O, I am fortune’s fool!
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As they walk in the street under the boiling sun, Benvolio suggests to Mercutio that they go indoors, fearing that a brawl will be unavoidable should they encounter Capulet men. Mercutio replies that Benvolio has as quick a temper as any man in Italy, and should not criticize others for their short fuses. Tybalt enters with a group of cronies. He approaches Benvolio and Mercutio and asks to speak with one of them. Annoyed, Mercutio begins to taunt and provoke him. Romeo enters. Tybalt turns his attention from Mercutio to Romeo, and calls Romeo a villain. Romeo, now secretly married to Juliet and thus Tybalt’s kinsman, refuses to be angered by Tybalt’s verbal attack. Tybalt commands Romeo to draw his sword. Romeo protests that he has good reason to love Tybalt, and does not wish to fight him. He asks that until Tybalt knows the reason for this love, he put aside his sword. Mercutio angrily draws his sword and declares with biting wit that if Romeo will not fight Tybalt, he will. Mercutio and Tybalt begin to fight. Romeo, attempting to restore peace, throws himself between the combatants. Tybalt stabs Mercutio under Romeo’s arm, and as Mercutio falls, Tybalt and his men hurry away. Mercutio dies, cursing both the Montagues and the Capulets: “A plague o’ both your houses” (3.1.87), and still pouring forth his wild witticisms: “Ask for me tomorrow, and / you shall find me a grave man” (3.1.93–94). Enraged, Romeo declares that his love for Juliet has made him effeminate, and that he should have fought Tybalt in Mercutio’s place. When Tybalt, still angry, storms back onto the scene, Romeo draws his sword. They fight, and Romeo kills Tybalt. Benvolio urges Romeo to run; a group of citizens outraged at the recurring street fights is approaching. Romeo, shocked at what has happened, cries “O, I am fortune’s fool!” and flees (3.1.131).
The Prince enters, accompanied by many citizens, and the Montagues and Capulets. Benvolio tells the Prince the story of the brawl, emphasizing Romeo’s attempt to keep the peace, but Lady Capulet, Tybalt’s aunt, cries that Benvolio is lying to protect the Montagues. She demands Romeo’s life. Prince Escalus chooses instead to exile Romeo from Verona. He declares that should Romeo be found within the city, he will be killed.Read a translation of Act 3, scene 1 →
The sudden, fatal violence in the first scene of Act 3, as well as the buildup to the fighting, serves as a reminder that, for all its emphasis on love, beauty, and romance, Romeo and Juliet still takes place in a masculine world in which notions of honor, pride, and status are prone to erupt in a fury of conflict. The viciousness and dangers of the play’s social environment are dramatic tools that Shakespeare employs to make the lovers’ romance seem even more precious and fragile—their relationship is the audience’s only respite from the brutal world pressing against their love. The fights between Mercutio and Tybalt and then between Romeo and Tybalt are chaotic; Tybalt kills Mercutio under Romeo’s arm, flees, and then suddenly, and inexplicably, returns to fight Romeo, who kills him in revenge. Passion outweighs reason at every turn.
Romeo’s cry, “O, I am fortune’s fool!” refers specifically to his unluckiness in being forced to kill his new wife’s cousin, thereby getting himself banished (3.1.131). It also recalls the sense of fate that hangs over the play. Mercutio’s response to his fate, however, is notable in the ways it diverges from Romeo’s response. Romeo blames fate, or fortune, for what has happened to him. Mercutio curses the Montagues and Capulets. He seems to see people as the cause of his death, and gives no credit to any larger force.
Elizabethan society generally believed that a man too much in love lost his manliness. Romeo clearly subscribes to that belief, as can be seen when he states that his love for Juliet had made him “effeminate.” Once again, however, this statement can be seen as a battle between the private world of love and the public world of honor, duty, and friendship. The Romeo who duels with Tybalt is the Romeo who Mercutio would call the “true” Romeo. The Romeo who sought to avoid confrontation out of concern for his wife is the person Juliet would recognize as her loving Romeo. The word effeminate is applied by the public world of honor upon those things it does not respect. In using the term to describe his present state, Romeo accepts the responsibilities thrust upon him by the social institutions of honor and family duty.
The arrival of the Prince and the angry citizens shifts the focus of the play to a different sort of public sphere. Romeo’s killing of Tybalt is marked by rashness and vengeance, characteristics prized by noblemen, but which threaten the public order that citizens desire and the Prince has a responsibility to uphold. As one who has displayed such traits, Romeo is banished from Verona. Earlier, the Prince acted to repress the hatred of the Montagues and the Capulets in order to preserve public peace; now, still acting to avert outbreaks of violence, the Prince unwittingly acts to thwart the love of Romeo and Juliet. Consequently, with their love censured not only by the Montagues and Capulets but by the ruler of Verona, Romeo and Juliet’s relationship puts Romeo in danger of violent reprisal from both Juliet’s kinsmen and the state.