How does Shakespeare present the character of Mercutio and what role does he play in Romeo and Juliet Paper
In the famous Shakespearean play Romeo and Juliet the character Mercutio is a close friend of Romeos and has an arrogant and cynical personality. He only features in the first part of the play but despite this his character plays a very key role through his loyalty to Romeo in setting up the rest of the story.
His character is clearly very comic in the sense that he is constantly joking and using puns right up to his death. A key example that I feel expresses the comedy of his character is how he mocks Romeos sworn enemy Tybalt: Because there is a feud between the Montague (Romeos) and Capulet (Juliets) families Mercutio feels it is his duty as a friend to Romeo to side with the Montagues. Firstly in Act 2 scene 4 he insults Tybalts name as it is also a popular name for a cat.
Mercutio: ‘More than Prince of cats.’ Also he insults the way in which Tybalt fights suggesting it is predictable and effeminate.
‘He fights as you sing prick song, keeps the time distance and proportion; he rests his minim rests one, two, and the third in your bosom.’ ‘Ah the immortal ‘passado,’ the ‘punto reverso,’ the ‘hay!’ ‘ He is mocking the names of popular fencing moves. In Shakespearean times it was the comic side of Mercutios role that would have appealed to the lower class ‘peasant’ members of the audience who had a more immature sense of humour than that of the wealthier ones.
There is quite a clear contrast between Romeo and Mercutio in the play despite their close friendship. The way they view the subject of love for example is very different, this is shown during their conversation in act 1 scene 4: Mercutio, Romeo and Benvolio have entered a Capulet party and there is difficulty getting Romeo to dance; because he is madly in love with Rosaline he feels unable to. It is as if the feeling of being in love depresses him.
‘Is love a tender thing? It is too rough, too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn.’ He cannot see it could be described as a great light hearted thing when he is feeling so down. Mercutio responds to this in an unexpected manner.
‘If love be rough with you, be rough with love: Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down.’ The way he sees it is ‘give as good as you get’ and basically ‘go out there and get some!’ Clearly very opposite responses here, this also adds to the comedy factor.
Mercutio indeed brings comedy into an otherwise tragic play, proving himself to be a true friend to Romeo not just in the sense that he remains faithful to him within the feud against the Capulet’s but also in the sense that he attempts to cheer Romeo up when he is in a love-sick state of mind at the beginning of the play over Rosaline. I mentioned earlier that Mercutios and Romeos views differ considerably on the subject of love; when Romeo mentions his uncertainty due to a dream about entering the Capulet party, Mercutio replies with the Queen Mab speech (act 1 scene 4): he effectively blasts Romeo with his viewpoint and therefore we not only realise the differences in opinion the two characters have; we also notice a great change in the character of Mercutio himself. Until this speech begins the conversation between Romeo and Mercutio consists of generally relaxed banter and has a fairly gentle mood, this all changes when Mercutio produces this great 42 line speech beginning with the words:
‘O then I see Queen Mab hath been with you’ Suddenly he speaks to Romeo in a much faster pace, with fewer breaths; with the purpose of convincing Romeo that he is being silly for having reluctance to enter the party and that people should not put faith in dreams:
‘Dreamers often lie.’ Mercutio has a clear changeable character which develops from swift puns with witty joking to quick tempered seriousness. Beginning with fanciful charming imagery his words lead into more alarming ideas on how for example the cover for Queen Mabs’ chariot is formed from the wings of grasshoppers. The speech foreshadows the structure of the play as a whole: Beginning with dreaming and harmless light- heartedness: reflecting when Romeos love for Juliet is acquired and no more than verbal fighting takes place between the Capulets and Montagues; gradually developing to increase pace and resulting in nightmares: spurring from Mercutios stabbing which is later followed by the poisoning of Juliet.
Due to the speech’s early positioning within the play its purpose is not only to prophesise what is yet to come but also to act as an introduction to Mercutios’ part; proving him to be a charming and likeable character; which is why his death comes across as even more heartbreaking to the audience later on. Because of the family feud, in act 3 scene 1 Mercutios death occurs after an awkward chain of events which spur from him picking a fight with Romeos sworn enemy Tybalt. Occurring quite early on in the play his death is presented by Shakespeare in quite a light hearted way: even on his death bed he continues cracking puns. For example when Romeo doesn’t realise how serious his friends stab wound is in Act 3 scene 1 Mercutio states:
‘Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.’ This is a pun because the word ‘grave’ not only means serious, it could also be referring to the fact Mercutio will be dead tomorrow and therefore be buried in a grave. Also he curses both families as he dies saying:
‘A plague on both your houses.’ In Shakespearean times this was a very serious insult. At this point in the play it appears Mercutio no longer wants to take sides but he is simply symbolising how the feud has gone too far as to lead a man to death. Another reason he may not want to support Romeo further is because the wound happened whilst under his arm, meaning he may blame him for this, and resultantly be angry with both families.
Audiences of the Shakespearean time liked different attributes of the theatrical characters depending on their own personal class. The groundling peasants for example would like the insults and sexual innuendos that Mercutio used because they were of a lower level of intellect and understanding. For example in Act 2 scene 4 Mercutio sings about the nurse,
‘An old hare hoar, And an old hare hoar, is very good meat in lent, but a hare that is hoar, is too much of a score, when it hoars ere to be spent.’ In modern day English he is effectively saying that the nurse is old and past her time, not only that but she’s a whore who no one would go for unless desperate. This is extremely rude so again would have appealed to the groundlings immature sense of humour. Seated more wealthy audience members however would have approved of Mercutios wit and loyalty to Romeo because of their higher level of intellect. When in Act 3 scene 1 Benvolio suggests that Mercutio and Tybalt retire to some place less public, Mercutio stands firm and prepares to fight standing up for Romeo.
‘Men’s eyes were made to look and let them gaze; I will not budge for no man’s pleasure , I.’ This also shows Mercutio to be quite a stubborn character as he ignores Benvolios advice. Secondly those whom were seated would be of greater intelligence giving them better understanding of some of the poetry and puns his character used to express his feelings.
In conclusion Mercutios character is a very unique one and a foil to Romeo. His death is a major turning point after which the play changes from light heartedness to tragedy. Not only appealing to one class of audience members but to all with his different attributes. His character is fundamental for helping to unfold the play.