A Moved Prince

A Movéd Prince:

The Judgement of Prince Escalus


Romeo and Juliet

David Hurley


“… he who quells disorder by a very few signal examples will in the end be more merciful than he who from too great leniency permits things to take their course…”
(Machiavelli, The Prince, XVII)

Any interpretation of the character of Prince Escalus in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet ought to take into account the contrast between the punishments he threatens and the restraint he exercises in dispensing justice throughout the play.

From a Machiavellian perspective one may be forgiven for wondering whether Prince Escalus, by his failure to crush the insolence of the feuding Capulets and Montagues, were not a ruler after the manner of Machiavelli’s Florentines,

who, to avoid the imputation of cruelty, suffered Pistoja to be torn to pieces.
(Prince, XVII)

The Prince himself acknowledges in the concluding scene of the play that the lenity he exercised had implicated him in the deaths of Mercutio and Paris:

And I, for winking at your discords too,
Have lost a brace of kinsmen.
(Romeo and Juliet, V, 3, 294-295)

It seems to me that a Machiavellian reading of the play would focus upon the Prince’s failure in Act One Scene One “to kill the leaders of the tumults… as the Romans did” (Discourses on Livy, III, 27), and on his decision in Act Three Scene One to exile Romeo rather than to execute him. It would find in the Prince’s judgements evidence of a ficleness of will and a lack of virtù, that quality of assertive manliness in action which enables a Prince to establish his autonomy over his subjects and if necessary to do so through acts of decisive suddenness (Discourses I, 49; II, 15; III, 6) and precisely targeted cruelty (Prince, XVII).

Such a Machiavellian approach is predicated upon an interpretation of prudence as “an ethics of consequences, in which the successful result is all” (Eugene Garver, Machiavelli and the History of Prudence, 12). In contrast, an Aristotelian reading would, I believe, begin with a consideration of the nature of prudence itself, basing itself upon “an ethics of principles, in which those principles univocally dictate action” (Garver, 12).

Garver points out that one of the problems arising from a consideration of the nature of prudence “is to see how constancy of character can be consistent with the adaptability to circumstances it sometimes seems to require.” (Garver, 7). This protean tendency of prudence is not something that need greatly concern a prince in pursuit of Machiavellian virtù, but it is deeply troubling to one who seeks to establish a government based upon Aristotelian virtue; for prudence itself is also a virtue and virtuous practice fosters a constancy of disposition which seeks to distinguish between prudence and low cunning (Harvey Mansfield, Machiavelli’s Virtue, 39). An Aristotelian reading of Prince Escalus’ policy would therefore consider whether or not the Prince had acted with constancy of purpose and if he had, whether that constancy of purpose was prudent and virtuous.

The actions of the Prince are vulnerable to Machiavellian criticism precisely because his methods of rule are informed to some degree by Aristotelian virtue rather than by the innovative virtù of Machiavelli. The Prince dispenses justice by weighing either side of a case and deliberating upon it according to its particular circumstances (which therefore precludes the kind of “sudden and decisive” punishment that Machiavelli would recommend). The prudence that is required for this deliberation is located by Aristotle in the reasoning part of the soul and governed there by “that part which forms opinions; for opinion is about the variable and so is practical wisdom” (Nichomachean Ethics, VI, 5). Prudence, as with every virtue, is flanked by two accompanying vices, one partaking of excess and the other of deficiency.

Where princes are concerned, the task of prudence is to guide them in establishing and maintaining a city-state so that it may pursue its proper end, which is the achievement of the good life, a life informed by virtue and consisting of “noble actions” (Politics, III, 9). Prince Escalus’ strategy has therefore been to manage the new outbreak of feud within Verona with a constancy of character and with a degree of lenity and restraint, the object of which is to negotiate a passage for justice between too much mercy on the one hand and too much severity of the other, judging each case by its particular circumstances according to considerations of equity rather than of the strict application of the code of criminal justice.

It is at this point that considerations of prudence and rhetoric converge because the fact that the Prince does not always do what he says he will do may be evidence of a deliberate rhetorical strategy rather than of a fickleness of will. It may be that the Prince has deployed a method of rhetorical dissimulation by which denunciations and threats disguise an actual policy of lenity and restraint. The Prince’s rhetorical deployment reflects the position of a ruler who must justify his judicial strategy to two opposing interests, the ordinary citizens and the great families. When the citizens cry out against the Capulets and the Montagues they are crying out for two of the great families to be punished more severely. The Prince’s rhetoric of condemnation and threat seeks both to address the concerns of the citizenry that the feuding parties be severely punished and to check the excesses of the feuding parties by threatening severe punishment. At the same time it conceals his policy of relative lenity from the citizenry who may be more impressed by sudden executions than by acts of mercy (Mansfield, 308)

The decision to exile Romeo rather than to execute him may be reinterpreted as part of a consistent policy of prudential restraint in which the Prince, carrying out his role as a “guardian of justice,” goes in search of the virtuous “golden mean” between too much mercy and too much severity and gives considerations of equity precedence over an indiscriminate application of the letter of the law. According to this reading, the Prince may be defended from accusations of fickleness of will on the one hand and of prudential inconstancy on the other.

Nevertheless, the Prince remains open to the accusation of having misapplied equity because equity may not be applied to every case:

Equity must be applied to forgivable actions; and it must make us distinguish between criminal acts on the one hand, and errors of judgement on the other.
(Rhetoric, cited by Guthrie, 375)

If it is allowed that revenge killing is not a forgivable action, then the case of Romeo’s killing of Tybalt would fall under that part of justice which is “corrective” or “diorthotic.” Diorthotic justice deals with “involuntary transactions” of a violent nature (Guthrie, 373) and “seeks to make the compensation equivalent to the loss or injury, without regard to the relative merits of the parties concerned” (Guthrie, 374).

To show that equity ought to be applied to Romeo’s actions it would need to be demonstrated that revenge killing is forgivable in certain cases and that Romeo’s is such a case. Next, the death of Tybalt would have to be shown to be due to “misfortune” (“an act, not due to moral badness, that has unexpected results”), or an “error of judgement” (“an act, also not due to moral badness, that has results that might have been expected”) and therefore not due to a criminal act on Romeo’s part. A criminal act is one which has results that might have been expected and which is “due to moral badness, for that is the source of all actions inspired by our appetites” (Guthrie, 376). Thus, if it is allowed that revenge killing is forgivable in Romeo’s case, then a lengthy deliberation into the nature of the action and of Romeo’s character and intention will be necessary in order to establish whether or not the intention behind it was criminal or not and therefore whether or not the case may be resolved with equity:

Equity bids us be merciful to the weakness of human nature; … not to consider the actions of the accused so much as his intentions, nor this or that detail so much as the whole story; to ask not what a man is now but what he has always or usually been.
(Rhetoric, cited by Guthrie, 376)

With those two conceptual frameworks in mind, one seeking inspiration from Machiavelli in the weighing of an “ethics of consequences” and the other looking to Aristotle to give guidance in “an ethics of principles,” I shall now consider the role of Prince Escalus in the play.

Punishment Deferred

The Prince first appears on stage in Act One Scene One in response to a street brawl between some servants of the Capulet and Montague households. The brawl establishes from the beginning the rancorous atmosphere of feud and vendetta which casts its oppressive influence over the action of the play right up to its tragic conclusion. Two of Capulet’s serving-men have provoked two of Montague’s men and a fight has broken out which Montague’s nephew, Benvolio, has sought to break up by a swift resort to the sword. Benvolio in turn is confronted by Tybalt. At that point some citizens armed with “clubs and partisans” intervene. Both their weapons and their age distinguish them from the duelling swordsmen of the two rival houses, so what takes place on stage is effectively a three-way struggle between the Capulets, the Montagues, and the citizens who seek to enforce the law. Capulet and Montague arrive on stage with their wives who restrain them from joining the uproar. Lastly, Prince Escalus enters “with his train” and restores peace to the streets.

What is also established in this first scene and reiterated throughout the play is that the Prince has the support of the citizens who fulfill their traditional role as keepers of the peace. This alliance between the Prince and the citizens of Verona means that the young blades and the great families that sponsor them do not have unchallenged control of the streets. They cannot easily walk the streets without coming under scrutiny and nor can they flout the laws of Verona with impunity even if it happens to please the Prince to exercise restraint when passing sentence upon them.

Nevetheless, it is noteworthy that the Prince’s first few lines go unacknowledged by his “rebellious subjects” who do not cease from brawling until he has threatened them with “pain of torture”:

Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace,
Profaners of this neighbour-stained steel –
Will they not hear? What, ho – you men, you beasts,
That quench the fire of your pernicious rage
With purple fountains issuing from your veins!
On pain of torture, from those bloody hands
Throw your mistempered weapons to the ground
And hear the sentence of your moved prince.
(Rom, I, 1, 81-88)

The Prince’s “sentence” is not a meting out of punishment but a judgement of culpability and an injunction against future breaches of the peace:

If ever you disturb our streets again,
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.
(Rom, I, 1, 96-97)

The Prince then orders the crowd to disperse and repeats the order with a threat of “death” if anybody disobeys:

For this time all the rest depart away…
Once more on pain of death, all men depart.
(Rom, I, 1, 98-99)

Nobody has been killed and none of the men who drew their swords and joined the affray is punished. The Prince, seeing Montague and Capulet on the scene, holds them responsible for this most recent breach of the peace:

Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word
By thee, old Capulet and Montague,
Have thrice disturbed the quiet of our streets…
(Rom, I, 1, 89-91)

“In penalty alike” the Prince binds Capulet and Montague to “keep the peace” (Rom, I, 2, 2-3), a method Machiavelli regards as “più dannoso, meno certo e più inutile” (Discourses III, 27; Bertelli, 460), more damaging, less certain and more useless than swift execution. yet, the Prince’s judgement is not without merit even for Machiavelli, for a Prince “should not be… too readily set in motion” (Prince, XVII) and the heads of the two feuding families seem willing to co-operate with him in keeping the peace. Capulet, at least, endeavours to to keep the peace in conformity with the Prince’s will (Rom, I, 2, 1-3; I, 5, 65-88) and there is nothing in the play to suggest that Montague reacts any differently to the Prince’s injunction. The violence that takes place on the streets of Verona is not directly instigated by the heads of the households but by the younger generation, as exemplified by the events that occupy Act Three Scene Three.

Even so, had Prince Escalus been cast in the mould of Machiavelli’s hero, Cesare Borgia, I doubt that Capulet would have been quite so sanguine in his assessment of the situation:

… ’tis not hard, I think,
For men so old as we to keep the peace.
(Rom, I, 2, 2-3)

The implication would appear to be that it is “not hard” for the elderly men of the great families to keep the peace not so much out of fear of punishment or respect for the Prince’s injunctions, but rather out of an exhaustion of youthful vigour in their own superannuated constitutions.

Such an assertion seems to be vindicated by the aggression of the younger generation; by Mercutio and most notably by Capulet’s nephew, Tybalt. When forced to be “quiet” in his uncle’s house Tybalt expresses a physical reaction to the “patience” that his uncle’s “wilful choler” enforces upon him:

Patience perforce with wilful choler meeting
Makes my flesh tremble in their different greeting.
(Rom, I, 5, 89-90)

In Act Three Scene One, Tybalt’s lust for revenge of perceived insults, bottled up by Capulet’s choleric exercise of authority within his house, bursts out once again on the streets of Verona. It is in the absence of Capulet, Montague and the Prince that Tybalt’s unbridled “rude will” is met by Mercutio’s rash provocation and matched by Romeo’s vengeful fury.

An Imprudent Kindliness

After killing Tybalt in revenge for the death of Mercutio, Romeo, pricked on by Benvolio’s quick thinking, has fled the scene (Rom, III, 1, 132-136). When the Prince enters he calls upon Benvolio to testify as to who began the “bloody fray.” Benvolio omits to mention Mercutio’s provocation of Tybalt. He emphasises Romeo’s attempt to pacify the duellists and that Romeo’s killing of Tybalt was an act of revenge “but newly entertained” (Rom, III, 1, 171) and fought out “like lightning” (Rom, III, 1, 172) too fast for Benvolio himself to prevent. It is a skilfully negotiated representation that throws Lady Capulet’s hyperbole into sharp relief and neutralises both her most telling point against Benvolio’s testimony and her urgent plea that Romeo be executed:

He is a kinsman to the Montague,
Affection makes him false. He speaks not true.
Some twenty of them fought in this black strife,
And all those twenty could but kill one life.
I beg for justice, which thou, Prince, must give.
Romeo slew Tybalt, Romeo must not live.
(Rom, III, 1, 176-181)

Lady Capulet’s plea, exaggerated and partial though it is, is nevertheless in terms of criminal justice strictly correct in its demand or the life of Romeo which the Prince “must give” if he is to be true to his word, spoken in Act One Scene One:

If ever you disturb our streets again,
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.
(Rom, I, 1, 96-97)

The punishment for any disturbance of the peace on the streets of Verona is death. Both Tybalt and Mercutio disturbed the peace and both are dead. Romeo disturbed the peace, slew Tybalt and yet lives. But although Lady Capulet’s conclusion that “Romeo must not live” is sound according to the letter of the law, her impolitic bluntness fails to move the Prince to sentence Romeo to death. She also omits to mention that Tybalt slew Mercutio, the Prince’s kinsman, thereby provoking a response from the Prince in the form of a rhetorical question:

Romeo slew him. He slew Mercutio.
Who now the price of his dear blood doth owe?
(Rom, III, 1, 182-183)

Prince Escalus turns the question over from one of legal necessity to one of exchange of blood debts. Montague seizes the occasion to intercede for Romeo:

Not Romeo, Prince. He was Mercutio’s friend;
His fault concludes but what the law should end,
The life of Tybalt.
(Rom, III, 1, 184-186)

That is a more certain case of logic-chopping than anything that Capulet will hear from his disobedient daughter. True, the law demands the life of Tybalt for the life of Mercutio. But the execution of the law ought to be enacted under the auspices of the legal arm of the state if it is to conclude the case. The death of Tybalt by a private “fault” on Romeo’s part does not so much “conclude but what the law should end” as close one case and open another. Acts of revenge pose a particular danger to the state in that, unlike other crimes, they do not merely break the law, they threaten to replace it with a private form of justice and put the law “out of office” as Francis Bacon writes:

Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law, but the revenge of that wrong putteth the law out of office … The most tolerable sort of revenge is for those wrongs which there is no law to remedy, but then let a man take heed the revenge be such as there is no law to punish; else a man’s enemy is still before hand, and it is two for one.
(Essays, II)

Montague’s argument that Romeo’s act of revenge “concludes but what the law should end” is unsustainable before the paradigm of princely justice that informs the play, for Montague is advocating “a kind of wild justice,” a continuation of the politics of vendetta which steps beyond the boundaries of rational law and partakes of the beast in man, something which the Prince has already condemned:

What, ho – you men, you beasts,
That quench the fire of your pernicious rage
With purple fountains issuing from your veins.
(Rom, I, 1, 83-85)

It is with an impassioned desire for the “wild justice” of revenge that Romeo exchanges his reasonable policy of “respective lenity” for the “fire-eyed” irrationality of the beast and “quenches the fire of [his] pernicious rage” in the blood of Tybalt.

Romeo has come to this point in the play by a combination of “error of judgement” and “misfortune” with which we are supposed to sympathise. However, if Aristotle’s definition of criminality is applied it will become evident that Romeo’s fight with Tybalt is an act of will that is criminal in origin because it springs from an appetite for revenge and a desire to redeem a slandered reputation the outcome of which “might have been expected” and the source of which, being the “source of all actions inspired by our appetities,” is therefore a form of “moral badness” (Guthrie, 376). Romeo’s act of revenge is also “unforgivable” because there is no arithmetic calculation that can restore the dead to life. Moreover, it is an action directed not only against the life of a subject of the state, but against the sovereignty of the state itself.

It is clear that the nature of the crime is such that considerations of equity ought not to apply in this case. If the letter of the law is to be satisfied the life of Romeo must “pay the foreit of the peace” (Rom, I, 1, 96).

Not surprisingly, therefore, Montague appeals to the particulars of the case rather than to the letter of the law. Mindful that Prince Escalus is not only the personification of the law but also its final arbitrator, and furthermore an arbitrator who has a personal interest in the case, Montague appeals to the Prince’s sense of affinity by reminding him of the ties of amity that existed between Romeo and Mercutio. He answers the Prince’s rhetorical question precisely in the terms that it was framed; in terms of blood debts owed and paid. Romeo should not die because he has called in the debt that was owed by the murder of Mercutio, his friend and the Prince’s kinsman. The effect of this appeal, though not candidly acknowledged by the Prince, is nevertheless sudden and telling:

And for that offence
Immediately we do exile him hence.
(Rom, III, 1, 86-87)

The next two lines of Prince Escalus’ speech acknowledge his “interest” in the case but he makes no connection between his interest in the case and the sentence he passed:

I have an interest in your hates proceeding,
My blood for your rude brawls doth lie a-bleeding.
(Rom, III, 188-189)

Next, he turns his attention to Capulet and Montague who, having been “bound… in penalty alike” (Rom, I, 2, 1-2) to keep the peace, are now subject to stiff penalties for having failed to do so:

… I’ll amerce you with so strong a fine
That you shall all repent the loss of mine.
I will be deaf to pleading and excuses.
Nor tears nor prayers shall puchase out abuses.
Therefore use none.
(Rom, III, 190-194)

The Prince’s ringing declaration that he “will be deaf to pleadings” is precisely the opposite of what he has just been. The Prince’s decision to exile Romeo and not to execute him came immediately upon Montague’s intercession and it couched in the language of legal severity a remission of the full severity of the law that shows the Prince’s ear to be very much open to the pleadings that he says it will be closed to in the future.

This same Prince Escalus, who has promised death and commuted it to exile, issues a new threat of death (as if to offer some consolation or hope to the Capulet household), and a solemn warning against the mercy that he has just practised:

Let Romeo hence in haste,
Else, when he is found, that hour is his last.
Bear hence this body and attend our will
Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill.
(Rom, III, 1, 194-197)

The Prince has responded to events with a constancy of lenity which is imprudent both in its constancy and in its partiality. His lenity has become detached from an “ethics of principles in which those principles univocally dictate action” (Garver, 12), action that ought to escalate the severity of its response to match the severity of the case which it confronts. The Prince will discover that by “winking” at Romeo’s crime and letting him live he has failed “to guard against this quality of mercy” (Prince, XVII), a failure which does indeed prove murderous in the unforeseen circumstance of Paris surprising Romeo Romeo outside the Capulet tomb.

A Machiavellian Decision

When confronted by Romeo’s revenge slaying of Tybalt the Prince has recourse to the law, the method of government that is rational and “proper to men,” as opposed to the methods of dissimulation and cruelty that are proper to foxes and lions, the two beasts that lurk within men’s hearts. The Prince may also claim what Machiavelli calls “iustificazione conveniente e causea manifesta” (Prince, XVII; Bertelli, 70), reasonable justification and manifest cause; the manifest cause being Romeo’s murder of Tybalt and the reasonable justification being the need to punish revenge killings so as to restore the full sovereignty of the law.

The Prince is in an excellent position to exact a sudden and decisive punishment upon Romeo for not only would a capital sentence against him be sanctioned by the law but the Prince may also enjoy the support of the citizens who have expressed their resentment of the insolence of the Capulets and Montagues with their cry of “Down with the Capulets! Down with the Montagues!” in Act One Scene One.

Against that it may be objected that since Romeo has fled from the scene his absence may have had some bearing on the Prince’s sentence of exile, for if Romeo has already fled into exile then the Prince’s sentence has an immediacy of effect that a death sentence would lack. It allows the Prince to keep his options open should Romeo be apprehended in Verona. It also avoids the ignominy of sentencing Romeo to death and then failing to apprehend him.

Such a policy, however, if taken at face value, lacks the quality of animo which a Machiavellian prince requires, a spirited aggression with which to “beat down Lady Fortune” (Mansfield, 41). A prince imbued with such a quality would realize that Romeo cannot yet be far away and would seek to apprehend him by swiftly deploying all the means he has at his disposal; he may set a watch on the gates of the city and send the “searchers of the town” (Rom, V, 2, 8) into the houses to seek Romeo out. He has to hand the persons of Benvolio and Montague who may be detained until Romeo is found or until he gives himself up.

The Prince therefore has a remarkable degree of latitude in which to exercise his perogative and yet he “tempers prudence with kindliness” and in so doing he neglects to “guard against the abuse of this quality of mercy” (Prince, XVII). By declining to take swift action when he had the opportunity and the right to do so he inadvertently prolongs the cycle of violence, brings further disaster upon his own house with the slaying of Paris by Romeo, and causes his name to be dishonoured with a reputation for fickleness and irresolution,

… against which defects he ought… most carefully to guard, striving so to bear himself that greatness, courage, wisdom and strength may appear in all his actions.
(Prince, XIX)

By failing to make a “signal example” of Romeo the Prince has left himself open to the exigencies of Fortune,

… who displays her might where there is no organised strength to resist her, and directs her onset where she knows that there is neither barrier nor embankment to confine her.
(Prince, XXV)


The Prince discovers in the denouement of the play that his policy of restraint was not equal to the gravity of the crisis that confronted the city. Moreover, he has permitted himself to be moved by considerations of partiality to mitigate the full severity of the law and exercise restraint instead of insisting upon the strict enforcement of the criminal law which an Aristotelian theory of justice allows in certain “unforgivable” cases such as the one under consideration.

If he has been fickle of will with regard to the law he has also been consistent with regard to his policy of lenity and it seems evident to me that Montague’s plea was effective precisely because it pressed a case to which the Prince was sympathetic because it concurred with both his affinities and his policy of restraint. The Prince’s judgement cannot therefore be said to have been based upon considerations of equity – even if such considerations were legitimate – any more than it can be said to have been based upon the letter of the law. His judgement is made not “Wisely and slow” (Rom, II, 3,90) but too hastily, with neither the swift, clear-headed decisiveness that Machiavelli recommends, nor the slow deliberation required by Aristotle; it is the judgement of a “movéd prince” (Rom, I, 1, 88) who is cleverly prodded by Montague in the direction of his own natural inclination. Prince Escalus is neither a prince who possesses the necessary spiritedness to wrest control of his fate from Fortune through the lively exercise of virtù, nor is he one who has been so blessed with discrimination that he may truly and indifferently minister justice with Aristotelian virtue.

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