The play opens with a short prologue discussing a feud between two families. It conveys the fate of their youngest members, Romeo and Juliet whose lives come to a tragic end as a result of their underlying love for one another. They are described as being “a pair of star-crossed lovers.” The fact that the audience is informed that the lovers “take their life” before the start of the play, creates a fated atmosphere.
In the first act, a sword fight takes place between the servants of the Capulet and Montague family. Having conflict at the start of the play conveys the significance of this theme as well as linked ideas of honor and masculinity. The servants are also central to displaying the privilege and prestige of both families. Tybalt, a Capulet gets involved in the fight and Benvolio, a Montague attempts to restore peace. When the prince of Verona, Escalas learns of the fight, he warns each family that if they continue to the feud they will face the death penalty.
Soon after the fight, Lady Montague asks of Romeo’s whereabouts. Benvolio informs her that he saw him looking rather troubled and sets off to find out what is bothering him. Romeo explains to Benvolio that he has fallen in love with a girl named Rosaline who does not return his love. Benvolio encourages Romeo to find another “beauty” however he only has eyes for Rosaline.
In the Capulet household, Capulet and Paris, the King’s nobleman discuss the marriage of Juliet. This scene conveys the gender inequalities present in society during the period. Capulet decides on Juliet’s suitor, displaying his power and authority over her. He is pleased with Paris’s interest but advises him to wait two years, until Juliet is old enough. After reassuring him that he is well suited he invites him to the traditional masquerade ball he will be hosting later that day.
Capulet enlists Peter the responsibility of inviting people on his “list.” Peter runs into Romeo and asks him to read aloud the names on the list. Peter’s illiteracy is due to a lack of education which signifies the effects of class structure in the play. Romeo is excited to see Rosaline’s name on the list and Benvolio and Mercutio persuade Romeo to attend the ball in the hope of finding a new lover, however, Romeo only agrees to go with the intention of seeing Rosaline again.
Before the start of the masquerade ball, Lady Capulet discusses the prospect of marriage with Juliet. She informs her of the interest of a suitor, named Paris. Juliet explains that she will consider Paris when she sees him at the masquerade ball, yet remains indifferent to Lady Capulet. Romeo, Benvolio and their friend Mercutio join the crowd of people attending the event, disguised behind masks. The three friends hesitate for a moment, as Romeo recalls a dream foretelling their misfortune for gatecrashing the party. Romeo comments “he that hath the steerage of my course” which signifies the presence of fate involved in what may possibly result in disaster.
When they enter the Capulet house, Romeo spots Juliet from afar and experiences love at first sight. He is so enchanted by her beauty, he forgets all about his previous lover Rosaline. He immediately declares his love for her and is spotted by a member of the Capulet family. Tyablt is ready to approach before he is reprimanded by Capulet, who tells him not to create conflict at the ball. Romeo is let off the hook and manages to speak to Juliet. He convinces her to kiss him, declaring himself “a pilgrim who wishes to erase his sin.”