Romeo and Juliet is traditionally a love story, however it also includes elements of humour and tragedy. The characters Mercutio and Benvolio both contribute to these elements, providing not only comedy but also sensibility. Both are important as not only do they bring another layer to the story and keep the audience entertained, because they are friends with Romeo they influence him significantly, and provide the catalyst which prompts him to meet Juliet, kill Tybalt and ultimately to a certain extent kill himself (leading to Juliet killing herself). The huge contrast between the characters of Mercutio and Benvolio is also very important – one is extremely peaceful and passive, while the other is aggressive and lively. To a certain extent they almost signify Romeo’s two ‘extremes’, both of which can be seen in various points throughout the play, as Romeo shows aspects of both Mercutio’s enthusiasm and Benvolio’s peace loving nature (although not to the extent of the original two characters). This role is important because it means that Mercutio and Benvolio can show the huge contrast in Romeo’s character and influence him in different ways.
Benvolio’s prosaic function is that he acts as an objective reporter or messenger of actions to others. This is necessary as it not only informs other characters of what has happened so far, it also serves as a quick reminder to the audience of the events that have taken place (as they may have forgotten during all the action). For example, after Mercutio has been “slain”, the Prince asks Benvolio to explain who the beginners of the “bloody fray” were, and he recounts the events accurately and fairly. Even though Lady Capulet accuses Benvolio of speaking “not true” as he is a “kinsman” to the house of Montague, the Prince does not see it necessary to doubt his words, which shows that he is even trusted by high members of authority, further proving his sincerity and earnestness. Another function of Benvolio is that he, to a certain extent, is a ‘peacemaker’. This role of ‘peacemaker’ is crucial to the story as it provides a good level of contrast with most of the other characters in the play, who are either locked up in the feud, or just generally have an aggressive disposition (like Tybalt and Mercutio, for example).
This is shown well in Act 1 Scene 1 when a fight breaks out between the two opposing houses. Benvolio tries to “keep the peace” by beating down their swords. Although he does try to get the combatants to “put up” their swords, he will not hesitate to fight himself if necessary (as proved when he defends himself against Tybalt, who calls him a “coward”). This demonstrates that although Benvolio does like to avoid confrontations and conflicts, he wants to uphold the Tudor ‘honour’ (and thus the honour of the Montague house) which would be important both at the time and also to the audience watching (if Benvolio did not fight when he was threatened, then he would be considered a real “coward”, and many audience members would think that he was weak and therefore would not like him as a character). Also, this proves that he is not so much of a pacifist that he will not fight when someone is threatening him, therefore showing that he is also sensible and rational.
His level-head and shrewd actions are highlighted in two of his other functions. He is the serious one out of the three friends (Romeo, himself and Mercutio), and he is always the one to stop Mercutio and Romeo’s bantering getting out of hand. For example, when in Act 2 Scene 4 Mercutio and Romeo embark on a small quibble involving lewd wordplay, Benvolio tells them to “stop there”. He is necessary here so that the plot can move on from the humorous teasing (which, however funny, cannot go on forever) to the arrival of the Nurse, which is required to confirm the impending marriage of Romeo and Juliet. Benvolio’s other role is as a comforter and sage to Romeo. At the beginning of the play, Romeo is suffering from unrequited “love” with “fair Rosaline”, and calls this love “a choking gall” but also a “preserving sweet”, showing that although for him the love he feels is beautiful and healing, because it is unreciprocated it is also poisonous and painful. Benvolio tries to console Romeo by telling him to “forget to think of her” and to “examine other beauties”. Although Romeo refuses to believe that Benvolio can “teach” him to “forget” about Rosaline, Benvolio still persists, illustrating that he is a good friend who is determined to make Romeo happy again.
Benvolio’s resolution to cure Romeo of his “good heart’s oppression” is what causes both of them to go to the “rich” Capulet’s “ancient feast”, as he thinks that going to this party will allow Romeo to look at other “admired beauties” and no longer think that Rosaline is like a “swan”, but more of a “crow”. Therefore Benvolio acts as a catalyst in the storyline, as it is at this party that Romeo meets Juliet, and the whole basis of the play is formed. It is also on the way to this ball that we meet Mercutio, another important character in the play.
Unlike the peace-keeping role of the serious Benvolio, Mercutio’s main function in the play is that he acts as a ‘comedy’ element. He constantly jokes and mocks, often using vulgar imagery (for example when the Nurse asks about the time, Mercutio answers that “the dial is now upon the prick of noon”). Shakespeare made Mercutio tease others continuously because this way, the audience would be frequently kept entertained throughout the play. Many of the audience members (especially the poorer ones) would have had to stand up for three or four hours, and if Shakespeare could make them laugh through Mercutio, then they would perhaps forget about their discomfort and enjoy the play more. Also, as the play is ultimately a tragedy as well as a romance, adding comedy would bring another layer to the story, allowing the audience to experience a full range of emotions, from sadness and despair to delight and amusement, thus enriching the experience of the play.
However, Mercutio’s function does not just involve being the ‘comic’ element (as this function is also supported by the Nurse, who too contributes her own type of coarse humour). He can also use beautiful poetic language, which illustrates his eloquence and vivid imagination, which is used to entertain the audience in another way (as opposed to his witty remarks). A good example of this is during his speech about “Queen Mab” in Act 1 Scene 4, where he juxtaposes lovely and delicate imagery about “the wings of grasshoppers” and Queen Mab’s harness of “the smallest spider web” to more unsettling and violent pictures of “soldiers” who have dreams of “cutting foreign throats”. This shows his aggressive nature, which is needed as it eventually proves his undoing (as he challenges Tybalt which ultimately results in his own death). This speech also shows his cynical side, as he talks of “lawyers” who think of money and “fees”.
This cynical personality is another function of Mercutio, as it allows his perception and understanding of love to sharply contrast that of Romeo’s. Mercutio uses coarse physical imagery and sexual jokes when he describes love and women (as he views women as solely a physical pursuit) and is sceptical and mocking of Romeo’s devotion to the “fair” and distant Rosaline and his idealised notion of love, for example when Romeo describes love as pricking “like a thorn”, Mercutio puns lewdly that “if love be rough with you, be rough with love: prick love for pricking, and you beat love down!”. Mercutio’s view of love does not change throughout the play, for example when he is trying to summon Romeo later on he makes the bold statement that he wishes Rosaline were “an open-arse” and Romeo “a pop’rin pear”.
This description falls on deaf ears with Romeo, who says that Mercutio “jests at scars that never felt a wound”, implying that Mercutio has not experienced true love like Romeo has, thus showing us how intense, real and spiritual his love for Juliet really is, as compared to his old ‘love’ (or lack thereof) for Rosaline or Mercutio’s perception of ‘love’. This therefore illustrates to the audience that Romeo’s own perception of love has changed, which is also shown by the different language that he uses. Instead of talking of love being “too rough” as he did with Rosaline, he starts to use imagery that is celestial and associated with nature, calling Juliet his “bright angel” and “dear saint”. This change in language tells us that the love he feels for Juliet is not just physical, it is also in a way physic. Consequently, Romeo’s beautiful language to describe Juliet and the love he feels for her contrasts even more sharply than before with the language that Mercutio uses to describe what he feels love is, so it allows the audience to see even more clearly how Romeo has matured in his outlook. This maturation of Romeo is another function of Mercutio – he gives rise to Romeo’s growth in personality, not just through the contrast between his view of love and Romeo’s, but also through his death.
Mercutio’s death is very important as it serves many purposes – not only does it change Romeo completely (as Romeo has to come to terms with the fact that Mercutio was “hurt under… [his] arm”), it also is the turning point in the play, moving it from what was predominately a comedy to a tragedy. Throughout the play Mercutio has been a light hearted, fun character, who generally ‘enjoys life’ and has constantly made witty remarks. His attitude to the fight keeps in with his character – it begins playfully, with Mercutio calling Tybalt “Good King of Cats” and fighting in an elegant and skilful manner with his “passado” and “punto reverso”. However, ironically, the fight ends tragically, with Mercutio being stabbed. Even in death, Mercutio fulfils his role as comedian right to the end, stating that “tomorrow”, he will be a “grave man”. Using comedy here helps to buffer the sadness and shock that will come with the audience’s realisation that Mercutio is dying, as it is the first death of a main character in the play (after Mercutio’s death, many other deaths follow in succession).
The comedy element is also why people warmed to him to begin with, so to see him especially dying is poignant and heartbreaking, and shows to the audience the stupidity of the feud and how it lacks necessity. Although Mercutio is the only character to blame his death on actual people (“both” of the “houses”) instead of some external force (namely fate), he also puts a “plague” on both of “houses”, which contributes to the role of fate in the demise of Romeo and Juliet. In fact, it is after Mercutio’s death that things really start to go wrong for the eponymous hero and heroine of the play – Romeo “slays” Tybalt, resulting in his “banishment”, Juliet is forced to “marry” the “County Paris”, so seeks Friar Lawrence for help, meaning that he gives her a “vial” which makes her take on some sort of feigned death, ending in the real deaths of both Romeo and Juliet. Romeo would not have been banished if it was not for Mercutio dying, as then he would not have slayed Tybalt. Therefore Mercutio’s death is a catalyst and it is necessary in moving the story forward. His death also causes Romeo to mature as he has to come to terms with being blamed for killing Mercutio, killing Tybalt and being banished from Verona so consequently from his “bright angel”.
To conclude, the characters of Mercutio and Benvolio are essential to the play Romeo and Juliet because they act as catalysts which move the play along towards the fated ending, as well as add humour and sensibility on the way. They (Mercutio especially) are needed to entertain the audience, and therefore make them enjoy the play more (as the role of a play is to be enjoyed). Plus, the fact that Benvolio and Mercutio are consistent characters who do not change make a brilliant comparison with Romeo, who alters in many ways throughout the play. Their consistency makes Romeo’s development far more marked. It is also worth noticing that Benvolio is perhaps the only character at the end of the play to remain unharmed and unchanged, unlike the passionate Mercutio or the loving Romeo. Perhaps this is Shakespeare’s way of showing us that a peaceful, docile and sensible nature will ultimately mean that one can survive, while fervour and fire are dangerous and may lead to untoward circumstances.