Conflict is a major theme throughout the play. It starts with the Prologue. ‘Two households both alike in dignity’. This tells the audience that the conflict is between two noble families with equal wealth and status in society. Shakespeare does not give the audience a reason for the conflict but he states it is an ‘ancient grudge’ which continues to erupt and disturb the streets of Verona. The conflict regularly leads to death as ‘civil blood makes civil hands unclean’. The details of the Prologue foreshadow events in the play. In this violent and dangerous setting Shakespeare has created a love story struggling to exist as they have: fate ‘star crossed lovers’; time ‘the two hours traffic of our stage’ and their parents ‘doth with their death bury their parents’ rage.’ – all battling against them.
The opening scene of the play begins with conflict Sampson and Gregory are servants of the feuding families – the Montagues and Capulets. They provoke a fight showing that the feud affects all strands of society. The simple action of ‘biting’ the ‘thumb’ leads to a riot which must be broken up by the highest authority figure Prince Escalus. The Prince delivers a powerful speech giving the audience context and more details of the cost of the warring factions. ‘Thrice you have disturbed the quiet of our streets’, he further suggests that it was ‘bred of an airy word’ the feud has no justifiable cause but it continues to grow more violent with fatal consequences. Interestingly both Lady Capulet and Lady Montague call for peace whilst their husbands call for swords.
The conflict in Act 1 brings together Benvolio the peacemaker and the warmonger Tybalt. Tybalt attacks Benvolio with the words, ‘what drawn and talk of peace! I hate the word, as I hate hell all Montagues, and thee’. Shakespeare highlights the threat from Tybalt from the beginning of the play he is a dangerous opponent as he refuses to back down and he is presented as enjoying the chaos as it makes him feel powerful.
In the midst of the conflict in Act 1 scene 1 the audience is introduced to Romeo. He is an isolated character operating outside of the stereotypical male in Verona. He is suffering from internal conflict he loves his family but he doesn’t want to kill to protect the family name. He is also in love with Rosaline who has vowed to remain ‘chaste’. His conflict is playing the courtly lover to a woman who does not return his love. He uses a string of oxymorons to reveal the conflict in his society and within himself: ‘why then O brawling love, O loving hate.’ The love Romeo has for Rosaline is perfect preparation for the contrast with his love for Juliet. In Act 1 he is full of self-pity, ‘Ay me! sad hours seem long.’
Act 1 scene 5 shows conflict between the older and younger generation. Tybalt is enraged when he hears Romeo’s voice at the Capulet party. ‘This by his voice, should be a Montague. Fetch me my rapier boy.’ Shows that even a formal gathering on a happy occasion is overshadowed by the feud. Tybalt’s character is incapable of just enjoying himself as protecting the family name is more important. Lord Capulet usually ready for a fight has different priorities for the feast. He attempts to calm Tybalt down quietly and privately, ‘I would not for the wealth of all this town here in my house do him disparagement.’ Shakespeare shows how Capulet is an authority figure who will not accept any challenge to his authority he asks Tybalt, ‘Am I the master here or you?’ Capulet fears the Prince’s warning but he also wants to protect his asset Juliet.
The scene ends with both Romeo and Juliet realising that they are in love with the enemy. Romeo says, ‘ My life is my foe’s debt.’ Whilst Juliet states, ‘My only love sprung from my only hate…That I must love a loathed enemy.’ Shakespeare reminds the audience again that their love is under pressure from the conflicts in their society.