Prince Escalus from "Romeo and Juliet" usually gets the short end of the literary analyst's stick. Harold Bloom, Yale's resident "Bardolater," never even mentions the Veronese authority figure in his numerous commentaries, and textual studies often leave him on the sidelines. However, judged by the text, Escalus is a more complex figure than most realize. He is the voice of conflicted law and also the missing conscience of the adult characters.
Prince as Playwright of Destruction
Marjorie Garber, the Harvard University chair who authored the analytical volume "Shakespeare After All," suggests the prince's name invokes Aeschylus, the Greek playwright whose trilogy "Oresteia" describes the destruction of the house of Atreus, a Greek patriarch. The prince, says Garber, "authors" the law that destroys the Capulet and Montague households as well, in his edict punishing street brawls with death. The prince's punitive stance, too powerful and too extreme, is in response to "three civil brawls, bred of an airy word." Airy words bring weighty punishment; the prince crushes families and free speech to maintain security.
Mixing Law with Mercy
Escalus' second appearance baffles us until we remember his private relationships. In Act Three, in response to Romeo slaying Tybalt, the prince unexpectedly banishes the young romancer rather than ordering his execution, an act that some textual guides deem a merciful one. It is mitigated, however, by the fact that Tybalt's death was Romeo's revenge killing for Mercutio, kinsman to the Prince. "Who now the price of his dear blood doth owe?" says the prince, somewhat disingenuously, ending with "we do exile [Romeo] hence." Law and mercy are identical twins to Escalus.
Law and Mercy Both Kill
As if he is experiencing his own inner conflict between law and mercy, the prince, in his last appearance at play's end, is full of questions: "What misadventure is so early up? ... What fear is this that startles in our ears?" His state of confusion mirrors what must be his own conscience's stirrings. His earlier edict kills not only Mercutio, but his other kinsman, Paris, who dies at Romeo's hand. "Seal up the mouth of outrage for a while," he declares, trying to comprehend his own responsibility. His law killed one, and his mercy killed two others.
No One Learns from Tragedy
Shakespeare's ultimate irony is that even the prince learns little from the tragedy. He speaks as a conscience for the adults -- "See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate" -- and himself -- "I for winking at your discords too have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punish'd." But he goes on to say, "Some shall be pardon'd, and some punished." Perhaps he still believes mercy and law go hand in hand, with little difference between them.