It was hot. Sizzling. Even at eight o’clock.
Verona was coming to life: people poured out of the houses and filled the streets while market traders set up their stalls in the grand piazza. It was a good patch, an excellent place to catch the business of those who lived and worked in the rich houses that lined Verona’s main square.
Two of them – hot, bored and restless – stepped out into the bustle of the piazza and swaggered about among the bright colours, the animal smells and the din of traders’ voices, hoping to find some action.
‘I can tell you, Gregory,’ said Sampson, ‘I’m ready for them. Just watch me. Let a Montague so much as put a foot in the piazza and you’ll see how quick I am.’
‘Sure.’ Gregory knew that his friend’s boasts just added to the hot air around them.
He loved winding the fiery Sampson up, so he said: ‘How quick you are to run away, you mean.’
‘Not from the Montagues.’ retorted Sampson. His face twisted with scorn. ‘I’ll take on any of their men – or women,’ he added, winking.
‘I know that’s your level,’ said Gregory, ‘but our quarrel isn’t with the women. Why quarrel with the women? This is between the men.’
‘Ha.’ Sampson fancied himself quite seriously. ‘When I’ve dealt with the men I’ll take care of the women.’ He made a rude gesture with his arm. ‘Don’t you worry about that.’
‘Well here’s your chance to show me,’ said Gregory as two young servants dressed in the red and silver uniform of the Montagues came round a corner and on to the piazza.
With an exaggerated flourish Sampson put his hand on the hilt of his sword.
‘Right,’ he said. ‘We’re on. Pick a fight with them. I’ll be right behind you.’
‘That’s what I’m afraid of,’ said Gregory.
‘No wait.’ The Montague men were almost there. ‘Be careful. We mustn’t put ourselves in the wrong. Let them be the ones to start.’
‘Alright.’ Gregory screwed his face up. They might as well have a bit of fun. It wouldn’t come to anything serious. Just a bit of fun. ‘I’ll frown as we pass them. Let’s see what they do.’
‘Good thinking,’ said Sampson. ‘And I’ll bite my thumb at them. If they take that it will really show them up.’
The Montague servants came closer. With Gregory’s frowning and Sampson’s pointed biting of his thumb they represented a very strange and obvious spectacle, which the Montagues couldn’t ignore.
The Montague servants stopped. One of them, a rather superior young man named Abraham, peered at Sampson as though he were an insect. He turned slowly to his companion with a query on his face. His friend, Balthasar, shrugged. Abraham turned back to Sampson.
‘Are you biting your thumb at us?’ he said.
‘I’m biting my thumb, as you can see,’ said Sampson.
‘I can see that. But are you biting your thumb at us?’
Sampson leant over and whispered to his friend: ‘Is the law on our side if I say’yes’?’
Gregory shook his head.
‘No.’ Sampson straightened up. ‘I’m not biting my thumb at you.’
‘Well,’ said the Montague. ‘That’s alright then.’ He knew as well as Sampson what the penalty for starting a fight was. ‘Peace to you then.’
The Montagues were about to move on but the temptation was too much for Sampson. He couldn’t let this chance pass.
‘I’m definitely biting my thumb, though,’ he said.
Gregory, forgetting the dangers in this moment of excitement, stepped forward then and gave the Montagues a hard look. ‘Do you want to make something of it?’
Abraham seemed to consider that for a moment. Then: ‘Make something of it?’he said calmly. He turned his head and asked Balthasar. ‘Do we?’
Balthasar dismissed the thought with a gesture.
Abraham shook his head slowly. ‘No. We don’t want to make anything of it.’
Sampson, seeing that the Montague men were about to walk on, brought his face closer to Abraham’s and put on an even harder look, ‘Because if you do.’ he said, speaking slowly, ‘I’m ready.’ He stepped back, leant his elbow on Gregory’s shoulder, crossed one leg in front of the other and looked the Montague servants up and down.
Abraham nodded, signaled his friend to follow, and turned to go.
Sampson didn’t like to think that the fun was over. He moved quickly to bar the Montagues’ way. ‘I don’t know who you think you are,’ he told them. ‘I’ll have you know my master’s just as good a man as yours is.’
‘Not better, though,’ said Abraham, stopping again.
‘Well.’ said Sampson. He knew that if he said his master was better it would be an unbearable insult: there would be no going back, so this was the critical moment.
The four youths were in complete deadlock. They stood staring at each other, all of them itching to let fly, when a well dressed young man emerged from one of the streets that led off the piazza.
‘Look,’ whispered Balthasar. ‘There’s Montague’s cousin. Tell them our master’s better.’
Abraham had been controlling himself admirably until now, but now the balance was tipped by the arrival of a Montague. The temptation was too great. He tapped Sampson’s chest with his forefinger. ‘There’s something I have to tell you,’ he said. ‘My master’s better than yours.’
‘You’re a liar!’ Sampson drew his sword. ‘Come on, draw if you’re men.’
The Montague’s swords were already in their hands. In an instant the four were fighting, their rapiers reflecting the morning sunlight in sharp bright flashes.
The well dressed youth was Montague’s cousin, Benvolio, the last young man in Verona likely to become involved in a street fight. He was returning from an early morning walk. When he saw the fighting servants he started running towards them.
‘Hey!’ he shouted. ‘Stop that! Put your swords away! You don’t know what you’re doing!
Stop it!’ He drew his own rapier and charged in among them, trying to part them. ‘Stop!’
he yelled. ‘Stop it!’
A crowd had gathered, attracted by the shouting. Among them was the fiery nephew of Capulet himself. He was a restless young fellow called Tybalt. Unlike Benvolio, he couldn’t resist a fight. The mere sight of a Montague was enough to make his blood boil.
‘Hey, Benvolio,’ he called. ‘Fancy finding you fighting with servants. Why don’t you pick on a man?’ When Benvolio ignored him he drew his sword and touched the young Montague’s shoulder with it. ‘Turn,’ he said dramatically, ‘And face your death.’
‘Forget it, Tybalt.’ panted Benvolio. He didn’t take Tybalt’s frequent theatrical displays seriously at the best of times and now, while he was trying to stop these hot blooded young men from fighting, he wasn’t in the mood for Tybalt’s nonsense at all. He shrugged the end of the young Capulet’s sword from his shoulder.
‘I’m trying to keep the peace. Put your sword away. Or use it to help me part these men.’
‘What?’ said Tybalt. ‘A sword in your hand and talking about peace? Don’t make me laugh. I hate that word. Just as I hate all Montagues. And especially you!’ And with that he made a lunge at Benvolio, forcing him to turn and defend himself.
The four servants were still fighting and others had joined in. More people were pouring out of the houses around the piazza and the narrow streets that led off it. The fighters were trampling over stalls, squashing fruit and sending chickens and piglets squawking and squealing in panic.
An officer of the city’s Watch arrived. Waving his longsword above his head he shouted to the people to help him part the fighters. ‘These damned Capulets!’ he stormed. ‘These damned Montagues. Curse them all! Down with the lot of ‘em!’
By now the whole piazza was in turmoil. Some people fought while others tried to stop them. Wounded men squirmed in the dust and market stalls lay in ruins.
Capulet came running on to a balcony of his house, followed by his wife. He still wore his nightgown. ‘What’s this racket?’ he said. ‘Get me my longsword’’
‘Don’t be absurd,’ said Lady Capulet. ‘You need a crutch, more like it. What would you do with a sword?’
But Capulet meant it. He could see his enemy, Montague, down in the piazza, waving his sword at him, taunting him – challenging him to come out and fight. ‘Get me my sword!’ he demanded.
Montague was shouting up at him. ‘You villain, Capulet! Come out and fight like a man.’ Lady Montague was pulling him back, trying to calm him down. ‘Let go,’ he yelled, as she gripped his cloak even more tightly. ‘Leave me alone. Come on, Capulet! Come on, then!’
‘Stop it,’ cried Lady Montague. ‘I won’t let you fight. What do you think you’re doing? At your age!’
Just as Montague broke loose from his wife’s grasp and was rushing to meet Capulet, who had answered his challenge by coming out to the piazza, still in his nightgown, there was the furious brassy sound of trumpets – dozens of them. Every citizen knew what that fanfare meant. Even Tybalt, although at an advantage in his fight with Benvolio, lowered his sword and turned towards the palace that dominated the piazza with its huge columns and vast porch. The Prince himself, accompanied by scores of his courtiers and officers, was hurrying down the stairs.
The fanfare died away and silence spread across the piazza. Everyone watched as the Prince strode to the fountain and stepped up on to the wall. He looked around at his subjects. His face was solemn. His stern gaze fell on Montague and Capulet who stood side by side, their swords still drawn. He looked at them for a long time before he spoke. Then:
‘This is the third time that you, Capulet, and you, Montague, have disturbed the tranquillity of our city and obliged the elders of Verona to make peace between you,’ he said. He paused and allowed his eyes to roam over the devastation. ‘It seems it hasn’t worked. You are both so blighted with hatred.’ His eyes flashed with anger. ‘So this is what I’m going to order. If you ever disturb our streets again you’ll pay for it with your lives.’
A murmur went up among the crowd. The Prince had never gone this far. But by the look of him he meant it! He was sick and tired of this stupid feud between two of Verona’s wealthiest families and now he was going to do something about it at last. And they all knew that he meant it.
‘Now go home, all of you,’ he ordered his subjects.
‘Wait, Capulet,’ he said as Capulet turned to go. ‘You will come with me. And you, Montague, come and see me this afternoon: I’ll let you know then what else I’ve decided. Now all of you, go home.’
Within five minutes the only people left were the wounded and the market traders who, with varying degrees of stoicism, began to put their stalls back together. The injured were trying to pick themselves up: if they didn’t hurry the Prince’s guards would begin rounding them up.
Benvolio walked to the Montague house with his uncle and aunt. Fortunately he wasn’t hurt, although his thoughts about Tybalt were not the most generous.
‘What happened’?’ said Montague. Were you there when it started?’’
Benvolio explained about the servants and about the way Tybalt had attacked him – how Tybalt’s sword had whistled round his head so that there was no way he could have ignored it.
Lady Montague wasn’t interested in how it had started. All she felt was relief at knowing her son hadn’t been involved. ‘Where is he?’ she said. ‘Have you seen him today?’
‘Romeo. Have you seen him?’
Benvolio smiled. ‘I think he’s avoiding me. I couldn’t sleep last night and I got up early, before dawn. I went for a walk – to the sycamore grove on the outskirts of the city.’
He pointed down the alley that ran along the side of Montague’s house. ‘And he was there. I called to him but as soon as he heard me he dived into the woods. He didn’t want to talk to me. Well, I had my own problems, so I dropped it.’
‘Hmm,’ said Montague. ‘I’ve heard that he often goes there before dawn. They tell me he does a lot of crying. And as soon as the sun comes up he hurries home, goes to his room and closes the shutters. Something’s definitely wrong.’
‘Have you any idea why he’s acting so strangely?’ said Benvolio.
‘Not the slightest,’ said Montague. ‘He hasn’t said anything to me.’
‘Have you asked him?’
‘I have. and I’ve got others to as well. He’s become very secretive. How can I help him if he won’t say anything?’
As they were going in Benvolio caught sight of Romeo coming up the street.
‘There he is!’ he said. ‘Go in. I’ll wait for him. I’m determined to get to the bottom of this.’
‘Bless you,’ said his aunt.
‘Come on.’ said her husband. ‘Good luck, Benvolio.’
Benvolio strolled slowly down the street. ‘Hi.’ he said as he got near to Romeo.
He bent his head and tried to catch his cousin’s eye. ‘Good morning.’
Romeo pretended not to see him. Benvolio bent his head even further and looked right up into his cousin’s lowered eyes so that Romeo couldn’t ignore him any longer.
‘Good morning,’ said Benvolio.
Romeo sighed a long, deep, mournful sigh. ‘Is the day so young?’
‘Only just gone nine.’
‘Oh dear,’ said Romeo. He sighed again. ‘How the time drags when you’re sad. Was that my father I just saw ducking into the house?’
‘It was.’ said Benvolio. ‘What kind of sadness is this that makes the time drag so?’
‘Not having what I need to make it go fast.’
‘Not in love…!’
‘Out of love?’
‘Out of the favour of the girl I love.’
‘Dear oh dear.’ said Benvolio, trying not to laugh. ‘It’s a hard life. That love, such a gentle thing, should be so rough when it comes down to it.’
‘Yes,’ said Romeo. ‘I don’t want to talk about it. Where shall we go for lunch?’
As they got to the corner Romeo stopped. He saw the broken awnings, the traders still chasing their chickens and piglets, and wounded men hobbling away.
‘What happened?’ he said. But before Benvolio could answer he sighed yet again. ‘Don’t tell me.’ He shook his head sadly. ‘I know all about it. This is about hatred.
But I’m thinking only about love. Oh, everything is upside down.’ He looked sharply at Benvolio. ‘Are you laughing at me?’
‘Would I do that?’ said Benvolio. ‘You make me want to cry.’
‘Because you’re so pathetic.’
‘It’s love that makes me pathetic,’ said his cousin. ‘But don’t give it another thought. You’ve got more to think about.’ His eyes filled with tears. ‘If you start feeling sorry for me it’ll only make things worse. So goodbye.’
‘Hold on.’ said Benvolio. ‘I’ll walk with you.’
‘Where to? I’m not here. This isn’t me. I have lost myself. Romeo’s somewhere else.’
‘Aright,’ said Benvolio. ‘Be serious. Tell me who it is.’
‘I can’t bear to say her name.’
‘Well, I’ll tell you. She’s a girl.’
‘Oh. well done.’ said Benvolio. ‘I assumed that when you said you were in love.’
‘And she’s beautiful.’
‘Good for you.’
‘But she doesn’t want to know.’ Romeo took out a handkerchief and dabbed at his eyes. ‘She’s not interested in boys: says she never will be. She won’t listen to anything I say. When our eyes meet she looks the other way. I’ve even offered her money.’
‘Well. She’s determined not to have a man.’
‘Oh God,’ said Romeo. ‘Such a waste. She’s so beautiful, Benvolio. And she’ll go through life alone and when she dies all beauty will die with her. She says she’ll never love anyone so I’m destined for a living death.’
Benvolio grasped Romeo’s wrist. ‘Will you trust me? I can tell you how to forget her.’
‘How?’ said Romeo. ‘Impossible. Tell me how.’
‘Simple,’ said Benvolio. ‘Get out and about. Look at other girls.’
‘It’s no good.’ said Romeo. ‘Whenever I see a beautiful girl from now on I’ll only think of one who is even more beautiful. Goodbye Benvolio. There’s no way I could forget her. There’s nothing you can do.’
‘I’m taking that as a challenge,’ said Benvolio. ‘I’ll sort it out, don’t you worry.’