Romeo and Juliet–The Prince of Cats

It’ll soon be time to bid farewell to Mercutio, but before we do we should take a closer look at Tybalt. He’s a relatively neglected character, but I think we need to understand Shakespeare’s presentation if we are to understand his methods.

So far, I’ve given you the Zeffirelli version of Tybalt: the hothead whose whole function in the play is to pick a fight with the closest Montague the moment he comes on stage. Inevitably, he’s going to fight Romeo. If we leave it at that, as Zefferelli does, it’s easy to think that Tybalt is the main obstacle to Romeo and Juliet’s happiness. Look him up on Wikipedia and you will see, indeed, that he is the “main antagonist.” Defeat him, and the road is clear.

In Zefferelli’s version, the young Michael York (giving the best performance in the movie) goes a long way to persuade us of this vision. But is it the whole story about Tybalt? If we recall how young these characters really are, it’s obvious which generic type he is: the schoolyard bully. And the thing about bullies is that they are mostly, if not all, bluster. Stand up to them and they’ll wilt. So maybe we should be wondering whether Tybalt is all he’s cracked up to be.

Benvolio certainly doesn’t think he is. In a passage I didn’t quote at the time (but which I hope you have read by now), he describes the fight that opens the play to Lord and Lady Montague:


Here were the servants of your adversary
And yours, close fighting ere I did approach.
I drew to part them; in the instant came
The fiery Tybalt, with his sword prepar’d,
Which, as he breath’d defiance to my ears
He swung about his head and cut the winds,
Who nothing hurt withal hiss’d him in scorn.

“Cut the winds, who hissed him in scorn”—what a brilliant insult! You can see why Benvolio hangs out with Mercutio. The point, though, is that Tybalt didn’t hit anything, and Benvolio is not impressed.

If anything, Mercutio is even less impressed. You’ll recall him discussing the challenge Tybalt sent Romeo, the morning after the Capulets’ party, with Benvolio:


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?

His meaning seemed simple and unequivocal; Romeo is so lovesick, he can’t put up a fight against the “fiery Tybalt.” That’d seem to imply that Tybalt is a real threat, a swordsman not to be trifled with. But Mercutio’s next words convey a completely different opinion:

Why, what is Tybalt?


More than Prince of Cats. O, he’s the courageous captain of compliments: he fights as you sing pricksong, keeps time, distance and proportion. He rests his minim rests, one, two, and the third in your bosom: the very butcher of a silk button—a duellist, a duellist, a gentleman of the very first house, of the first and second cause. Ah, the immortal passado, the punto reverso, the hay!


The what?


The pox of such antic lisping affecting phantasimes, these new tuners of accent. By Jesu, a very good blade, a very tall man, a very good whore! Why, is not this a lamentable thing, grandsire, that we should be thus afflicted with these strange flies, these fashion-mongers, these ‘pardon-me’s’, who stand so much on the new form that they cannot sit at ease on the old bench? O, their bones, their bones!

Every word of these two speeches is an insult to Tybalt’s fighting style. Even the epithet “Prince of Cats” (which Baz Luhrmann puts on a title card when Tybalt first appears, seemingly unaware of what it means) is an insult. It reminds us that Tybalt is named after the Prince of Cats in the medieval tales of Reynard the Fox, where the King orders “Tibert” to convey his summons to court to Reynard. Reynard welcomes Tibert but under pretext of showing him a place where he can find some nice plump mice, lures him into a trap meant for the fox. He’s caught in a snare, beaten, and loses an eye. (Since it’s harder than you’d think to find a translation of the Reynard stories online, here is a link. Tibert’s story starts with “Then said the king.”)

I don’t know whether Shakespeare expected most of his audience to get the allusion, but he obviously put it in deliberately, to make Tybalt look bad. The rest of Mercutio’s declamation is no more flattering. “Courageous captain of compliments” was interpreted by Dr. Johnson as “a complete master of all the laws of ceremony,” implying that actual ability to fight might be lacking. “Pricksong”—well, “prick” always means what you think it does (this is shortly before the “prick of noon” exchange with the Nurse, too), but pricksong refers to music that is written out, as well as to the counterpoint of a melody. Add all the implications of “prick” (verb: to stab; noun: arrow shafts or the bull’s-eye) and the idea of keeping “time, distance, and proportion,” and you get the image of a fencer with perfect form, perhaps a little prissy or even effeminate, but not of somebody who could win a fight to the death. Rests are of course pauses in music and minims are the smallest rests; so Tybalt will feint, feint again, and then take the button off your shirt. We’ve seen Zorro or a counterpart do this in a hundred movies where the victim thinks he’s untouched until his shirt falls off, but we know he’s showing off for comic effect. Mercutio is implying that’s all Tybalt’s got. The rest of the speech is all about fencing concepts and fencing moves, with “Hay!” being the cry when you’ve landed a hit. The second speech is more of the same. There’s no need to go through it in detail, because the point is already perfectly clear. Mercutio is not scared of Tybalt, not one little bit.

Now you’ll have noticed that I never miss an opportunity to beat up on Zefferelli. He cuts Benvolio’s “cut the winds” speech completely and cuts all of Mercutio’s speeches between “Prince of Cats” and “Why, is not this a lamentable thing.” In a superficially clever bit of stagecraft, Mercutio and Benvolio are descending a tower during the cut part, so you might imagine ‘re speaking the cut part while they are inside. You might, that is, if you knew it was there to be cut. If not, you’ll be completely mystified about what Mercutio is saying and why.

And you won’t know he holds Tybalt in contempt. That is the point of this blog entry. Is it wrong to present Tybalt as a real fighter? Not in the sense that that level is there in the text—and Zefferelli isn’t the only one who presents him that way. But to cut these speeches is to cut out a dimension that Shakespeare put in, which shouldn’t be done lightly or automatically; there should be a real thought-out reason behind changing the characterization Shakespeare intended. I suggested in an earlier post that Shakespeare’s characterizations all play off each other; here is great example. If you cut Mercutio’s sarcastic skepticism about Tybalt, not only does Tybalt appear a genuinely fearsome fighter, Mercutio appears to be someone who believes this. And that affects what you say about his challenge to Tybalt. If he believes Tybalt is really dangerous, it looks like he’s throwing his life away. In that case, unless you suppose he’s taken leave of his senses in the heat, he must have some extraordinary reason—perhaps saving his forbidden love, Romeo! But if you recognize that Mercutio thinks he can take Tybalt with one hand, his challenge seems much less foolhardy—even reasonable, given that he’s already said that Romeo is too lovesick to fight.

We’re about to look at that challenge in the next post. Keep this discussion in mind as we proceed.

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