Romeo and Juliet–Exit Mercutio

[Edited 26 July 2011 to include the clip of Zefferelli’s version of the duel between Tybalt and Mercutio, which I found after I posted this.]

Mercutio’s last appearance is at the beginning of Act III. It’s the afternoon following the Capulets’ party. Since we saw Romeo, Mercutio, and the Nurse in the morning, Romeo has secretly married Juliet. It’s a mad-dogs-and-Englishmen day and tempers are rubbed raw. (Unfortunately for me, the Toronto weather is lending a touch of verisimilitude to the scene. I am writing this sentence at about 10:25 pm on July 22, and the temperature is 28C, or 81 for those of you who insist on speaking Fahrenheit. The humidx is 33/91. I might as well be teaching ESL in Dubai. And yes, that’s something I have thought about doing.)

Perhaps Mercutio is still smarting from his loss to Romeo in the battle of wits, or at his cavalier treatment by the Nurse. Perhaps he’s angry that his forbidden love is drifting away from him. Perhaps it’s just the weather. Pick your reason; the fact is, he’s spoiling like a schoolboy for a fight. We’ve seen his aggression before, but not like we’re about to.

Poor Benvolio, that man of good will, is stuck with trying to get Mercutio out of the heat, in more ways than one:


I pray thee, good Mercutio, let’s retire
The day is hot, the Capels are abroad,
And if we meet we shall not ‘scape a brawl,
For now these hot days is the mad blood stirring.

Mercutio turns on his friend with a torrent of invective that is so broadly ironic as to be hypocritical:


Thou art like one of these fellows that, when he enters the confines of a tavern, claps me his sword upon the table and says ‘God send me no need of thee!’ and by the operation of the second cup draws him on the drawer, when indeed there is no need.

You’ve seen this gesture in a hundred gangster movies and westerns; now you know where it comes from, Mercutio spinning a mini-Tarantino story featuring Benvolio as the tough guy looking for trouble by saying he doesn’t want any. And Mercutio’s nowhere near finished. I’m skipping over a bit here:


Am I like such a fellow?


Thou? Why, thou wilt quarrel with a man that hath a hair more or a hair less in his beard than thou hast. Thou wilt quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason but because thou hast hazel eyes. What eye but such an eye would spy out such a quarrel? . . . Thou hast quarrelled with a man for coughing in the street, because he hath wakened thy dog that hath lain asleep in the sun. Didst thou not fall out with a tailor for wearing his new doublet before Easter; with another, for tying his new shoes with old riband? And yet thou wilt tutor me from quarrelling!
[III.i.10, 16-30]

The heat truly does seem to be getting to Mercutio. At least Benvolio has the wherewithal to call him on it:


And I were so apt to quarrel as thou art, any man should buy the fee simple of my life for an hour and a quarter.

This is one of Shakespeare’s more convoluted plays on words, I’m afraid. “Fee simple” is an ancient concept from the English law of property, which recognized (and still does) degrees of ownership of real estate. A fee simple is essentially the fullest degree of ownership (as a retired lawyer, I could go on and on, but this is all you need to know). So Benvolio is saying that if he were quarrelsome, his life would be cheap—valued at no more than an hour and a quarter’s work—or that he wouldn’t last more than an hour and a quarter. There’s a nice dark foreshadowing in the latter, since within an hour and a quarter Mercutio will be dead. In any case, Shakespeare seems to have brought “fee simple” in solely to set up the joke in Mercutio’s response: “The fee simple! O simple!” (l. 34). The second “simple” means “stupid,” among other things, as in “simpleton.”

But now the dramatic irony thickens, because as Benvolio shouts, “here comes the Capulets,” including Tybalt. As I said in the last post, we’re used to thinking of Tybalt as a hothead, who only ever comes on stage to fight somebody “that hath a hair more or a hair less in his beard than thou hast.” And that’s why he’s here now; to fight Romeo, to whom he’d sent that letter of challenge that morning. He will not let himself be distracted by Mercutio’s belligerence, which casts an interesting light on the discussion in the last post. Maybe he doesn’t want to fight anything that moves—just Montagues.


Gentlemen, good e’en: a word with one of you.


And but one word with one of us? Couple it with something, make it a word and a blow.


You shall find me apt enough to that, sir, and you will give me occasion.[III.i.38-42]

So Mercutio is daring Tybalt to hit him, and the reply is: “Not now, but just give me a reason another time.” It’s here that he says:

Mercutio, thou consortest with Romeo.

In context it’s obvious that Tybalt is not implying that Mercutio and Romeo are sleeping together. (The OED only traces that sense of “consort” back to the 1610s, in passages by Shakespeare’s rival George Chapman, so it’s anybody’s guess whether the sense goes back fifteen years or so to the time Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet.) He is simply saying “You’re a friend of Romeo’s” in preparation for asking “Where is he?” And Mercutio’s change of subject implies that he understands Tybalt in just this sense:


Consort! what, dost thou make us minstrels? And thou make minstrels of us, look to hear nothing but discords. Here’s my fiddlestick, here’s that shall make you dance. Zounds, consort!

A consort is an assemblage of musicians (“minstrels,” which emphasizes their déclassé status), and Mercutio’s “fiddlestick” is his sword, of course with a phallic implication. Benvolio, living up to his name, tries to make peace, but Mercutio isn’t going for it. Who knows where it would all have ended up if Romeo hadn’t wandered by?


Well, peace be with you, sir, here comes my man.

Peace be with you”? From Tybalt?

Because here Romeo is again, traipsing through the square.


Romeo, the love I bear thee can afford
No better term than this: thou art a villain.


Tybalt, the reason that I have to love thee
Doth much excuse the appertaining rage
To such a greeting: villain am I none,
Therefore farewell. I see thou know’st me not.


Although it doesn’t involve Mercutio directly, pause and think for a moment what an incredible exchange this is. Romeo is clueless but not that clueless. He has to know that every Capulet except Juliet (and perhaps Rosaline) hates him just for his name and that Tybalt hates Montagues worst of all. But he probably never received Tybalt’s letter of challenge; there’s no reason to think he’s been home all day. Whereas Tybalt can only assume he has received it and has come to the square for no other reason. Like Mercutio, who knows about the challenge but not about the marriage to Juliet, he must think Romeo has taken leave of his senses. Romeo’s response to his next line isn’t calculated to change his mind:


Boy, this shall not excuse the injuries
That thou hast done me, therefore turn and draw.


Ido protest, I never injuried thee,
But love thee better than thou canst devise
Till thou shalt know the reason of my love.
And so, good Capulet, which name I tender
As dearly as my own, be satisfied.

Just imagine how Tybalt would react if Romeo ever told him “The reason I love you is that I just married your cousin Juliet.” How could Tybalt (or for that matter Mercutio) even make sense of a line like “good Capulet, which name I tender/As dearly as my own”?

But—and this is what matters—we can make sense of it. We (imaginary world premiere audience or real twenty-first-century audience) understand how Shakespeare, with dramatic mastery today’s screenwriters can only envy, ratchets up the tension to this unbearable level.

Imagine once again that you are in that world premiere audience at the Globe, and that you have no idea what happens next. What do you expect will happen next? This?


 O calm, dishonourable, vile submission:
Alla stoccata carries it away!
[He draws]
Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you walk?

 He’s been provoking the “fiery Tybalt” since the Capulet showed up, but now he’s gone decisively past words. This is the scene I brought up at the end of the last post. See now what I meant about how your view of Tybalt shapes your view of Mercutio? If you think Tybalt, though a bully, is actually a dangerous person to cross, this challenge of Mercutio’s looks at least reckless and at most insane, and one way or another it needs to be explained. Since Shakespeare doesn’t explain it, you’re forced to impute some motive such as defending Romeo, but is he really ready to lay down his life for his friend? Greater love than this no man hath, and all that, but surely this is a bit much. If, on the other hand, you attend to what Shakespeare wrote and remember that Mercutio hates and contemns Tybalt, his actions make much more sense. He plainly thinks he can take Tybalt, the heat is getting to him, and he wants to defend his lovesick friend. That last motive leads to the deep irony that it is Romeo’s getting between Tybalt and Mercutio that allows Tybalt to thrust under his arm and stab Mercutio fatally. (That an interpretation leads to an ironic outcome is always a point in its favor when reading Shakespeare.)

I think we can also draw conclusions about how the fight should be staged. (In his plays for the open-air theatres, Shakespeare does not give elaborate stage directions; he doesn’t need to, because he’s delineated the characters sharply enough that we can tell how they act without signposts.) It seems pretty clear to me that it should happen so fast, nobody really has time to think. Mercutio and Tybalt don’t really have a lot of time to trade the upper hand: as Romeo says, the Prince’s edict against public fighting still stands. And that’s why he gets between them, surely in an impulsive, not a considered, act. Since we’ll see Tybalt fight Romeo, here we don’t even need to see whether, as Mercutio might put it were he written today, he fights like a girl.

Once again, Zeffirelli misses the boat so completely you’ve got to wonder which pier he thought it left from. As I mentioned in my original review, Zefferelli inexplicable stages this scene with Mercutio sitting in a fountain for most of its length. True, the day is viciously hot and Mercutio is fashionably but inappropriately dressed in black, but he looks ridiculous and is hardly in a position to defend himself. As you’d expect from this, Zefferelli gets the dynamics of the scene all wrong—backwards, in fact. I think I’ve quoted quite enough from this scene to prove that Mercutio is the active, disruptive force here; that’s a tough act to pull off when you’re sitting in a fountain. Zefferelli plainly has no idea at all why Mercutio challenges Tybalt, so he reverses the action; he has Tybalt splash Mercutio as he’d sitting in the fountain. Correlatively, Shakespeare’s Tybalt, who came into the square to have it out with Romeo, is nowhere in evidence here; Zefferelli’s Tybalt is easily distracted and, instead of coming back to finish Romeo off after he flees, has to be chased down by Romeo. (On Zefferelli’s behalf I will say that the shocked look on Michael York’s face when he realizes he’s actually hit Mercutio is a very good touch; it admits of many possibilities, including that at bottom Tybalt doesn’t believe his own braggadocio.) And since Zefferelli’s hallmark is substituting empty spectacle for Shakespeare’s precise language and close observation of character, it’s no wonder that the two swordfights are drawn out way past the point of boredom.

As for the other film version you’re at all likely to see, Baz Luhrmann is even less concerned with fidelity to Shakespeare, but I think he still gets more right than Zeffirelli. Judge for yourselves below.

[EDITED 26 JULY 2011: I did manage to find a clip of part of Zefferelli’s treatment. Note how it drags on for almost ten minutes before the uploader cut it off, and Mercutio is still bursting with vigor.]

And here is Luhrmann’s version:

Mercutio’s decision to fight bears witness to the fact that most of our decisions, even impulsive but life-changing ones, are determined by a mixture of motives, some of which we might not even be aware of. But if protecting Romeo is one of those motives, the outcome is deeply ironic; trying to break up the fight, Romeo gets Mercutio killed. Although Romeo tries to minimize the damage, Mercutio, knows he is done for. His death scene is probably best known for the curse “A plague on both your houses” (which he utters three times), one of those Shakespearean phrases that has become so embedded in the language it doesn’t seem to have come from anywhere. But though he goes out in a blaze of wit, the overwhelming impression I get is of rage:


Courage, man, the hurt cannot be much.


No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door, but ’tis enough,’twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o’ both your houses. Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a man to death. A braggart, a rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of arithmetic—why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm.


I thought all for the best.

Romeo is the tonguetied friend who can’t process what has happened, but he’s also still the naïve kid who would “think it for the best” to distract his friend in the middle of a fight for his life. (Note that he actually says “I thought all for the best”; ask yourself what he could mean by that.) But Mercutio knows he doesn’t have time for this; that last volley of cynical wordplay (“Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man”) is probably his best known. Note how his biggest resentment is that it was Tybalt who killed him, the braggart who “fights by the book” (as Romeo “kisses by the book”?), no better than an animal (keep this list of animals in the back of your mind when we get to the end of King Lear). And so, with a last “A plague on both your houses,” he’s carried away to die offstage. (Though not before climbing a steep flight of stairs in both Zefferelli and Luhrmann—a strange and unwise expenditure of energy for a man who knows he’s dying.)

We’ll send him off with a brief farewell in our next post.

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