Romeo and Juliet–Waiting for Romeo

It’s the morning after. But after what? In our last post we saw that Mercutio thinks it’s after Romeo’s night of being cockteased by Rosaline:

MERCUTIO
Where the devil should this Romeo be? Came he not home tonight?

BENVOLIO
Not to his father’s; I spoke with his man.

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

. . .

MERCUTIO
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?

But this is really the morning after the balcony scene, and Mercutio hasn’t the faintest idea of the change that has taken place in Romeo. Nor will he understand why his friend is so different when he appears a few lines later. Most of the following is often cut in performance (it’s so characteristic of Zefferelli, with his unerring talent for finding wit and complexity and rooting them out, to do so); that’s probably unavoidable but a pity. The passage is structurally important as a counterweight to Sampson and Gregory, and critical to show the gulf that’s opened between Romeo and an unsuspecting Mercutio.

We started the play proper with a verbal tennis match. Now at about the halfway point we see Romeo and Mercutio have at it in a Wimbledon of words:

BENVOLIO
Here comes Romeo, here comes Romeo!

MERCUTIO
Without his roe, like a dried herring. O flesh, flesh, how art thou fishified. Now is he for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in. Laura, to his lady, was but a kitchen wench—marry, she had a better love to berhyme her—Dido a dowdy, Cleopatra a gipsy, Helen and Hero hildings and harlots, Thisbe a grey eye or so, but not to the purpose. Signior Romeo, bonjour! there’s a French salutation to your French slop. You gave us the counterfeit fairly last night.

Here’s Mercutio up to his usual. “Without his roe” refers to the first syllable of Romeo’s name (leaving him with the pathetic cry “Me, O!”) and to the sperm of a male fish that, Mercutio mockingly implies, Rosaline has sucked out of him. Then comes a mocking catalogue of heroines of poetry and legend to whom Rosaline is superior.

ROMEO
Good morrow to you both. What counterfeit did I give you?

“Slip” was used for counterfeit coins, and since Romeo doubtless knows this, he may be missing Mercutio’s pun deliberately to make him explain it:

MERCUTIO
The slip, sir, the slip. Can you not conceive?

This next volley involves “courtesy” and “curtsy” and hinges on Mercutio’s suggestion that Romeo can’t curtsy because he’s strained his legs during his night of passion. Note how Mercutio also sneaks in “hit it”; “it,” like “thing,” is a euphemism for the genitals, so you know what “hit it” means (if you still don’t, wait until we get to Love’s Labour’s Lost):

ROMEO
Pardon, good Mercutio, my business was great; and in such a case as mine a man may strain courtesy.

MERCUTIO
That’s as much as to say, such a case as yours constrains a man to bow in the hams.

ROMEO
Meaning, to curtsy.

MERCUTIO
Thou hast most kindly hit it.

ROMEO
A most courteous exposition.

MERCUTIO
Nay, I am the very pink of courtesy.

“Pink” here means “tip-top” (compare the idiom “in the pink”), and as Romeo immediately parries, the flower. Alas, “pump” does not mean “penis” as well as “shoe” (although the verb does mean “to copulate”), but feel free to snicker at will.

ROMEO
Pink for flower.

MERCUTIO
Right.

ROMEO
Why, then is my pump well flowered.

MERCUTIO
Sure wit, follow me this jest now, till thou hast worn out thy pump, that when the single sole of it is worn, the jest may remain after the wearing solely singular.

ROMEO
O single-soled jest, solely singular for the singleness.

Mercutio’s jest and Romeo’s answer here are so convoluted that we can easily understand why they’d be cut. This little exchange goes by too fast for a modern audience to get (possibly too fast for Shakespeare’s original audience), but we as readers can’t let it slide. For see the immediate result:

MERCUTIO
Come between us, good Benvolio, my wits faints.

ROMEO
Switch and spurs, switch and spurs or I’ll cry a match!

Mercutio calls for his tag team partner, Benvolio! He’s all but cried uncle. But this is no fixed wrestling match from the 1950s; Romeo insists that if Mercutio can’t keep up with him, he, Romeo, has won.

MERCUTIO
Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase I am done. For thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than I am sure I have in my whole five. Was I with you there for the goose?

“Wild-goose chase” doesn’t mean what it does today—a futile chase after something that might or might not even be there to be chased—but the idea is similar; Shakespeare is referring to a kind of race in which the lead horse could take any course it liked and the others had to follow. So Mercutio is saying “If we’re going to play this game of wit at random, I give up, since one of your senses is as random as all of mine put together.” And then he asks: Did I score one with that jest about the goose?

ROMEO
Thou wast never with me for anything, when thou wast not there for the goose.

It’s the kiss of death when a comedian asks their audience how he or she is doing. Romeo’s rejection isn’t quite as devastating as Hal’s rejection of Falstaff in Henry IV Part 2, but it is still crushing. As Jill Levenson, the editor of the Oxford edition, points out, Romeo plays on every word of “Was I with you there for the goose?” including the preposition “with.” We may paraphrase: “You’ve never been in my company unless it’s been to play the fool [another sense of “goose”; by the way, in other contexts “goose” means “prostitute,” but probably not here.].”

MERCUTIO
I will bite thee by the ear for that jest.

You’ll remember that this is the line Hammond thought expresses Mercutio’s homoeroticism. To repeat, it wouldn’t be wrong to play it that way, so long as the context is reimagined to suit that reading. But that would be a tall order, since with the context set out we can see that Mercutio barely conceals a snarl.

ROMEO
Nay, good goose, bite not.

This is a mock cry for mercy from Romeo. He has the upper hand, and he’s flaunting it.

MERCUTIO
Thy wit is a very bitter sweeting, it is a most sharp sauce.

ROMEO
And is it not then well served in to a sweet goose?

MERCUTIO
O here’s a wit of cheveril, that stretches from an inch narrow to an ell broad.

This is Mercutio’s last shot. Cheveril is a very elastic leather and an ell is 45 inches, so he’s saying that Romeo can stretch it out—we might paraphrase “look how long he can run on empty,” if we can bear the stigma of being Jackson Browne fans.

ROMEO
I stretch it out for that word ‘broad’, which, added to the goose, proves thee far and wide a broad goose.

The knockout punch. Once again turning Mercutio’s own word and image against him, Romeo cones up with the image of a broad goose—a fat fool whose dirty jests are obvious. Or as Principal Wormser night have said: “Fat drunk and stupid.” No way to go through life.

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

And so Mercutio throws in the towel. It’s possible to read this as simply welcoming Romeo back into the homosocial boys’ club—that level is certainly present—but the overwhelming impression, if you look at the battle of wits with the care it deserves, is of an attempt to save face, to pretend things are just like they always were. Which they can never be for Romeo.

I hope this exposition hasn’t been tedious; I’ve learned a lot from it myself. This exchange zips by on the page or stage (if it isn’t cut), probably at best half understood, but now we can see how absolutely crucial it is. Romeo defeats Mercutio in a battle of wordplay, but more than that, he defeats what Mercutio stands for: the cynical pose that rejects love and connection with others outside the boys’ club. As I pointed out in the last post, Mercutio is an adolescent with attitudes to match. Romeo grew up all of a sudden the night before, and so he must move on. So far from being the wisest guy in the crowd, Mercutio has been clueless throughout, perhaps nowhere more so than at the end of this contest. His “Now art thou sociable,” meaning that he’s lost the battle of wits but won in the end because Romeo has rejoined the boys’ club, couldn’t be more wrong; but his “Now art thou Romeo” couldn’t be more right, because while he wasn’t looking Romeo became a man.

Isn’t it a pity that this scene requires such unpacking for us today? I can sympathize with directors who cut it, thinking audiences today won’t get the wordplay as audiences in 1585 did, but I wish they would reconsider. Because what matters here is not so much the specific words as the dynamics of the back and forth, and actors could convey that even if the meaning of the words isn’t clear. And as far as I’m concerned the effort more than paid off. Just in the course of writing this post my view of Mercutio has changed. I see him now not just as the dashing dirty wit of the play—which he is—but as an obstacle, perhaps the obstacle, Romeo must and does overcome. That changes our view of Romeo too: it’s harder to construe his relationship with Juliet as sentimentalized puppy love when you see how it requires him to become the man he wasn’t. Say what you want about Mercutio’s sexuality, as long as you say that it remains stuck in the schoolyard and Romeo’s doesn’t.

After this battle of wits the one we’ve all been waiting for, that between Mercutio and the Nurse, comes as a bit of an anticlimax. It’s Romeo who announces her flamboyant entrance:

ROMEO
A sail! A sail!

She seems to be trailing some sort of veil or train so voluminous she needs a servant to help her with it. She certainly doesn’t sound impressed with Mercutio’s first sally, even though it is his best-known bawdy line:

NURSE
God ye good morrow, gentlemen.

MERCUTIO
God ye good e’en, fair gentlewoman.

NURSE
Is it good e’en?

MERCUTIO
‘Tis no less, I tell ye; for the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon.

Fun fact: one innocent meaning of “prick” is the indicator mark on a dial, so Mercutio is literally saying “It’s noon” (making “e’en,” used for afternoon as well as evening, appropriate), but of course he is also saying something quite different. The Nurse isn’t having any, though, and Romeo gets a word in:

NURSE
Out upon you! What a man are you?

ROMEO
One, gentlewoman, that God hath made, himself to mar.

And since the Nurse has imperative business with Romeo—Juliet has sent her to learn whether he is serious—she ignores Mercutio. He gets off some rather convoluted wordplay that falls flat, actually calls the Nurse a bawd (infuriating her, as she vents later) and leaves, giving the Nurse a chance to ask:

NURSE
I pray you, sire, what saucy gentleman was this, that was so full of his ropery?

ROMEO
A gentleman, Nurse, that loves to hear himself talk, and will speak more in a minute than he will stand to in a month.

If there was any doubt that Romeo has left the boys’ club behind, I think this exchange pretty much resolves it. It only remains to tell the Nurse to tell Juliet to show up that afternoon to be married.

We will see Mercutio only once more.

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