Romeo and Juliet

by: William Shakespeare

Five Key Questions

4) Why does Mercutio fight Tybalt?

In Act III, scene i, Tybalt is spoiling for a fight and calls Romeo a “villain.” But Romeo, who has secretly married Juliet and now considers Tybalt kin, turns the other cheek. Romeo brushes off the insult and responds to Tybalt’s unkindness with calm, though cryptic, words of affection:

I do protest I never injured thee,
But love thee better than thou canst devise
Till thou shalt know the reason of my love. (III.i.65–67)

To Mercutio, Romeo’s refusal to fight Tybalt, coupled with this expression of kindness, represents “dishonorable, vile submission” (III.i.70). Inflamed by his friend’s apparent lack of self-respect, Mercutio steps in to preserve Romeo’s reputation. It is worth noting that in Shakespeare’s England, dueling was common, despite being illegal. Young men, and particularly those from the aristocratic class, felt the need to protect against all attacks on their honor, as well as the honor of their friends and kinsmen. This preoccupation with honor made it easy for mere insults transform quickly into fatal duels. As Lawrence Stone, a prominent historian of early modern England, comments: “Tempers were short and weapons easy to hand.”