Romeo and Juliet: Enter Mercutio

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:

Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace.
Thou talk’st of nothing.

“Thou talk’st of nothing” is a good one-off sally for Romeo, not least because it gives me my first opportunity on this blog to mention that “nothing” was a euphemism for the genitals (usually the female in Shakespeare, but also the male, and here probably both. Remember this when we get to Much Ado About Nothing); but nothing can stop the associative express train that is Mercutio’s mind at this point:

True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind, who woos
Even now the frozen bosom of the north
And, being anger’d, puffs away from thence
Turning his side to the dew-dropping south.

To give you a taste of how it works in performance, here it is in Zefferelli’s version. This is one of the better sequences in that movie, though obscuring Mercutio’s face with a flaming torch, undoubtedly meant to be symbolic, is an irritating distraction:

The Queen Mab speech is such an extraordinary passage that one’s first reaction is: What is it doing here?  It stops the action in its tracks and has no obvious relation to anything else in the story. Dreams have been mentioned only twice so far, by Romeo just now and by Juliet when she says that marriage is “an honor I dream not of.” (Romeo will report a dream much later—“I dreamt my lady came and found me dead”—but this isn’t the kind of dream Mab brings.) For this reason, at least one scholar thinks it’s an interpolation, and in all frankness you can see why. If, as we now think, Shakespeare was writing A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the same time, you could be forgiven for thinking that he’d gotten a page mixed up. Queen Mab surely fits better in that play, which is lousy with fairies and, as its very title indicates, is all about dreams.

But if it’s not a page from the wrong play, what is it doing here? Shakespeare must have thought it very important to give it so much space at this critical early point in the play. I discount the thought that it’s addressed to Romeo because he is a metaphorical dreamer, living in a fantasy world; he’s going to be shocked out of that world very soon. There’s more to the suggestion that both Romeo and Juliet will be living in a dreamworld that has nothing to do with the brutal reality of Verona, but as we’ll see I don’t think that is quite right. The speech, like so many others in Shakespeare, is shot through with dirty references, starting with the very name “Queen Mab” (“quean” means “prostitute” and “mab” a promiscuous woman), and expresses Mercutio’s misogyny, an important aspect of his character, all the way to the rather nasty bit about “women of good carriage.” “Elf-locks” are tangles, that the tangled hairs are “foul” and “sluttish” tells us which hairs they are, and “once untangled, much misfortune bodes” is a pretty unambiguous indication of Mercutio’s view of getting tangled up in them. And what is “good carriage,” that is, way of bearing oneself, for a woman? On her back, of course, where Mab is “pressing” her with the weight of a man and teaching her to “bear”—that weight, and the children that follow. Jill Levenson, the editor of the Oxford Shakespeare edition of the play (highly recommended, by the way; her commentary is more recent and less inhibited than the still serviceable but aging Arden Second; again, Arden, what were you thinking, bringing out Double Falsehood when a new edition of Romeo and Juliet is a far more urgent priority?) brilliantly suggests that Mercutio reframes the joke the Nurse told a little too often; women of good carriage are the ones who fall backward.

All these points are well taken, but I think at bottom Shakespeare wants to show Mercutio as exploding onto the scene and presenting the most vivid contrast possible with Romeo; someone so vital, exciting, energetic, and mentally agile that he casts our emo boy in the shade; someone truly, more than two centuries before Lord Byron, mad, bad, and dangerous to know; and someone who can’t be allowed to exist in Verona, who raises the bar of this city’s language games too high for anybody else to vault, and who, attached to neither house, is a threat to its order.

If you look in the secondary literature you’ll come across a statement usually attributed to the seventeenth-century poet and dramatist John Dryden (via, to steal my very favorite line by Bill Bryson, that “tedious old git” Samuel Johnson), that that Shakespeare said “he was obliged to kill Mercutio in the third act, lest he should have been killed by him.” That statement is plainly foolish, but what’s true is that if Mercutio is allowed to live he’ll kill the play, by drawing all its energy to himself like a black hole.

But I know what you want. You want to see him duke it out with the Nurse. Soon, soon you’ll get your wish.

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