Benvolio’s role in Act 3, Scene 1 is to be the voice of reason.
He tries to convince the others to leave the marketplace. He wants to avoid a fight, when Romeo and Mercutio are only making matters worse. Romeo tries to talk to Tybalt, and Mercutio fights him. The result is that Mercutio ends up dead. They should have listened to Benvolio. He wanted to leave.
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. (Act 3, Scene 1)
Benvolio was aware that Tybalt, or at least some of the Capulets, might cause trouble. He did not want to stay there in the marketplace where the trouble might find them. Unfortunately, trouble did find them and quickly. Mercutio teases him, and Tybalt shows up. Benvolio knows that Mercutio will not back down from a fight. He continues to try to get both Tybalt and Mercutio to calm down (“reason coldly of your grievances”) or at least get out of the market where everyone can see them. He is well aware that the prince has banned dueling. If they are caught fighting they will be in big trouble. They were told, “If ever you disturb our streets again,/Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace” (Act 1, Scene 1). In other words, if you are caught fighting, you get the death penalty.
That won’t mean anything to Mercutio. Tybalt kills him because when Tybalt tries to start a duel with Romeo, Mercutio comes to his aid and Romeo tries to intervene. Mercutio is killed in the fray, and Romeo flees. Technically, he should get the full punishment for that. However, he is young and has a good reputation, and so he is only banished. Unfortunately, he has just married Juliet and to him that is a fate worse than death. They should have listened to Benvolio and left.
Act Three, Scene One
Outside on the Verona street, Benvolio and Mercutio wait around for Romeo to meet them. Tybalt and Petruccio see them first, and start a quarrel. Tybalt makes it clear that he is looking for Romeo, whom he wants to punish for sneaking into the Capulets' masked party the previous day.
When Romeo arrives, overjoyed with his recent marriage, he is deferential to Tybalt, insisting he harbors no hatred for the Capulet house. Tybalt is unsure how to deal with Romeo. However, Mercutio challenges Tybalt to a duel, so he draws his sword and attacks Mercutio. Romeo attempts to intervene, holding Mercutio back. While Romeo is restraining him, Tybalt stabs Mercutio and then exits quickly.
Mercutio is mortally wounded, and chastises the Montagues and Capulets for encouraging such violence before allowing Benvolio to lead him offstage. Benvolio soon returns with news that Mercutio has died. Romeo vows revenge on Tybalt, who soon reappears. Romeo and Tybalt duel, and Romeo kills Tybalt. He then flees quickly after Benvolio warns him that the Prince will come soon.
The Prince, followed by the Montague and Capulet families, arrives on the scene. Benvolio tells him the entire story, but the Prince refuses to hold Romeo blameless. Instead, he banishes Romeo from Verona, insisting the boy will die if he does not obey.
Act Three, Scene Two
As she waits in her room for Romeo to arrive, Juliet delivers one of the play’s most elegant soliloquies about her beloved. The Nurse enters, distraught and speaking unclearly; Juliet can only discern that someone has died and that someone has been banished. As she did in the previous scene, the Nurse refuses to tell Juliet what she knows. Instead, she allows Juliet to believe that it is Romeo who has been killed.
When the Nurse finally reveals the truth, Juliet immediately chides Romeo over his pretense of peace and contradictory violence. She then recants the accusation, and asks the Nurse, "Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?" (3.2.97). Overcome, Juliet laments Romeo’s banishment, and claims that she would rather have both her parents killed then see Romeo suffer such indignity.
The Nurse promises to find Romeo – whom she knows is hiding with Friar Laurence - and bring him to Juliet's bed that night. Juliet gives the Nurse a ring for Romeo to wear when he comes to see her.
Act Three, Scene Three
In the chapel, where Romeo is hiding, Friar Laurence informs the boy about his punishment, adding that he should be happy that the Prince commuted the death sentence. Romeo considers banishment a fate worse than death, since it will separate him from his beloved Juliet. When the Friar tries to console him, Romeo says, "Wert thou as young as I, Juliet thy love.../ Then mightst thou speak" (3.3.65-68).
The Nurse arrives to find Romeo collapsed on the ground, weeping. She orders him to stand, but he is so upset that he prepares to stab himself. She snatches away his dagger, and Friar Laurence begs Romeo to look at the bright side - at least he and Juliet are both still alive. The Friar then convinces Romeo to visit Juliet that night, and to escape to Mantua in the morning.
Act Three, Scene Four
At the Capulet household, the elder Capulets and Paris prepare for bed; they have been up all night mourning Tybalt’s death. They discuss Juliet's extreme despair which they believe to be the result of losing her cousin, Tybalt.
Partly because he believes it will assuage her sadness, Lord Capulet decides right then that Juliet will marry Paris, and that the wedding will take place later that week. He comments, "I think she will be ruled / In all respects by me" (3.4.13-14). He orders Lady Capulet to inform Juliet about the matter, and then leaves for bed.
Act Three, Scene Five
The next morning, Romeo and Juliet lie in her bed, pretending the night has not actually passed. The Nurse arrives with news that Juliet’s mother is approaching, so Romeo descends from the balcony and says goodbye.
Lady Capulet tells Juliet about the plans for her marriage, believing it will cheer her daughter up. However, Juliet refuses, insisting she would rather marry Romeo Montague than marry Paris. (Obviously, her mother thinks this simply a rhetorical statement, since Romeo is Tybalt’s murderer.)
Then, Lord Capulet enters, and grows furious at her refusal. He calls Juliet "young baggage," and demands she prepare for marriage on the upcoming Thursday (3.5.160).
Lady Capulet refuses to intercede for Juliet, and even the Nurse betrays her, insisting that Paris is a fine gentleman worthy of her hand. Juliet orders the Nurse to leave, and prepares to visit Friar Laurence for advice. As the Nurse leaves, Juliet calls her, "Ancient damnation!" (3.5.235).
One of the most unique qualities of Romeo and Juliet is the stylistic variation within the play. Some scholars criticize the play as uneven, while others applaud Shakespeare’s willingness to explore both tragic and comedic conventions. In Act III, the play's tone moves away from the largely comic romance of the first two acts. Mercutio’s death creates insurmountable obstacles for Romeo and Juliet's well-laid plans, and negates the likelihood of any true peace between the Montagues and Capulets.
Harold Bloom considers Mercutio one of the play’s most expressive and unique characters. Mercutio provides much of the play’s early humor through his pronounced wit and clever cynicism. However, in Act 3, his energy takes a darker turn, as he cries out "A plague o' both your houses" (3.1.101). The true horror of the feud is manifest in the way Mercutio uses his dying breaths to scream this phrase three times - making it sound like an actual curse. Additionally, Mercutio's death forces Romeo's transition from childhood into adulthood. Whereas before, Romeo was able to separate himself from his family's grudge, his decision to avenge Mercutio's death by killing Tybalt instead fuels the feud he had once hoped to escape.
The Nurse's first appearance Act 3 reinforces the shift to tragedy. Her inability (or refusal) to expediently share her news with Juilet echoes the earlier scene (II.iv), when she teased Juliet. However, whereas that scene was played for comedy, the same device becomes infuriating and cruel under the tragic circumstances. These parallel scenes establish the tonal shift of the play. As a side note, the parallel also reveals the complexities of the Nurse’s character. Though Shakespeare could have written her as simply a functional character, he instead gives her layers - she is defined by her service to a young woman whom she also resents.
The recurring disparity between order and disorder also reappears in Act 3. Juliet delivers one of the play’s most beautiful soliloquies, when she begs for nightfall - which Shakespeare has established as a time of order and protection. Juliet says, "Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-browed night, / Give me my Romeo, and when he shall die / Take him and cut him out in little stars, / And he will make the face of heaven so fine / That all the world will be in love with night / And pay no worship to the garish sun" (3.2.20-25). The dramatic irony of her speech – the audience knows at this point that Romeo has killed Tybalt and will soon be punished, while Juliet does not – only underscores the intensity of the separation between order and disorder at this point. Every remaining scene set in the dark – the bedroom and then the vault – will be marked by the characters' tragic awareness that once the sun rises, they will be subject to chaos and pain.
The argument that that Romeo and Juliet is not a classical tragedy gains some credence with the circumstances surrounding the terrible events that occur in Act 3. Though Mercutio and Tybalt's deaths and Romeo's banishment are undoubtedly disastrous, they are avoidable occurrences instead of being mandated by fate - which would be the case in a classical tragedy. Instead, these deaths are the result of an avoidable feud. The dual mortalities occur after the characters randomly run into each other on the street, but the bloodshed is enabled by specific human decisions. Romeo chooses to pursue vengeance on Tybalt, not for a moment considering how his actions will affect his new wife. The emotionally charged circumstances, though tragic, present a choice, not an inevitability. Especially considering how Romeo has avoided violence and aggression thusfar in the play, it is easy to argue that he is largely to blame for the play’s tragic turn.
Conversely, one could argue that the tragic forces at work are immovable even though they are man-made. The feud between the Montagues and the Capulets is more powerful than the love between Romeo and Juliet - and thus, it eventually defeats them. Romeo originally has little interest in involving himself in his family's affairs, but Mercutio's death directly affects him. Further, one could argue that the “plague” Mercutio places on the houses is the reason for the lovers' deaths. In the final act of Romeo and Juliet, Friar John explains his inability to deliver the letter to Romeo: "the searchers of the town, / Suspecting that we both were in a house / Where the infectious pestilence did reign, / Sealed up the doors, and would not let us forth" (5.2.8-11). The fact that an actual “plague” detoured the letter suggests that greater forces had a role in the tragic ending.
Regardless of classical conventions, Shakespeare leaves little doubt over his tragic intentions through the play’s focus on death. For instance, he introduces the image of the wheel of fortune in Act 1 when the Nurse speaks of how Juliet has grown from a humble daughter into a strong woman, while in Act 3, she tells Romeo that the girl "down falls again" (3.3.101). Later, Juliet takes this image even further, saying, "Methinks I see thee, now thou art so low / As one dead in the bottom of a tomb" (3.5.55-6). Juliet's character arc follows her growing confidence in the early acts, but quickly descends into tragedy as the play comes to an end. Furthermore, Shakespeare once again employs the image of death as Juliet’s bridegroom. Lady Capulet comments about Juliet's refusal to marry Paris: "I would the fool were married to her grave" (3.5.140). This phrase comes true, because Juliet dies while she is still married to Romeo.
The intense love between Romeo and Juliet, however, is a counterpoint to the tragedy that swirls around them. In Act 3, the lovers look forward to consummating their relationship. However, sex, a conduit to new life, tragically marks the beginning of the sequence that will end in Romeo and Juliet's deaths. In Act 3, Shakespeare continues to define love as a condition wherein lovers can explore selfless devotion by the selfish act of retreating into a private cocoon. For instance, Juliet's dedication to her marriage is strong throughout the Act. Though she initially derides Romeo for killing Tybalt, she quickly corrects herself, asking, "Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?" (3.2.97). She cold-heartedly insists that she would sacrifice ten thousand Tybalts and her own parents to be with Romeo. While Juliet's proclamation reinforces the depth of her love, it also reminds the audience that true love exists in private realm, separated from moral codes and expectations.
Romeo also demonstrates the depth of his commitment to his beloved, though not with the same determination as his wife. Whereas Juliet derives strength from her grief, Romeo immediately resigns himself to misery. He proclaims, "Then 'banished' / Is death mistermed. Calling death 'banished' / Thou cutt'st my head off with a golden axe" (3.3.20-22). Both Friar Laurence and the Nurse chide Romeo his pessimism, since he and Juliet are both still alive – but his solipsism is such that he lacks any broader perspective.
Shakespeare subverts gender roles once more by having Juliet demonstrate a more stoic resolve than her husband. When the Nurse insists that Romeo “stand, an you be a man," she is implicitly suggesting that he has been acting in a feminine manner (III.iii.88). Shakespeare also reminds the audience of the existing patriarchy through Lord Capulet, who sees Juliet simply as an object to be bartered. Though Capulet initially claims to have his daughter's welfare in mind, he quickly turns cruel when she defies him. Juliet's strength is admirable to the audience, but is anathema to men, like her father, whose power she is threatening.
The conflict between Juliet and her father is another example of the disparity between young and old, which appears several times in Act 3. Romeo speaks of Friar Laurence’s ignorance of his love for Juliet, saying that the Friar could never understand because he is not “young.” Furthermore, the final scene reveals how adults can no longer understand youthful passion. Lady Capulet refuses to consider Juliet’s refusal to marry Paris, and even the Nurse speaks of Paris as a virtuous man worthy of her hand (thus revealing her underlying resentment of her young charge). In response to the Nurse’s patronizing description of Paris, Juliet shouts, "Ancient damnation!" (3.5.235). This serves as both reference to the Nurse's age and to the problems she must deal with, all of which have been created by a feud that has its roots in the older generation. Romeo and Juliet are two young people, who have fallen inescapably in love - only to butt up against the political machinations of their elders - a quandary that has resonated emotionally with teenagers for generations.