How does Shakespeare build and create tension in Act 3 scene 1?

“Romeo and Juliet” is a well-known romantic tragedy, written by the playwright William Shakespeare. Until Act 3 there is no real sign of tragedy, it appears simply to be a pleasant story of the romance between Romeo and Juliet, with family feuds going on in the background. There are other characters, though, for the fighting, such as Mercutio, the Prince’s cousin and Romeo’s best friend, and Juliet’s cousin Tybalt. Act 2 finishes with a marriage, one which should have ended the hatred between the houses of Montague and Capulet.

The story could have ended here, and all would have ended happily. Yet, in Act 3 the story has a terrible twist. Within minutes both Mercutio and Tybalt are slain, the former by the latter, and Tybalt by Romeo’s own hand. On the same day that he marries Juliet, he murders her cousin and is exiled from Verona.

Act 3 begins with Mercutio and Benvolio talking. Benvolio, with his foresight and desire to keep the peace, asks to “retire”, for “the day is hot” and there are “Capels” about.

This setting itself conveys the unease in the air, an almost pathetic fallacy whereby we see the heat of the day reflecting the boiling temperament of Mercutio. Benvolio can see that “the mad blood” of his fellows, especially Mercutio, longs for a fight. From Mercutio’s response, describing Benvolio as “as hot a Jack” as any in Italy, and following with reasons for which Benvolio would quarrel, which is really a more apt description of himself than Benvolio, the audience begins to sense this tension that Benvolio speaks of.

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Benvolio says that, were he such a man as Mercutio describes, he would be dead within “an hour and a quarter”. The great irony of this is that Mercutio, who is such a man, is dead within an hour and a quarter. The audience do not know this, but for those who have made the link it will greatly increase the tension of the scene.

Tybalt’s arrival is an excellent example of the tension Shakespeare creates simply through a change of characters on stage, showing an excellent use of stagecraft and manipulation of the audience, as it instantly heightens the tension, for beside from anything else, both he and Mercutio are quite explosive characters, and the audience know Mercutio to be in the mood for a fight. His first words to Tybalt are a provocative jest at Tybalt, asking him to “couple” his words “with a blow”. They continue this repartee, Tybalt insulting Mercutio by saying that he “consortest with Romeo”, implying that Mercutio is low-class and no better a companion than the consorts of musicians that might be hired for any price. Playing off this, Mercutio calls his sword his “fiddlestick… that shall make [Tybalt] dance”. All this builds the audience’s sense of tension and anticipation; they are expecting a fight now, as much as the characters within the play are desiring one. I feel that Shakespeare’s next move is very clever. He shifts the focus of the tension, and adds to the bustle of the play again, just shortly after bringing Tybalt on.

By now bringing in Romeo, Shakespeare puts the tension between Mercutio and Tybalt on hold, and Tybalt says “peace be with [Mercutio]”, neither increasing nor decreasing it, but allowing it to hang in the air. At the same time, the audience are aware of the grudge Tybalt bears against Romeo, and the challenge which he sent to him, but of which Romeo is unaware. Dramatic irony is combined with this entrance to make it even more effective, for we as the audience know that Romeo is now tied to the Capulet family through his marriage to Juliet, this being “the reason that [he] have to love [Tybalt]” which “doth much excuse the appertaining rage” that Tybalt shows him, but none of the characters on stage know. If they had, this would certainly have changed the course of events in this scene. The audience are waiting for Romeo to tell the others of his marriage, increasing the expectation and nervous energy yet more.

Mercutio himself, as a character, builds the tension within the scene, for every one of his lines is like a spark to the tinder, and the audience are constantly waiting for one of them to set everything alight, and for the battle to begin. Lines fourteen to twenty-six give the impression of his frustration and desire for a fight, with each scenario building on top of the other, and his pace and wit quickening. He speaks of quarrelling with a man for having “a hair more or a hair less in his beard than [Benvolio has]”. He shows quite clearly that “[he cares] not” if he insults and upsets Tybalt, for he has no great regard for him. All that he says to Tybalt is provocative. With what the audience know of Tybalt, his temperament and that he is “apt enough” at fighting, seen at the beginning of the play, immediately after each line their attention is drawn to Tybalt’s response, the anticipation building, for surely Tybalt must at some point break, as he does. We see quite clearly Mercutio’s passion, in the form of outrage, both when “[Tybalt makes them] minstrels”, and when he says that “[he’ll] be hanged… if [Romeo] wear [Tybalt’s] livery”.

Tybalt makes no response to the second outburst, being focussed solely upon Romeo, “[his] man”, and the audience can feel Mercutio’s rage simmering. His outrage, bordering on disgust, at Romeo’s “calm, dishonourable, vile submission” is greater than the previous displays, for now he goes so far as to draw his sword against Tybalt, the “rat-catcher” as he calls him, playing on the meaning of his name and casual title. He continues this, saying that he would have “but one of [Tybalt’s] nine lives” and then “dry-beat the rest of the eight”. His direct challenge to Tybalt, telling him to draw his sword “by the ears”, “lest {his own] be about [Tybalt’s] ears”, is the final spark to set everything off, Tybalt now being “for[him]” and drawing his sword. This fight is now the first peak of tension in the scene, and the audience is completely captivated, their anticipation, their expectation, perhaps even their desire finally being satisfied.

Mercutio’s death, however, is unexpected, and it sends the audience into shock. All of a sudden the fight is ended, Tybalt having “under Romeo’s arm [thrust] Mercutio in”, and the audience is left watching a slowly dying Mercutio and an inadequately concerned Romeo and Benvolio. They believe that “the hurt cannot be much”, as it is “a scratch”, according to Mercutio. He jests even as he is dying, and the audience, who do not yet know that he will certainly die, may hope that he speak true, and wonder what the reaction to this might be. His comments that the wound, “’tis enough, ’twill serve”, and that the next day his friends would “find [him] a grave man”, hint at his imminent death, adding worry and concern to the tension and emotions already felt by the audience. Mercutio’s curse of “a plague a’both [their houses]”, meaning Montague and Capulet, is repeated three times before his death, and its severity also creates much drama and tension. His death marks the end of any light-heartedness or playfulness in the play, from here on all elements of the play are tragedy, enhanced by the following events regarding Romeo and Tybalt.

As of Romeo’s reaction to Mercutio’s death, having seen that Juliet’s “beauty [had] made [him] effeminate”, we see the tension begin to rise again to the second and greater peak within the scene. The rhyming couplet, “This day’s black fate on moe day’s doth depend/ This but begins the woe others must end”, is a powerful premonition of the later events of the play, and its importance is signified by the rhyming of it. The tension here suddenly rises again, due to this foreboding rhyme immediately followed by Tybalt’s return. The audience feels the same hatred now that Romeo feels, and are as outraged as he is at Tybalt’s return, and there is now no fear, nor any uncertainty of a fight. The audience wants retribution for Mercutio’s death, and they know Romeo now to have rejected his former “temper” which “softened valour’s steel”, and he here says that “fire-eyed conduct [shall] be [his] conduct now” toward “furious Tybalt”.

Romeo tells Tybalt that “either [he] or [Romeo], or both, must go with [Mercutio]”, who is, to Romeo, “but a little way above [their] heads”. These words, combined with the feelings of hatred and loss already created within the audience, greatly heighten the tension, far more than with the conflict between Tybalt and Mercutio, and the ensuing battle between the two, in order to “determine” who shall “keep [Mercutio] company”, is the greatest point of tension within this scene. Tybalt’s death also marks the turning point within the story, where Romeo changes from innocent lover to murderer, soon to be exiled. This is the trigger of much of the following tragedy, and had not Romeo slain Tybalt then he and Juliet might have lived happily.

After Romeo’s escape the tension in the scene changes, not so much tension any more, the audience no longer on edge, but more a throbbing fear, beating within the chests of the audience as much as within Romeo’s own, as he runs from his crime. Shakespeare in this last part of Act 3, scene 1 uses far more rhyme than in the rest of the scene, and it is not for mere beauty. It is used by the distraught Lady Capulet, in order to highlight her despair and desperation. “As [the Prince] art true” she begs that he “shed blood of Montague”. Her final rhyming couplet, “I beg for justice, which thou, Prince, must give/ Romeo slew Tybalt, Romeo must not live”, shows her desire for revenge on the Montagues, in particular Romeo, and this is probably the highest point of tension, or fear, in this last section, as the audience await Prince’s response, to see whether he satisfies Lady Capulet’s demands.

The Prince’s proclamation at the end, also written in rhyme, is very powerful, and finishes the scene with a sense of heavy finality, delivering the sentence of “[exiling Romeo] hence”, and speaking of his own suffering. His final rhyming couplet, “Bear hence this body, and attend our will/ Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill”, also has a heavy power, for even if the audience does not fully understand the second line, which means simply that Romeo cannot be pardoned, else a murderer would be going unpunished, its cryptic message still conveys a sense of regret and bitterness, and the audience feels the futility of denying the fairness of such a judgement.

The structure of the scene, although perhaps not an obvious contributor to the tension, is still brilliantly crafted toward building it. The drama and suspense build up toward the first peak, the “bandying” between Tybalt and Mercutio, and then a sudden drop. This drop helps take the audience’s mind off the tension, and so the following rapid increase in tension is far more unexpected. Having a second peak helps build upon the tension of the first, and the drama of the second battle is itself built upon “brave Mercutio” having “too untimely… [scorned] the earth”. This finishes the tension within the scene, and by ending it with the bustle of all the important characters, such as the bereaved Lady Capulet, and filling it with a lot of heavy, dramatic rhyme, including the Prince’s finishing speech, proclaiming Romeo’s exile, Shakespeare manages to end all tension within the scene, and yet keep the scene going, and maintain the emotion within it.

As shown, there are several methods used within Act 3, scene 1 to create and build suspense and tension, all of them expertly woven together and building upon each other, in order to make the scene as dramatic and involving for the audience as possible. Shakespeare combines techniques of ordinary writing, poetry and stagecraft together so subtly that it is difficult to distinguish one from another, and all work together, aided by the structure of the scene, to create the heavy tension and anticipation that makes this important scene one of the most powerful and dramatic in the entire play.

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How does Shakespeare build and create tension in Act 3 scene 1?. (2018, Dec 29). Retrieved from

How does Shakespeare build and create tension in Act 3 scene 1?
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