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ACT III, SCENE I
Act III opens with Benvolio and Mercutio out on the street again, but their tone has changed. Benvolio begs Mercutio, "let's retire... For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring."
Mercutio blames Benvolio for being hot-headed and looking for a fight. The irony is that everything for which Mercutio blames Benvolio is actually true of Mercutio.
Their banter is still funny, but it has dangerous overtones. Mercutio says that if there were two hotheaded people out, soon there would be none, for they'd kill each other. Benvolio says that the life expectancy of someone in Mercutio's fighting mood is an hour and a quarter. As insults between friends, these lines are funny. Unfortunately, they're going to come true.
As if on cue, Tybalt enters, looking for Romeo. Mercutio insults him and goads him to fight; the only reason that Tybalt won't fight Mercutio is that he's still obsessed with the "injury" that Romeo's done to his family.
Just then, Romeo comes in, fresh from his wedding. Tybalt is thrilled; but try as he might, Tybalt can't get Romeo to fight. Romeo doesn't pay any attention to his insults; instead he calls him "cousin," and says he holds the name Capulet as dear as his own. The feud might have ended right there, and the lovers could have lived happily ever after. But Mercutio is there, and he's appalled at Romeo's actions. He calls "O, calm, dishonorable, vile submission!" and takes up Tybalt's challenge himself.
We, like Romeo, want to part the two hot-tempered fighters. But just as Romeo runs between them, Tybalt stabs Mercutio, then runs off. This is the turning point of the play: the comedy has turned irrevocably to tragedy.
Mercutio's friends don't realize how badly he's hurt. True to form, Mercutio's making puns. But then he asks Romeo, "Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm." All that Romeo can answer is, "I thought all for the best."
Romeo's good intentions aren't enough; Mercutio dies, cursing the Montagues and Capulets. Now Romeo has a reason to fight the Capulets. One of his best friends is dead, and he feels that it's his fault. All of us know, don't we, how bad we feel when we inadvertently hurt one of our best friends. Can you imagine how terrible you'd feel if your best friend accidentally died because of something you'd done?
Would the old Romeo have let this happen? Romeo doesn't know; he's overcome with guilt and grief. He wonders if his love for Juliet has made him effeminate, taken away his courage. By the time Tybalt returns, Romeo has forgotten his feelings of love, and has given in to hate. He yells, "fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!" and tells Tybalt that one of them must join Mercutio. It's a fight to the death, but the furious Romeo manages to kill the sword-skilled Tybalt.
Benvolio, as always thinking clearly, urges Romeo to flee, as fighting in the streets carries the death penalty. A crowd is forming. Only then, does Romeo realize the consequences of his rash action, crying, "O, I am fortune's fool!" before he's hurried away.
The Prince comes to the scene, and so do the Montagues and Capulets. Benvolio stays to give a fair, unbiased account of the fight. Lady Capulet is anguished over Tybalt's death; she claims Benvolio is lying and demands that Romeo be killed. Instead, the Prince banishes Romeo from Verona, "else when he is found, that hour is his last." The Prince is outraged that one of his relatives has been killed in the Capulet-Montague feud. He fines both families heavily. He's let them off too easily in the past, he says, and this fight proves that "Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill."