Harrison Middleton University

Language Escalation

Language Escalation

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


February 12, 2021

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Language has the power to both escalate and de-escalate tense situations. Sometimes a well-intentioned comment fits perfectly, and sometimes it causes more harm than good.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is often considered a love story. However, over the years, I have come to see it more as a story of war. The very first scene of the play introduces a family feud, which has set a complicated chain of events into effect. The Prince condemns all fighting on pain of death, but the hot-headed youths cannot avoid a fight.

As an example of the complicated strings of life, the fight arrives in Act III. On a hot day, Benvolio (Romeo’s cousin) and Mercutio (Romeo’s friend) wander the streets of Verona. As they bicker among themselves, Tybalt (Juliet’s cousin) arrives and asks for Romeo. Mercutio challenges him. He says, “Couple it [your word] with something; make it a word and a blow.” As they prepare to fight, Romeo enters.

Tybalt, who has been aching for a fight with Romeo since scene one, thrills at his arrival. Immediately, he bombards Romeo with insults. This rage, however, is met with tender, careful words. Tybalt, visibly (at least momentarily), comes undone. The exchange is written as follows:

ROMEO: Tybalt, the reason that I have to love thee
Doth much excuse the appertaining rage
To such a greeting: villain am I none;
Therefore farewell; I see thou know’st me not.

TYBALT: Boy, this shall not excuse the injuries
That thou hast done me; therefore turn and draw.

ROMEO: I do protest, I never injured thee,
But love thee better than thou canst devise,
Till thou shalt know the reason of my love:
And so, good Capulet, – which name I tender
As dearly as my own, – be satisfied.

Romeo’s talk of love and lack of anger confuses Tybalt. He cannot conceive of any reason for Romeo’s love. In fact, this very public display of love causes him to pause, even step back. It embarrasses him. Dramatized in innumerable ways, some directors stress Tybalt’s disdain, some focus on his confusion, and some continue to present Tybalt in a state of rage and hate. But in every instance, there is a pause. There is the entrance of the unexpected. There is potential for de-escalation.

While Romeo does his best to calm the situation, Mercutio, however, rages on. Tybalt speaks direct challenges, and Mercutio replies with taunts and goads in eloquent riddles. The sequence of events is important. Mercutio taunts. Romeo speaks of love. And Tybalt, unable to see the reasons for Romeo’s speech, feels a toy. In the end, Tybalt’s anger grows until he finally accepts Mercutio’s challenge.

TYBALT: What wouldst thou have with me?

MERCUTIO: Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine
lives; that I mean to make bold withal, and as you
shall use me hereafter, drybeat the rest of the
eight. Will you pluck your sword out of his pitcher
by the ears? make haste, lest mine be about your
ears ere it be out.

TYBALT: I am for you.

While the well-intentioned Romeo tries to separate them, Tybalt slays Mercutio. The unavoidable strings of hate perpetuate. Romeo’s eloquent, peaceful language does not ease the volatile situation, in large part, due to his own friends. In fact, Romeo’s attempt to speak of love and peace may have worked were it not for Mercutio. Unfortunately, Mercutio’s death spurs Romeo’s missing rage. Due to events outside of his control, Romeo submits to the rage, pain and shame as he chases and kills Tybalt.

This play is about love, yes, but it is also largely about tangled webs. All we are left with is the knowledge that love and peace has failed. Perhaps the families will now truly put their feud aside, after the most extreme cost. We are left with unanswerable questions such as: Why is love not enough? How does talk of peace actually escalate the situation? Why must there be such a cost? The play’s eloquence is not just in the actual language, but the fact that it depicts a harsh scenario based upon very real human emotions.

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