The feud is the subject of the very first words of the play. The Prologue says, "Two households, both alike in dignity, / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean" (Prologue 1-4). The key word is "civil," and the phrase "civil blood" is a paradox. Citzens of a town ought to be civil; that is, they ought to show respect for one another and get along. But too often, they aren't. They engage in civil wars and shed "civil blood," which wouldn't happen if they were really civil. This paradoxical situation exists in "fair Verona," but the following phrase "where we lay our scene," implies that it could happen anywhere. Why? Not because one side is right and the other wrong. The households are "alike in dignity," and the "grudge" doesn't belong only to one or the other. It's "ancient," beyond memory. And, as the two sides share the grudge, they also share the guilt. Both sides mutiny against the peace of the town, making their "civil hands unclean." [Scene Summary]
Sampson, a Capulet servant, wants to take part in the feud, but only if it's not too dangerous. A would-be tough guy, Sampson boasts to Gregory of what he's going to do to the Montagues, saying, "when I have fought with the men, I will be civil with the maids, and cut off their heads" (1.1.21-23). This is Sampson's idea of a joke. He thinks of himself as a bad dude who breaks all the rules, so the only way he'll be "civil" is by politely cutting of the heads of the women. However, moments later he shows he's not as wild as he thinks. He makes a gesture at a Montague servant, and the man asks if he's trying to be insulting. At this, Sampson asks Gregory, "Is the law of our side, if I say ay?" (1.1.47-48). Faced with danger, Sampson the outlaw wants to be on the right side of the law.
The feud creates turmoil in Verona, turmoil which Prince Escalus has to deal with. When the Prince breaks up the riot of the first scene, he is enraged by the unnatural violation of civic order. His first words are, "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. Despite the prince's words, no one is listening and the swords are still flying, so he has to start over:
What, ho! you men, you beastsThe prince is infuriated at the beastliness of his citizens. "Pernicious" means more than "bad"; it means persistently, progressively bad. Their "pernicious rage" is out of control, and they think that they can get satisfaction by only by drawing blood, "fountains" of blood. A fountain, where people gather to get their water, is a traditional symbol of the source of life, so a fountain of blood is an image of horror. To control his beastly citizens, the prince has to threaten them with torture. The prince's threat is followed by an order to "Throw your mistemper'd weapons to the ground." The weapons are "mistempered" in the sense that they are angry, that is, used by angry men. They are also mistempered in another sense. Swords are tempered (hardened) by being heated and then rapidly cooled in cold water; these swords are being tempered in their neighbors' blood.
That quench the fire of your pernicious rage
With purple fountains issuing from your veins,
On pain of torture, from those bloody hands
Throw your mistemper'd weapons to the ground,
And hear the sentence [judgment] of your moved [angry] prince. (1.1.83-88)
Finally the Prince gets everyone to listen, but he speaks mainly to the heads of the families: "Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word, / By thee, old Capulet, and Montague, / Have thrice disturb'd the quiet of our streets . . . " (1.1.89-91). These brawls have stopped anyone from living in peace. They have "made Verona's ancient citizens / Cast by their grave beseeming ornaments, / To wield old partisans, in hands as old, / Canker'd with peace, to part your canker'd hate" (1.1.92-95). A "grave beseeming ornament" of an ancient citizen would be a staff of office. The Capulet-Montague feud has kept the ancient citizens from enjoying the respect they have earned. Instead, they have had to take up weapons of war ("partisans") which have grown rusty ("cankered") in peacetime, in order to separate ("part") the two sides and their malignant ("cankered") hate for each other. [Scene Summary]
As the second scene 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. At this point it seems that the feud could just die out. [Scene Summary]
Of all the characters in the play, it is Tybalt who takes the feud most to heart. When he recognizes Romeo at Capulet's feast, he sends for his sword, but Capulet sees that Tybalt is angry and prevents the feast from turning into a fight. The heated discussion between Capulet and Tybalt is largely concerned with the matters of respect and seemliness.
When he first recognizes Romeo, Tybalt asks himself how Romeo dares to "Come hither, cover'd with an antic face, / To fleer and scorn at our solemnity? / Now, by the stock and honor of my kin, / To strike him dead, I hold it not a sin" (1.5.56-59). However, when Tybalt tells Capulet that Romeo's disrespect must be revenged, Capulet takes an entirely different point of view, saying, "Content thee, gentle coz, let him alone; / He bears him like a portly gentleman" (1.5.65-66). "Portly" does not mean "fat," but well-mannered, deserving of respect. And when Capulet calls Tybalt "gentle coz" he's asking Tybalt to be well-mannered, too. This doesn't have much effect on Tybalt, so Capulet adjures him in the name of respect for himself and the occasion, saying, "It is my will, the which if thou respect, / Show a fair presence and put off these frowns, / An ill-beseeming semblance for a feast" (1.5.72-74). However, Tybalt stubbornly insists on his point of view, and Capulet resorts to insults, scornfully exclaiming, "You'll make a mutiny among my guests! / You will set cock-a-hoop! you'll be the man!" (1.5.80-81). Thus Tybalt, who thought to take revenge on Romeo's perceived disrespect, is forced to back down in the face of Capulet's disrespect. [Scene Summary]
When Romeo asks Friar Laurence to marry himself and Juliet, the Friar chides Romeo for switching so quickly from love of Rosalind to love of Juliet, but he agrees to perform the ceremony, saying, "In one respect [for one good reason] I'll thy assistant be; / For this alliance may so happy prove, / To turn your households' rancour to pure love" (2.3.90-92). It appears the Friar believes that the end of the feud is the most important thing that will come out of the marriage. [Scene Summary]
After Tybalt stabs him, Mercutio says, "I am hurt. / A plague o' both your houses! I am sped. / Is he gone, and hath nothing? (3.1.90-92). "Sped" means "done for," and the dying Mercutio feels cheated. Neither the house of Capulet nor the house of Montague is worth dying for, and Tybalt has gotten away without a scratch.
After Tybalt has killed Mercutio and Romeo killed Tybalt, Prince Escalus has to clean up the moral mess. Montague and Lady Capulet both add to that mess by demanding that the law be on their side. Lady Capulet cries out to the Prince, "I beg for justice, which thou, prince, must give; / Romeo slew Tybalt, Romeo must not live" (3.1.180-181). The Prince answers, "Romeo slew him, he slew Mercutio; / Who now the price of his dear blood doth owe?" (3.1.182-183). Then Montague says, "Not Romeo, prince, he was Mercutio's friend; / His fault concludes but what the law should end, / The life of Tybalt" (3.1.184-186). Lady Capulet demands a life for a life; Montague says that Romeo only did what the law should do, take a life for a life. Neither one sees the difference between justice and revenge, and the Prince's reply makes this clear. He exiles Romeo and then says, "I have an interest in your hate's proceeding, / My blood for your rude brawls doth lie a-bleeding; / But I'll amerce you with so strong a fine / That you shall all repent the loss of mine" (3.1.188-191). His point is that since Mercutio is his kinsman, he has motivation to demand revenge for Mercutio's death, but as prince his job is to stop all of the killing and restore order, so he punishes everyone -- Romeo with exile, the Capulets and Montagues with heavy fines. If he doesn't punish everyone, he's not doing his job, because "Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill" (3.1.197). He means that if he gives mercy to a killer, he is giving permission to kill, and so murdering those who will be killed next. [Scene Summary]
After taking testimony from Frair Laurence, Balthasar, and Paris' Page, Prince Escalus has a full account of the facts concerning the deaths of Romeo, Juliet, and Paris. Now it is time for him to render judgment. 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, "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). The Prince hasn't exactly winked at the feud between the Capulets and Montagues; he's threatened them, fined them, and tried to strike a balance, but he feels that he should have punished them more heavily. However, now "heaven" has meted out the worst possible punishment, and it has its effect. Capulet offers his hand to Montague, Montague promises to raise a golden statue of Juliet, and Capulet says he will do the same for Romeo. The feud is over. [Scene Summary]