Romeo and Juliet: Mercutio Is Burning (Part 2 of 2)

Mercutio is hostile to women. That much is clear. But why? Faced with a question of motive to which, as is usual, Shakespeare doesn’t give neat, pat, soundbite answers (just you wait until we get to Iago), some interpreters have suggested that he’s attracted to men. As with his misogyny, there’s a range of views. Some have suggested that there’s a specific sexual tension between him and Romeo. (This would mean that his problem with Rosaline—and women in general?—isn’t just the Yoko Factor, it’s jealousy over Romeo.) And some have suggested that he’s full-on gay.

This gay.

This is, of course, Baz Luhrmann’s version of the Queen Mab speech and Mercutio’s entrance to the Capulets’ party (for the latter, skip to about 4:52)—the only time, I’m pretty sure, anybody has chosen to play Mercutio as a diva from the House of Xtravaganza. Harold Perrineau Jr.’s performance is a tour de force—it makes me wonder, wistfully, how much more interesting the Island would have been if there had been some voguing on Lost— but it’s so far over the top that it loses any possible connection with Shakespeare. In Shakespeare, Mercutio gives the Queen Mab speech; in Luhrmann, Mercutio is Queen Mab. Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, not Verona is Burning.

Still, Luhrmann, though clearly taking the piss to an extent (specifically from the party scene in Zeffirelli’s version, with the unspeakably awful “A Time for Us”), was responding to something others have also seen in the character. What is that?

I think it is absolutely crucial that it has to be something we haven’t discussed yet. My previous post laid out the convincing case for Mercutio’s misogyny. But that is no evidence at all for his homosexuality. Misogyny is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for homosexuality. I daresay that the very vast majority of misogynists are straight (and I bet pretty much any woman you care to ask will back me up on that; if you really think hating women is incompatible with wanting to have sex with them, you know very little about the real world). And though I daresay there are gay men who sat down as adolescents and said to themselves, “Hey. I really hate women, so I guess I’ll only have sex with men,” I am sure they are very, very few and far between. To be a gay man (on our understanding today—see the end of this post for qualification) is to love other men. Period. Only the crudest, least reflective, most reductive view of sexuality would imagine that has anything to do with hating women.

So what more is there that would support the view that Mercutio is a man who loves men? In his Shakespeare, Sex, and Love Stanley Wells quotes a lengthy passage from the critic Paul Hammond’s Love Between Men in English Literature that tries to make the case:

When Romeo’s infatuation with Juliet removes him from the company of his male friends, led by Mercutio, they mock him in bawdy punning which seeks to re-establish a comfortable male subculture. Their puns show a particular interest in Romeo’s “prick” which will be “beat . . . down” and his “spirit” (that is, erect penis) which Mercutio tries to “raise up.” When Mercutio imagines Juliet as a medlar he chooses the fruit’s dialect name and says: “O that she were/An open-arse and thou a poperin pear,” simultaneously evoking both vaginal intercourse and sodomy. His subsequent teasing of Romeo after what he imagines to have been Romeo’s night of sexual activity is full of punning references to Romeo’s penis, and he offers to give Romeo an affectionate nibble on the ear for a particularly good jest. Homosocial play includes homoerotic play.

I don’t know how to respond to this series of claims other than to ask “Is that all you got?” We’ve been through most of the passages Hammond cites as evidence—I quoted them at length in the last post—and I simply don’t see how they are homoerotic. I’d note first of all that Hammond wrongly supposes that Mercutio is talking about Juliet. As I’ve emphasized, Mercutio dies without knowing that Romeo has transferred his affections from Rosaline. (Weirdly, Wells misquotes Hammond at one point: he interpolates to read “Romeo’s night of sexual activity with Rosaline.” Hammond is in fact consistently wrong; he never mentions Rosaline.) This carelessness doesn’t inspire confidence in Hammond’s readings; it’s a distortion to talk of Romeo’s “infatuation” with Juliet (though not with Rosaline), but it’s important to Hammond’s argument, because Romeo is not “remove[d] from the company of his male friends” while he’s mooning over Rosaline; he’s with them but mopey. We’ve seen the bit about raising up a spirit, but the “spirit” isn’t Romeo’s, it is the rival Mercutio hypothetically conjures in his bawdy response to Benvolio, as I discussed in the last post. Again, in the last post I gave you perhaps too much information on the “open-arse” passage, and argued that it means what it says—that it evokes just plain sodomy, not “both vaginal intercourse and sodomy,” but sodomy with a woman. Unless you simply don’t believe that women have anal sex, there is no ground that I can see to impute a man-on-man subtext to this passage.

The level of argument here is shameful. It wouldn’t have passed muster with old Three-Last-Names. At the risk of beating a dead theme, the confusion about Rosaline is typical, and more important than it might at first seem. Anybody who’s not familiar with the play, or not thinking, would say Mercutio is talking about Juliet. The play isn’t called Romeo and Rosaline, after all. But there’s powerful dramatic irony in Mercutio’s confusion. He thinks that Romeo’s fucking Rosaline vindicates his view of women; having finally gotten laid (and don’t we assume Romeo is a virgin when the play begins? How about Mercutio? We can only speculate about these questions but the answers shade the characters, just as much as those about Mercutio’s sexual preference.), Romeo realizes that women are only good for sex and is once again “sociable.” Whereas the truth is exactly the opposite; Romeo, who had been lost in adolescent fantasies about an unattainable woman, has been transformed by his encounter with a real, passionate human being. What could be more important at this juncture than for us to see that Mercutio’s whole cynical, woman-hating view of the world is false? What irony could be more significant than this demonstration that the play’s master of language is wrong and that all his quicksilver wit has been in the service of a deluded view of reality? Romeo and Juliet is light years from the load of sentimental claptrap it’s so often thought to be. It’s clear-eyed and uncompromising down to its infrastructure. But you won’t see that if you don’t pay attention, as Hammond plainly has not. And it seems to me that whatever case there is to be made for Mercutio as gay, it obscures the far more important and inarguable fact that he hates women.

(Here I’ll mention one more quote that is offered as evidence of Mercutio’s homosexuality: Tybalt’s accusation that “Thou consortest with Romeo.”  “Consort” here simply means “associate with,” but there are those who read the double meaning “has sex with” (in the sense that Prince Philip is the Royal Consort). That double meaning would deepen Tybalt’s character and make him repellent—to us, in 2011. But if it has that double meaning, this is the taunt of the schoolyard bully (which is what Tybalt is, in essence): Faggot! It’s not evidence that the person the taunt is directed at is homosexual. Even if Mercutio were gay, would you take Tybalt’s word for it?)

Where does all this leave us in our attempt to understand Mercutio?

Working from the most extreme view inward, we can say that Luhrmann’s drag diva interpretation, however exuberant, isn’t a serious contender. I think we can also say that Mercutio as overtly gay, whether or not he’s overtly attracted to Romeo, is not a serious contender. Again, it isn’t ruled out; but the burden of proof against it is heavy and the evidence presented by such critics as Hammond comes nowhere near meeting that burden. It’s hard for me to imagine a staging that makes this interpretation plausible; it would shift the center of gravity of the play too far to stay in balance. To present Mercutio as overtly gay is not just a matter of having him nibble erotically on Romeo’s ear. An overtly gay Mercutio is going to have different relations with everybody in the play from what is manifest in the text. Romeo, Tybalt, Benvolio all will have to relate directly to Mercutio through the prism of his gayness. Even a character who never meets Mercutio, such as Juliet, relates to him indirectly through characters who do. To make Mercutio overtly gay the actors will need to reshape the entire play, and Mercutio’s characterization threatens to swallow the rest.

Interpretations on which Mercutio’s sexual preference is covert have a far easier burden of proof. Does it matter, on this approach, whether Mercutio knows what his preferences are and can’t or won’t act on them, or whether he doesn’t even know what his preferences are? I think not. Perhaps because he’s never played by an age-appropriate actor (John Barrymore played him at 54), we tend to forget how young and unformed he is—like Romeo. But if we bear in mind that he is essentially a schoolboy, it makes perfect sense to portray him as having the confused sexuality of a schoolboy. One can even see such a portrayal harnessed to a good social cause; just as the Facebook production of Much Ado I noted a while back was directed against school bullying, so Mercutio could join the It Gets Better campaign for young gay people. The fact that it doesn’t get better for him is no real obstacle.

To sum up, perhaps Mercutio is attracted to Romeo. Perhaps he doesn’t know what he is attracted to, only what he isn’t. I think this range of interpretations is playable, but it can’t be anything more than a grace note in Mercutio’s characterization. If you want to explain what Mercutio says and does and why he is important in this play, to the extent that’s possible (since Mercutio, like all Shakespeare’s great characters, is not exhausted by the kind of soundbite description you would put on a final exam), you’d say something like: “He’s the wittiest, most energetic, liveliest character in the play; his constant dirty jokes counterbalance the Nurse on Juliet’s side; but his constant disparagement of women and tearing down of ideals are attitudes Romeo must transcend before he can be man enough to deal with Juliet, and his cynicism and rejection of adult relationships are what bring him down.” (See how boring characters are when they are explained? But keep this little portrait in mind at the very end of the line when we get to Jacques in As You Like It. There’s a way in which Mercutio is Jacques’s precursor.) Is it really essential to add that he takes Romeo’s distancing himself from the pack so hard because he’s gay, or because he’s specifically attracted to Romeo, or even because he’s young and confused about who he is?

I submit that it isn’t unless you are looking for teh gay, as the kids put it today, in Shakespeare’s male characters. That’s not to say that it’s wrong or that it can’t lead to a more nuanced and interesting version of Mercutio. I’m saying it’s optional in a way Mercutio’s misogyny, or Lear’s madness, or Hamlet’s wit are not. It’s neither refuted nor required by the text.

As we proceed, we’ll see Shakespeare experts sometimes arguing as if the mere fact that a phrase or situation could have a homoerotic interpretation licenses the conclusion that it must. This will especially be true when we consider the plays that involve cross-dressing. (The focus on Mercutio by writers such as Hammond and directors such as Luhrmann is interesting given that Romeo and Juliet is one of the few comedies without any cross-dressing.) I think this is as wrong as the general tendency, which a few experts also exhibit, to suppose that a phrase or situation that could have a generally bawdy interpretation must have one. I’m not above saying this myself when I’m trying to get people interested in Shakespeare, but it actually just isn’t true. (Test: when Cleopatra, dying, calls out to the late Antony “Husband, I come,” do you titter? More mature and adult, do you marvel at how Shakespeare did the Liebestod thing about three centuries before Wagner? In either case, go to the back of the class: “come” did have the secondary meaning “have an orgasm” in Shakespeare’s time, but not here. It’s all wrong for the dramatic context.)

I think it’s wrong, moreover, because it presupposes a view about sexuality its proponents would reject in horror in other contexts.  In cultural studies you may find yourself stumbling over the term “heteronormative,” defined by the OED as “of, designating, or based on a world view which regards gender roles as fixed to biological sex and heterosexuality as the normal and preferred sexual orientation.” I hope we all reject the second clause of this definition. To the extent that talk about sexual orientation makes sense at all, heterosexuality is only “normal” in the neutral statistical sense that sexual preference follows a normal distribution and more people admit to opposite-sex preference than to same-sex preference. And there is no such thing as a “preferred” sexual orientation except among some groups whose conception of morality is, to put it delicately, flawed. However, I also reject the first part of the definition. Like Michel Foucault, I believe that sexual roles are social constructs. Sexuality is a continuum, and only those few at either end of the distribution curve are purely “straight” or “gay.” To suppose that anybody who isn’t (identifiably) straight is (automatically) gay is to buy into heteronormativlty from the back end, so to speak, to suppose that sexuality is an all-or-nothing matter of two roles. I don’t see any other way to make sense of an argument like Hammond’s.

But I go all the way with Foucault, who is famous for arguing that the social role “homosexual” didn’t exist until some time late in the nineteenth century. (Neither, by necessary implication, did the role “heterosexual,” though I’m not sure all of Foucault’s critics note this.) Men have loved men and women have loved women as long as men and women have existed, but they did not think of themselves as having a same-sex orientation until pretty much the time of Oscar Wilde. Is it coincidence that it’s only around this same time that anybody thinks to interpret any of Shakespeare’s characters as gay? Gore Vidal (who, like Foucault, is a man who loves men, so their position is not a matter of homophobia) put it aphoristically, saying that there are no homosexual people; there are only homosexual acts. Extend the point to heterosexuals, as both Foucault and Vidal would surely do, and you have my position. I submit to you that it is Shakespeare’s position too. If Foucault is right, it could scarcely help but be, since in Shakespeare’s time nobody had the concept of a homosexual, just the actuality of men who sometimes or often loved other men, and women ditto. But even if Foucault is wrong, it seems to me that Shakespeare is the last writer in the language we would call sexually normative, hetero or otherwise. Shakespeare is always ready to consider every aspect of his characters’ experiences, and our modern concepts of sexual role would cut him—and them—off from a whole dimension of what it is to be human. I hope you’ve already been able to see in this blog that Shakespeare would never settle for that.

I’m uneasy about these last few paragraphs because they are so very broad. They require far more qualification that I can give in this post. But sexuality is crucial to human life and to Shakespeare’s work. It can’t be put off for long, and we will have many occasions to revisit it. So take the end of this post as a road sign for the general direction we’ll be heading in.

And with that, let’s take a moment to celebrate Pride, which was marked pretty much everywhere this weekend, especially in New York State where same-sex marriage has just been recognized. If my view were generally accepted, there would be no need for Pride, since same-sex love would be accepted for what it is—love—rather then being stigmatized and far, far worse (Uganda, anyone?). But this is hardly the only instance in which the real world fails to conform to my rational prescriptions, and until it does Pride will be a necessary corrective—as well as an excuse to party, and who has a problem with that?

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