Romeo and Juliet–Twelve Thousnd Words

That’s my rough estimate of how much time we’ve spent in Mercutio’s company. That’s a great many more words than I intend to expend on Romeo. You may still be wondering why. Now that the Internet has turned us all into newts, can’t I say it in 140 characters?

If I could, of course I’d do it on Twitter instead of this blog. “Romeo’s companion, always cracking dirty jokes, killed halfway through” is only 70 characters, and it sums up Mercutio’s role in the play pretty well.

I have to admit that when I started to write about Mercutio I did not intend to go much deeper than that. I didn’t plan this series of posts. I didn’t expect to spend nearly so much time on him. Frankly, I’ve been thinking out loud. (Which is fine. This is a blog, not a book. There is still a difference. Remember that when my book goes on sale.) But the more I looked at Mercutio the more complexity I saw, and the greater the need to look carefully at how Shakespeare presents that complexity and to what ends. Shakespeare is no exception to the rule that all great writers teach us how to read them, and our examination of Mercutio has already taught us a lot about his methods. This post is the summary of what we’ve learned.

I. What Have We Learned About Mercutio?

My 70-character summary is pretty much the version of Mercutio you get in—wait for it—Zeffirelli. But don’t take my word for it. I’ve linked to the clips, so you can see for yourself what a grossly oversimplified version of the character Zeffirelli presents. Once again, I’m not saying that this is necessarily wrong; but Zeffirelli’s Mercutio is demonstrably not the character Shakespeare wrote. That character, as we have seen, is exceptionally complex. You could say that Shakespeare is simply depicting him realistically; any adolescent male is going to be a cauldron of roiling emotions. But let’s review the range Shakespeare presents in a relatively short space (remember, Mercutio appears in only four scenes).

  1. The Queen Mab speech, our first real sight of him, shows right off that he has a poetic imagination and linguistic inventiveness much superior to anybody else in the play, at least at this point. At the same time, it makes his basic attitudes—a deep general cynicism (Mab makes lawyers dream of fees, soldiers of cutting throats, i.e., what they dream of anyway) and a particular dislike of women (whom Mab teaches to “bear” when they lie on their backs)—abundantly clear. 
  2. After the Capulets’ party, Mercutio is high-spirited, concerned that he and Benvolio can’t find Romeo but letting slip a certain aggressiveness that that bursts into full flowered misogyny with the “open-arse” speech.
  3. The morning after, Mercutio (who, as I should have mentioned in my original post, is like as not hung over as well as sleepless) is still concerned about his friend Romeo, but we now see that it’s the concern of a member of the boys’ club for another. But that concern is more heavily shaded with aggressiveness; in disparaging Tybalt’s fighting style he is insulting Romeo, who he thinks can’t even handle the Prince of Cats. (By implication, he’s also puffing himself against the effete Capulet fencer.) And when Romeo does show up, Mercutio’s greeting has an air of mockery about it that indicates he has a real issue with his friend. (Could it possibly be—sexual jealousy? Call it homoerotic if you insist, but consider the possibility that Mercutio’s manifest irritation with Romeo springs from his assumption that Romeo got laid last night and he didn’t.) His consecutive defeats at the hands of Romeo and the Nurse show that he has bullying tendencies, in that he’s the one who runs away.
  4. And they color his final appearance that afternoon, since it’s likely the petulance he reveals adds to the heat to put him on the hair trigger Tybalt sets off, with fatal consequences for both.

II. What Have We Learned About Shakespeare’s Methods?

  1. First of all, we see that he has a subtle psychological acuity that hadn’t been seen previously and has rarely been seen since. Mercutio is a tough character to draw: a confused young man with his emotions hanging out, who has markedly likeable and unlikeable characteristics, and whose constant wisecracking is a mark of fundamental insecurity. Ask yourself this: with everything that’s going on in Mercutio’s head, does he ever seem to you to act inexplicably or unnaturally? Does he do anything solely to advance the plot? If your answer is no, as I think it has to be, that’s testimony to Shakespeare’s ability to get into his characters’ minds. This is the first thing that strikes us when we start to look at him closely, and we can feel it when it’s missing.
  2. That’s what’s wrong with Zeffirelli’s version. It’s not that he cuts; every director is obliged to cut, lest you end up with a four-hour production such as Kenneth Branagh’s film of Hamlet. It’s that he sacrifices everything to soft-focus romance, cutting all of Shakespeare’s subtlety. We’ve learned from Mercutio that Shakespeare pays extremely close attention to his characters and that we need to do likewise. Any detail can be crucial to a characterization, so you cut at your peril. One example that impresses me more the more I reflect is Mercutio’s attitude toward Tybalt. As I’ve explained over the last few posts, lengthy passages of banter make it clear that Mercutio thinks Tybalt is a lousy swordsman, not to be taken seriously. You can cut those passages as Zeffirelli does—making it easier on the viewer who no longer needs to puzzle them out, certainly—but as I showed you get a completely different characterization. Is it wrong? As I’ve conceded, not necessarily; but you have to carry it through and make all of the necessary adjustments elsewhere. At its best, Shakespeare’s language is a seamless web; pull too hard on a thread and the whole structure just might unravel on you.
  3. Although a director should cut judiciously if at all, it’s up to an actor to forge the characterization, and part of the process is emphasizing some aspects Shakespeare put into the play and deemphasizing others. This leads me to the reflection that these last few posts can be said—although I am by no stretch of the imagination an actor—to be coming from an actor’s point of view. How do you play this line? How does it contribute to the characterization? What would be different without it? Remember that Shakespeare was an actor and that even as a writer he was surrounded (and no doubt badgered) by actors, so that he must always be writing with them in mind. It can never hurt, and should almost always help, if we ask: What could an actor do with this material?
  4. This is one reason everybody recommends reading Shakespeare aloud; lines written to be acted may make clearer and more immediate sense when sounded than when seen on the page. But it should be plain, for example from the Queen Mab speech, that Shakespeare also wrote to be read.

III.      Mercutio and I

And so we bid farewell to Mercutio, but I would like to play us out with a speculation. As you know, I’m not big on speculation; but in thinking about Mercutio I asked myself: What would have happened if he hadn’t been killed? If he had survived, what sort of adult would he be? And the answer came to me: Withnail, of Withnail and I. Withnail is an extraordinary linguistic virtuoso; like the great Shakespearean actor he wants to be, he is always improvising little soliloquies. But he’s also mad, bad, and dangerous to know, as “I” finds out to his peril. Although Withnail and I draws thematically on Hamlet rather than Romeo and Juliet, there are certain respects in which Mercutio is a dry run for Hamlet. Is it too much to see the adolescent Mercutio in Withnail’s recitation, at the end of the movie, spoken in the rain, of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man” soliloquy, especially the last line of the whole movie, “Man delights not me, nor woman either”?

Maybe. But in researching this post I learned something truly extraordinary. Bruce Robinson, the writer and director of Withnail and I, started out as an actor—and his first role was as Benvolio in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet! More amazing still, Robinson was repelled by Zeffirelli’s sexual advances to such a degree that he modeled Withnail’s Uncle Monty on him. With Romeo and Juliet playing such a role in his young career, perhaps one of the play’s most vivid characters seeped into Robinson’s greatest creation.