Civil brawls (1.1.80-88)

PRINCE           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. (1.1.80-88)

There’s a bitter irony at the start of this passage: the brawls have been civil, in the sense that they’ve taken over the city, but also in the sense of verbal politeness; the one that’s just been staged has begun with questions of honour and politeness (all those repeated sirs). All the words have been airy (not least in the sense of ‘hot air’, probably not current at the time, but a useful idea here) but, as the scene so far has shown, this play repeatedly stages the ways in which words become actions, things, and bodies. The sense that things are unbalanced, disordered is perhaps continued by the pull of two versus three here. Three and thrice are set against not just the Capulet/Montague binary, but against the repetitions of old and old, cankered and cankered. But the syntactic variation pulls again: not old partisans / old hands but hands as old; not cankered with peace / cankered with hate but cankered hate. Structures which could give balance and symmetry to the passage are glimpsed, but withheld. And there’s a quibble in the middle, where grave beseeming ornaments could suggest the trappings of rank, wealth, and age, but also suggest mortality, grave as in tomb. The Prince is partly telling these two old men to act their age, but he’s also making it clear that responsibility rests with them, and that he will not hesitate to punish them personally as the originators, perpetuators, and enablers of their feud.

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