Mercutio! Best friend of Romeo, nomad who does not belong to either house, resident joker, and performer extraordinaire.
Where to start with such a fascinating character? Perhaps, with someone else’s words…
“Shakespeare’s Mercutio has the poise and the rippling wit of the man of the world. By temperament he is irrepressible and merry; his charm is infectious. His speech runs freely between fancies of exquisite delicacy and the coarser fringe of worldly humour; and he has the sensitiveness of sympathetic fellowship.” (Shakespearean Tragedy, ed. Charlton, Cambridge University Press)
Mercutio, by many arguments, can be seen as the life and the soul of this play. He is certainly more interesting to watch than Romeo at the start, who is “groaning for love”. He is the one to snap Romeo out of his mood by telling his friend “we must have you dance”, and then sneaking in to the Capulet party. He is a man of show: what other reason could there be for a speech so weird and wacky as his on Queen Mab? And it is in his ending that he is both performative and destructive – but more on that next week.
Yet Mercutio, for all his charm and playing, has a sense of urgency to him. He is unstoppable in the Queen Mab speech, as he launches forth, and needs Romeo to say “Peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talkest of nothing” just to bring him back to his senses.
And arguably Mercutio does say nothing. Certainly nothing of any real consequence, it seems, until he is on his deathbed; then he cries “a plague on both your houses!”. But even then, he follows it with puns and jokes, returning to the flippancy and free-running nature of his speech that we have come to know so well.
We also wonder how good a friend Mercutio can be to Romeo, given his nature as a performer, a joker, an anti-romantic. Mercutio “might have understood the depth of Romeo’s love for Juliet. But the camaraderie and the worldly savoir-faire of Mercutio gives him no inkling as to the nature of Romeo’s passion” (Shakespearean Tragedy, CUP). Mercutio is so anti-romantic that he cannot possibly empathise with his friend. Romeo simply needs snapping out of it, needs to return to jesting with his friends: “Now art thou sociable. Now art thou Romeo”. And yet Romeo, as his name tells us, is the embodiment of love.
So how can Mercutio be his closest friend when Mercutio is blind to who Romeo really is?
And as well as his friendship with Romeo, Mercutio is vitally important in terms of it is in his character where the centre of the action lies in this tragedy. His refusal to accept Romeo’s “calm, dishonourable, vile submission” to Tybalt inevitably results in his death, and as a result, Romeo’s killing Tybalt and being banished. Mercutio is a leading man – and leading men do not turn down a challenge. And Mercutio refuses to be anything other than a performer, even in death: “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man”. His words here are “… a grim joke to accompany a dying curse.” (Shakespeare’s Tragedies, ed. Lerner).
It takes a certain kind of person to make a pun about their own death as they are actually dying. Fair play, Mercutio – I don’t think anyone else would have done that.
Mercutio thrives on his being unique, on his being unable to be ‘boxed’ – and this sort of freedom is the hurricane that tears through a tragedy, leaving disaster in its wake. And while I wouldn’t suggest that Shakespeare has Mercutio do this consciously, the rest of the play speaks for itself.
Because once Mercutio is gone, everyone starts to fall.
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Next time I’ll be looking particularly at Mercutio’s final scene – the fight! Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Mercutio in the comments or you can chat to me over on twitter.
See you next week!