Robert Stephens as Prince Escalus.
Image Source: photoindix.w.pw.
[His name suggests "scales," and therefore balance, justice.]
In the first scene, when Prince Escalus comes to stop the street brawl, he calls the brawlers, "Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace, / Profaners of this neighbor-stained steel,-- (1.1.81-82). "Steel" -- the swords being used by the combatants -- should be dedicated to the defense of the city; instead, the steel is being profaned by citizens who are staining it with the blood of their neighbors. Escalus is the protecter of his city's peace, and he denounces both Capulet and Montague. He also threatens torture and commands that Capulet and Montague meet with him, presumably so that he can make clear to each of them that they must stop the feud. [Scene Summary]
As the second scene of the play opens, Capulet is in the middle of a sentence: "But Montague is bound as well as I, / In penalty alike; and 'tis not hard, I think, / For men so old as we to keep the peace (1.2.1-3). It seems that he has just returned from his conference with Prince Escalus, and he's telling Paris about it. Capulet and Montague have been threatened with the same penalties if they disturb the peace, and Capulet is now trying to convince himself that it shouldn't be too hard for two old men to keep peace with each other. [Scene Summary]
Trying to break up the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio, Romeo cries, "Gentlemen, for shame, forbear this outrage! / Tybalt, Mercutio, the prince expressly hath / Forbidden bandying in Verona streets" (3.1.87-89), but they ignore him. Tybalt kills Mercutio, Romeo kills Tybalt, and Benvolio urges Romeo to flee because "the prince will doom thee death, / If thou art taken" (3.1.134-35). Romeo runs away, and so Prince Escalus once again has to deal with the Capulets and Montagues. When he arrives, he gets right to the point: "Where are the vile beginners of this fray?" (3.1.141). Before anyone can answer his question, Lady Capulet demands vengeance for the death of Tybalt. The Prince ignores her and gets Benvolio to tell what happened. Then Lady Capulet again cries for blood and Montague claims that his son shouldn't be punished because he only did what the law would do -- kill Tybalt for killing Mercutio.
The Prince, trying to be even-handed, exiles Romeo and fines both Capulet and Montague. Then he explains his reasoning. Since Mercutio was his kinsman he has as much reason as anyone to demand vengeance, but he has the responsibility of keeping the peace, so he hands out punishments because "Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill" (3.1.197). In other words, if those who kill are given mercy, that's as much as giving permission for murder. So he punishes, not for revenge, but to keep the peace.
[Three passages in this scene show that Mercutio is a kinsman of Prince Escalus. Romeo, speaking of Mercutio, says, "This gentleman, the prince's near ally, / My very friend, hath got his mortal hurt / In my behalf" (3.1.109-111). When Benvolio is explaining things to the Prince, he says, pointing at Tybalt, "There lies the man, slain by young Romeo, / That slew thy kinsman, brave Mercutio" (3.1.144-145). Later in the scene Prince Escalus says to Capulet and Montague, "I have an interest in your hate's proceeding, / My blood for your rude brawls doth lie a-bleeding" (3.1.188-189).][Scene Summary]
After Romeo kills Tybalt he hides in Friar Laurence's cell. The Friar returns to his cell and tells Romeo, "I bring thee tidings of the prince's doom" (3.3.8). By "doom" the Friar just means "judgment" or "sentence," and he actually has some good news, but Romeo is full of foreboding. He asks the Friar, "What less than dooms-day is the prince's doom?" (3.3.9). He expects nothing less than death ("dooms-day"), but the Friar replies, "A gentler judgment vanish'd [issued] from his lips, / Not body's death, but body's banishment" (3.3.10-11). Romeo, however, thinks that banishment is worth than death, and Friar Laurence scolds him for his lack of gratitude to Prince Escalus:
O deadly sin! O rude unthankfulness![Scene Summary]
The watchmen, summoned by Paris' Page to the monument of the Capulets, discover the bodies of Paris, Romeo, and Juliet. Amazingly, Juliet is "bleeding, warm, and newly dead, / Who here hath lain these two days buried" (5.3.175-176). The watchman who is in charge orders another watchman to notify Prince Escalus, then says, "We see the ground whereon these woes do lie; / But the true ground of all these piteous woes / We cannot without circumstance descry" (5.3.181). This means, "We can see the ground on which these woeful creatures lie, but real grounds for these woeful events we cannot see without knowing the circumstances." It is Prince Escalus who must sort out the circumstances, and he soon does so.
Prince Escalus calls for calm, then questions Friar Laurence, Balthasar, and Paris' Page. After getting all of the facts, he seems to be highly exasperated at everyone. He says, "Capulet! Montague! / See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate, / That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love" (5.3.291-293). The Prince adds that he's not happy with himself, either: "And I for winking at your discords too / Have lost a brace of kinsmen [i.e., Mercutio and Paris]: all are punish'd" (5.3.294-295).
After Capulet and Montague promise to raise statues in honor of Romeo and Juliet, Prince Escalus has the last words of the play. He notes that the morning sky is dark, fitting the mood of occasion: "A glooming peace this morning with it brings; / The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head" (5.3.306). He tells everyone to leave the churchyard and promises that at another place everything will be discussed and "Some shall be pardon'd, and some punished" (5.3.308), although that seems to matter little, "For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo" (5.3.309-310) . [Scene Summary]