Romeo and Juliet: Mercutio’s Misogyny (Part 1 of 2)

[I promise you, I’m really not trying to become this generation’s Eric Partridge; it’s just that it’s not really possible to write about Romeo and Juliet, Western culture’s supposed highest and purest embodiment of Young Love, without spending a fair amount of time in the gutter. That’s Shakespeare for you, though. Just wait until we get to Hamlet.]

Mercutio appears in only four scenes. He has so much impact in each of them that this can be surprising. More, his exit is the fulcrum of the play, the point at which it definitively changes from comedy to tragedy. (It’s all fun and games until somebody loses a Mercutio.) Now that the Queen Mab scene has given us some idea of his power, we’ll look at the rest of his appearances.

Our first sighting of Mercutio after Queen Mab comes at the end of the party. Romeo, having fallen for Juliet, is wandering the Capulet grounds in a still frankly rather emo (and hazardous, since Tybalt, who had to be called off from killing him by Old Capulet himself, must still be abroad) daze. He hides at the approach of Benvolio and Mercutio. It’s hard to resist the thought that as Mercutio releases a flood of double entendres, he knows perfectly well Romeo’s there. But since they don’t see him, Mercutio will conjure him as if he were a spirit:

I conjure thee by Rosaline’s bright eyes,
By her high forehead and her scarlet lip,
By her fine foot, straight leg and quivering thigh
And the demesnes that there adjacent lie,
That in thy likeness thou appear to us!

This is a parody of the romantic poetry of the time, but it’s not at all far from the tone of Shakespeare’s own Venus and Adonis, his most popular work in his lifetime (Venus is trying to seduce Adonis here; his indifference must have been superhuman to resist such a charmer):

I’ll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer;
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale:
Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.

Within this limit is relief enough,
Sweet bottom-grass and high delightful plain,
Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough,
To shelter thee from tempest and from rain.

When straightforward romantic banter doesn’t flush Romeo out, Mercutio goes blue, as today’s comedians say:

This cannot anger him: ‘twould anger him
To raise a spirit in his mistress’ circle
Of some strange nature, letting it there stand
Till she had laid it and conjured it down;
That were some spite: my invocation
Is fair and honest, and in his mistress’ name
I conjure only but to raise up him.

Whenever you see the word “circle” (and often when you see the letter “O”) in any Elizabethan play, not just Shakespeare, you can expect a reference to the vulva (even though the Elizabethans were every bit as capable as we of noticing that that organ is not circular). With that, everything falls into place. “Raise a spirit” plays on both having an erection (“raise,” as if I needed to point it out) and “spirit” (meaning ejaculation or semen, as in Sonnet 129’s “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame”). “Letting it stand” until “she had laid it” and “conjur’d it down” are now obvious for “erection,” “orgasm,” and “detumesence.”

These double meanings may seem a little childish for advanced sensibilities, but what is brilliant about them is the way they march in lockstep with their manifest counterparts. Benvolio has just said: If you conjure Romeo by these poetic but dirty references to his beloved, he’ll be angry. Mercutio’s literal meaning in reply is: No, what would make him mad would be to use her to conjure up some rival—that is, make him jealous so that only she would be able to reassure him. His dirty meaning: it would make him mad if I conjured somebody else to fuck her. Exactly the same words convey both of those messages at once.

But Mercutio has hardly gotten started. As Benvolio urges that they leave, he replies:

If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.
Now will he sit under a medlar tree
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars when they laugh alone.
O Romeo, that she were, O that she were
An open-arse and thou a poperin pear!

Yes, he really did say that. And it really means what you think it means. It’s so extraordinary a thing for Mercutio to be saying that generations of scholars have tried to deny he’s saying it. But I’m getting ahead of myself; we need to unpack a little. The medlar is a fruit popular up through Victorian times but little cultivated or eaten today, no doubt because it has to be allowed to rot and ferment before it’s edible. Worse yet, it possesses a fancied resemblance to the female genitals, hence the dialect name “open-arse.” Click on this Google Image search if you wish to decide that question for yourself, but this is what’s meant by “that kind of fruit/As maids call medlars when they laugh alone.” “Medlar” also suggests “meddler,” one who meddles, which means to fuck. The other fruit in this passage, the “poperin pear,” is a pear from Poperinge, in Belgium. Google is not obliging me with a specific image, but the pear depicted with a medlar below reminds you that you know why those dirty-minded Elizabethans would have been reminded of a penis and scrotum. And “poperin” suggests “pop her in,” which I hope I don’t need to explain. Mercutio is on fire with the wordplay here.

Which brings us to “open-arse.” This is a nickname for the medlar, which makes dirty sense given the fruit’s associations. But as I say, people have strenuously tried to deny those associations. They take some comfort from the fact that “open-arse” is not in the texts dating from Shakespeare’s time. Let me turn the microphone over to Stanley Wells, who explains clearly in his Shakespeare, Sex, and Love:

“Open-arse” is a dialect word for the ripe fruit of the medlar tree, known in French as “fruit de trou de cul”—open-arse fruit—which is not ripe until it is rotten. Interestingly, the word does not occur in any of the early texts of the play. When Romeo and Juliet first appeared in print, in the corrupt text of 1597, the passage substituted a euphemism, “open Et caetera,” in an early example of censorship. When this edition was reprinted in 1599, apparently from a different manuscript, the typesetter printed “open,or,” which modern editors interpret as a misreading of “open ars”; this is also printed in the 1623 Folio. Not until Richard Hosley’s edition on 1957 was what is now generally regarded as the true reading restored. An “open-arse” is often said to resemble an open vagina, but this may be an evasion of an implication that Mercutio is accusing Romeo of wishing to take Rosaline anally.

And you thought Shakespeare scholarship was boring!

Wells’s last sentence is pretty clearly alluding to Eric Partridge, who of all people makes heroic efforts to deny the plain meaning of Mercutio’s words:

On a second reading, prompted by the reproaches of several friends and scholars, I conclude that the pun on medlar, slangily known as “an open-arse,” and poperin pear, shape resembling penis and scrotum, is so forcibly obvious that “an open et-caetera,” must here mean “an open arse.” Yet my interpreation of Shakespeare’s “open et-caetera,” as “pudend” is correct, for the opening clearly refers to the female cleft, not to the human anus. With the human bottom regarded as involving and connoting the primary sexual area, compare the slangy use of tail for the human bottom and the female pudend in particular. “Open et-caetera,” therefore suggests “open cunt”—admissive organ—desirous girl. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines medlar as “the fruit of the medlar tree, resembling a small brown-skinned apple, with a large cup-shaped eye between the persistent calyx lobes.” As a distinguished scholar has remarked, “I thought the medlar had exactly the same symbolism as the cut pomegranate for the vagina, a tradition which Rosetti so openly employed in his painting Proserpine . . . I think the association of medlar with the tradition of the cut pomegranate may be historically a real one.”

Alas, Partridge doesn’t tell us who the “distinguished scholar” is, but here is Rosetti’s “Proserpine.”

Compare the cut pomegranate with the medlar and draw your own conclusions. Mine is that Wells is right and that Partridge is having an episode of sex panic as if he doesn’t want to admit that—gasp!—men have anal sex with women and some women—double gasp!—even enjoy it. (I hate to link to the monumentally clueless William Saletan of Slate here, but he’s the most convenient source.) As ever, writing about sex (yes, including mine) tells so much more about the writer than about anything else. Still, we have to admit that this is a virtuoso performance by Partridge; in particular, the associative sequence “open cunt—admissive organ—desirous girl” almost convinces, but for the fact that “arse”/”ass” simply never means “cunt”: the only noncombining, nonmetaphorical definition the OED offers is “the fundament, buttocks, posteriors, or rump of an animal.” (“Ass” for a woman as sexual object is short for “piece of ass,” which isn’t periphrastic for “cunt” either.)

But what is the point of all this? Is it just Shakespeare doing his dirty-joke thing again? Is it just a bunch of tiresome adolescent badinage (though of the kind that really happens), clumsily designed to contrast with Romeo’s pure love for—actually Rosaline, since Mercutio has no idea Romeo has fallen for Juliet? There’s certainly a contrast between Mercutio and Romeo but Shakespeare never writes so as to trivialize a character. Not as if he could in this case. This is perhaps the passage that most clearly reveals Mercutio’s attitude toward women. It isn’t pretty. To allude to the last post but one, “open-arse” is Mercutio’s equivalent of “cunt.” We noted that to call a woman a cunt is to reduce her to her genitals. Perhaps the only worse insult would be to reduce her to her asshole—an open-arse. (Of course, we call men and women assholes without the least hint of censorship these days, but the original sexual/scatological insult is long since buried. The metaphor is pushin’ up the daisies. It is an ex-metaphor.)

Mercutio’s misogyny has long been noted, but its nature and extent are unclear. We can look at it as a series of levels of ascending intensity. In what follows, I’m not suggesting that any interpretation is definitive. One dimension of Shakespeare’s greatness—one that may make people uncomfortable—is that he never closes off his (major) characters. What matters about an interpretation of Mercutio’s or any other character is that it works—that it makes sense as we read, or that an actor can use it to give that character, as Theseus puts it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “a local habitation and a name.” As Stanley Wells astutely puts it, “Interpretations like these can be neither proved nor disproved.”  What we can do, however, is assess the degree of support an interpretation has in practice.

That said, the mildest way to look at Mercutio’s misogyny is simple antipathy toward Rosaline as the wrecker of the little boys’ club that includes him and Romeo. Yes, the Yoko Effect. He seems to make this complaint in a number of places. For example, the morning after the party, he and Benvolio still can’t find Romeo:

Why, that same pale hard-hearted wench, that Rosaline, torments him so that he will sure run mad.

And after Romeo shows up and actually wins a session of banter with him:

Why, is not this better now than groaning for love? Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo; now art thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature.

Back where he belongs, “by art,” the verbal art that enabled him to hold his own with Mercutio, “as well as by nature.” But there has to be more to it than the Yoko Effect. Consider this, before Romeo shows up but after Benvolio reports that Tybalt has sent a challenge to Romeo’s father:

Alas poor Romeo, he is already dead, stabbed with a white wench’s black eye, run through the ear with a love song, the very pin of his heart cleft with the blind bow-boy’s butt-shaft. And is he a man to encounter Tybalt?

Note the delicate balance here. There’s the specific antipathy toward the “white wench,” Rosaline, but there’s also the more general disgust at “the blind bow-boy,” Cupid; that is, at Love in general.

The “Why, is this not better now” speech has this same balance. After the bit I quoted above, it continues:

For this driveling love is like a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole.

I’ll let your own dirty minds play on the image summoned by “driveling,” but will note that “natural” is an old word for “idiot” (because idiots have only nature, not art). So only an idiot would try to hide his bauble in . . . one of those holes again. That could be just about Rosaline, but it sounds more general. It ties in with a somewhat labored joke I passed over, just before the Queen Mab speech:

If thou are dun, we’ll draw thee from the mire
Of—save your reverence—love, wherein thou stickest
Up to the ears.

There is some complex wordplay on “dun” here, but basically it means that Romeo is like a horse (for which “Dun” was a common name) stuck in—not mud. “Save your reverence” is explained by the editors as a euphemism for “sirreverence,” which itself is a euphemism for human excrement. So Mercutio is catching himself about to say something naughty,  but being Mercutio he substitutes something just as naughty. The point is, he’s saying “love is shit, and you’re up to your ears in it.”

Is there an adolescent male who hasn’t at some point said “Love stinks”? Don’t forget, Mercutio is an adolescent, like Romeo and the rest of his crowd. We don’t know their ages as precisely as Juliet’s but probably none of them are as old as eighteen. That’s just the age when a disappointment in love can lead to the attitude the Tom Arnold character in True Lies expressed so memorably as “Women. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t kill ‘em.” Happily, most boys with this attitude give it up around the time they get their first girlfriend—but would Mercutio have done? His dialogue as a whole, and especially the contempt for women expressed in the “open-arse” speech, make it plausible to read and play him as at least a misogynist in the making, if not one already fully fledged.

I think it’s safe to take this as the default interpretation of Mercutio: a young—very young—misogynist. It can be shaded one way or another, but to ignore or downplay it is to miss something very important about this character. As important, it helps explain why Shakespeare had to kill Mercutio: not because Mercutio would have killed him, but because Romeo can never feel the depth of emotion he needs for Juliet as long he is under Mercutio’s cynical, Love-annihilating influence.

Especially since the end of the last century and the rise of queer studies, however, a very different interpretation has gained currency, namely that Mercutio is homosexual. I’ll assess this idea in the second part of this post.

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