For Juliet, the functions of adviser and bawd are combined in one person, the Nurse. For Romeo, they require two people. We’ll see his adviser, Friar Laurence, rather later. Now, as Romeo and his friends prepare to crash the party, wearing masks, we meet the man who tries to keep Romeo’s head in the gutter: Mercutio.
I’m going to try something a little different in dealing with this character. Throughout our reading of Romeo and Juliet so far, I’ve been stealing slowly up to the balcony scene, showing in detail how this play is all about language. Mercutio takes it to a whole other level. So in this and the next couple of posts I’m going to stick with him, even though he will take us a good deal further into the play.
Mercutio, like the County Paris, is a relative of the Prince, so he has no direct stake in the Montague-Capulet mafia war. He’s only drawn into it because he is Romeo’s friend. (Some have suggested that is he, or wants to be, much more than just a friend to Romeo. We’ll get to that later.) We meet him with the Montagues. What we notice first about Mercutio is his energy in every sense. He is a frenetic force, an instigator, most importantly a linguistic whirlwind. He is more interesting than the mopey Romeo in every way. Like the Nurse, he introduces himself with a series of dirty puns:
I cannot bound a pitch above dull woe.
Under love’s heavy burden do I sink.
And, to sink in it, should you burden love—
Too great oppression for a tender thing.
Is love a tender thing? It is too rough,
Too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn.
If love be rough with you, be rough with love;
Prick love for pricking and you beat love down.
So far, Mercutio is simply picking up on the bawdy implications of Romeo’s innocent language. We still speak today without a second thought about “doing it,” so “sink in it” is dirty, and “tender thing”—need I explain? “Prick,” of course, is also still in use today. Perhaps not as obviously, “beat love down” means “cause to lose an erection,” which can happen if love is rough with one. I am again being a little unfair to Romeo. In thrall to his Rosaline he may be, but he still holds up his end in this banter of fratboys about to party—a cut above Sampson and Gregory but the same kind of wordplay.
Until Romeo’s reference to having “dreamt a dream tonight” provokes Mercutio into the amazing forty-line outburst known as the Queen Mab speech. Here it is in its entirety. Skim if you must (it’s so long I doubt that any production does it without cuts), but it is worth lingering over:
O then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomi
Over men’s noses as they lie asleep.
Her chariot is an empty hazelnut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers;
Her waggon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
Her traces of the smallest spider’s web,
Her collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her waggoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not half so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on curtsies straight,
O’er lawyers’ fingers who straight dream on fees,
O’er ladies ‘ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are.
Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail,
Tickling a parson’s nose as a lies asleep;
Then dreams he of another benefice
Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscados, Spanish blades,
Of healths five fathom deep; and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,
And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plaits the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which, once untangled, much misfortune bodes.
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage.
This is she—
Finally Romeo can’t stand it any more: