for humiliation and tomfoolery. Though language is often an equalizer among different social classes in the play, in this instance, it’s a way for the noble Montague men to condescendingly assert their dominance.
The nurse tells Romeo how little she cared for Mercutio’s “saucy” jokes and chides Peter for remaining silent in the face of Mercutio’s impropriety. Peter tries to make excuses for himself, but the nurse waves him off and pulls Romeo aside. She tells him that Juliet has sent her to talk with Romeo and receive a message from him—but before she does, she wants to warn the young man not to “lead her into a fool’s paradise.” Romeo insists that his love for Juliet is true and asks the nurse to tell Juliet to come up with an excuse to go to confession that afternoon so that Friar Laurence can marry the two of them.
The nurse is no-nonsense when it comes to Juliet—she loves her young charge and wants to make sure that her feelings are protected. Though the nurse can often give as good as she gets when it comes to bawdy jokes or ridiculous stories, in this moment she has no time for such jesting—she wants to get to the point, confront Romeo, and secure an answer for Juliet.
Romeo gives the nurse some money for her trouble, in spite of her protestations, and informs her that in an hour, behind the wall of a nearby abbey, one of Romeo’s servants will meet the nurse and hand her a rope ladder. Romeo plans on using the ladder to climb up to Juliet’s room later that night. The nurse asks Romeo if his servant can be trusted to keep the secret of Romeo and Juliet’s marriage, and he insists his servant is “true as steel.” Juliet’s nurse says that Juliet, too, is trustworthy and good—she is even choosing to honor her love for Romeo in spite of a marriage proposal from Paris. Romeo bids the nurse goodbye and asks her to say good things about him to Juliet. She assures him she will, and then she and Peter hurry away.
The nurse knows that, technically, Paris would be a better match for Juliet—but at the same time, she can’t help getting swept up in the excitement of making all these secret, romantic plans on Juliet’s behalf. At the end of the day, it seems, the nurse’s allegiance is not to the House of Capulet but to Juliet specifically—all she wants is for her lady to be happy.