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 play’s opening lines quickly establish “fair Verona” as a beautiful, ancient city that is nonetheless troubled by violence and civil bloodshed. The chorus mentions the “dignity” of the two noble households in the play (the Montagues and Capulets) but then almost immediately reveals that these families are mortal enemies. For Shakespeare’s original English audience, “fair Verona” likely invoked stereotypical beliefs about Italy, such as its warm climate, passionate people, and veneration of romantic love. But the prologue makes it clear that Verona is also a violent place where human passion fuels “ancient grudges” and romantic love alike, with tragic consequences.
Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word,
By thee, old Capulet, and Montague,
Have thrice disturbed the quiet of our streets
And made Verona’s ancient citizens
Cast by their grave-beseeming ornaments
To wield old partisans in hands as old,
Cankered with peace, to part your cankered hate.
If ever you disturb our streets again,
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace. (1.1.79–87)
After the brawl between the Capulets and Montagues in the play’s opening scene, the Prince threatens Capulet and Montague with death the next time a fight breaks out between them. According to the Prince, this is the third time the two households have clashed in the streets, suggesting that these fights have become a regular occurrence in Verona. These skirmishes affect not only the warring families, but also Verona’s other citizens who intervene to keep the peace. Despite the Prince’s threats, the prospect of violence between the two households does not seem to diminish much afterward.
How camest thou hither, tell me, and wherefore?
The orchard walls are high and hard to climb,
And the place death, considering who thou art,
If any of my kinsmen find thee here. (2.2.62–65)
When the enamored Romeo jumps an orchard wall to get a better look at the beautiful Juliet, she wonders how he climbed such high walls and why a Montague would risk being killed for trespassing on Capulet property. Much like the orchard (and Juliet herself), Verona’s beauty is walled off and fraught with danger. The long-standing grudge between the two ancient families of Verona makes the city a perilous place. Those who dare to cross the social boundaries of Verona, like Romeo, risk death.
I pray thee, good Mercutio, let’s retire.
The day is hot; the Capulets, abroad;
And if we meet we shall not ’scape a brawl,
For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring. (3.1.1–4)
These lines by Benvolio at the beginning of Act III show how little the Prince’s threats have done to make Verona a safer place. Benvolio, a Montague, fears that even a chance meeting with the Capulets in the street could lead to another brawl. Verona’s hot weather, says Benvolio, might also make tempers flare, stirring up people’s “mad blood” and making them lose their senses. Benvolio’s words turn tragically prophetic when Tybalt and his kinsmen show up and start a brawl. Mercutio, who is neither a Montague nor a Capulet but a kinsman of Verona’s Prince, dies in the fight.
There is no world without Verona walls
But purgatory, torture, hell itself.
Hence “banishèd” is banished from the world,
And world’s exile is death. (3.3.17–19)
After learning that he has been banished from Verona for killing Tybalt, a despondent Romeo wails that exile from Verona is no better than death. Ironically, Romeo cannot imagine life “without” (outside of) Verona’s walls, even though Verona’s literal and figurative walls place many barriers between Juliet and him. Even so, Romeo compares banishment from Verona to being tortured in hell, mainly because it would mean separation from Juliet. A few lines later, Romeo says, “Heaven is here / Where Juliet lives” (3.3.29–30), contrasting the “hell” of exile with the “heaven” of remaining with her in Verona.