Romeo and Mercutio

Courtly lover and madman

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Partly because you will be thoroughly familiar with the main line of the plot of Romeo and Juliet, I am going to start my discussion of the play by beating about the bush: I will ask you to look at Romeo before he meets Juliet; at the brilliant but eccentric speech of Mercutio on Queen Mab; at Romeo and Juliet as tragedy; and at some of the many colourful minor characters in the play--then to look again at Romeo and Juliet themselves.

Look with some care at the dialogue between Benvolio and Romeo, 1. 1. lines 163-241.

What in Romeo's language reminds you of the language of courtly love?

Do you feel that Romeo shows a tendency to excess?

Look especially at the near-comic juxtaposition of ideas in lines 174-8, just before Romeo's first apostrophe to Love. Romeo begins by referring to the convention of blind Cupid, playing punningly on Benvolio's use of the word "view"; the normal, adolescent young man emerges for a moment as his mind turns to food; then as he sees evidence of the brawl between the Montagues and Capulets he is distracted again; and finally he uses the paradox of love and hate to launch into a rhetorically ingenious (but how deeply felt?) examination of the paradoxes of love.

Is it fair to say that at this point in the play Romeo is little different from Demetrius and Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

Look ahead to the next scene with Romeo (still before he has met Juliet), 1. 2, particularly lines 91-6 where he speaks again in response to Benvolio. The lines actually form the rhyme pattern of the sestet of a sonnet.

Where have you come across the images Romeo uses before?

Think of Orlando in the first three acts of As You Like It, even perhaps Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing. And you might for fun remind yourself of the famous anti-Petrarchan sonnet (130) "My mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun."

How would you describe Romeo's love for Rosaline? What is its effect on your later response to his love for Juliet?

Why did Shakespeare give Romeo an earlier love at all? Doesn't it make his love for Juliet less romantic?

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Mercutio and Queen Mab

One character who enjoys himself immensely while mocking Romeo's love-sick mood is Mercutio. Look at the delightful (and bawdy) scene between him and Benvolio as they try to find Romeo, now hiding behind the orchard wall (2. 1).

What effect on the immediately following balcony scene does this interlude have?

Mercutio's best moment in the play is undoubtedly his set piece on Queen Mab (1. 4. 53-103). It seems an oddly irrelevant moment in the play at first, an aria where the action stops for a moment of lyric beauty, more appropropriate surely in the context of a comedy; compare Oberon's description of the flower, "love-in-idleness," in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Yet, just as Oberon's description of the flower from which the magic juice was squeezed makes clearer the oposition in that play between passion and reason, so Mercutio's speech explores some of the images of particular importance in Romeo and Juliet, and its dramatic change of mood echoes the movement of the play as a whole from the high-spirited, rambunctious actions of youth to the darker, adult world of tragedy.

Mercutio begins by creating a fantastic, fragile world, remarkably like that of A Midsummer Night's Dream: Mab seems a charming combination of Titania and Puck, with her tiny coach made of spiders' webs, grasshoppers' wings, and so on--though the odd image of the worm "Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid" (1. 4. 66) perhaps fits less comfortably into the cosy, almost cute picture.

But by line 70 the mood begins to change as Mercutio shifts to a description of the effect Queen Mab has on the sleeper. She triggers an appropriate dream in each person she visits: lovers dream of love, courtiers of bowing, lawyers of fees (a touch of satire, surely), ladies dream of kisses--but again there is an edge added, as the ladies have often, it seems tried to cover bad breath with "sweetmeats," whereupon Mab gives them "blisters" (75--cold sores, no doubt). The tone continues to darken as Mab stirs courtiers into "smelling" (not a complimentary word) out a "suit" (78), a chance to plead for someone, with the appropriate reward (or bribe). Parsons are likewise concerned more with money than godly matters, and the soldier (remember Hotspur's disturbed sleep, described so graphically by Lady Percy in Henry the Fourth Part One, 2. 3. 37-64)--the soldier is frightened into prayer.

The whole speech moves in a gradual crescendo from the lyric to the agitated and the disturbing. Mab is finally pictured as a wholly mischievous, even evil force, tangling hair, which itself is an omen of misfortune, and taking on the role of incubus, the dream-figure which was said to sleep (in the sexual sense) with women. No wonder Romeo, love-sick (love-loving) Romeo interrupts Mercutio.

Where might his thoughts have led next?

Then, though the darkness evoked by Mercutio's fantasy is dismissed as "nothing," and as "dreams" (1. 4. 96), the darkness persists somewhat, as Romeo speaks forebodingly of some "bitter . . . consequence yet hanging in the stars" (108, 107).

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Comedy to Tragedy

You may have noticed that the action of Romeo and Juliet as a whole is remarkably like the movement of Mercutio's speech. The play begins with a seemingly comic plot: love-sick hero falls truly in love; his love is returned; but there is the complication of the disapproval of parents. There is even the comic figure of the nurse as go-between. Romeo and Juliet turns abruptly from comedy to tragedy with the death of Mercutio; in Romeo and Juliet the audience is never lulled into accepting a comic pact. Look back at the opening "Chorus" or prologue. Today, of course, everyone has heard of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet; but even if someone had not, the opening of the play announces that its ending is to be tragic.
Tragic mask

What is the effect of this prior knowledge on your reading of the early comic or romantic scenes?

Coleridge points out that irony and surprise are incompatible dramatic devices (and he clearly prefers irony); irony requires that the audience know more than at least some of the characters on stage. Think back to the great tragedies you studied in the first course; can you think of occasions where you were surprised by actions or situations? If you were not, how does Shakespeare sustain interest, and even create suspense, when you know what is going to happen? Think (for example) of the famous comic scenes--the gravediggers in Hamlet, the porter in Macbeth.

Nonetheless, it is surely appropriate that the title-page of the first quarto of Romeo and Juliet called the play "An excellent conceited tragedy." The word "conceited" means something like "ingenious" or "witty," words more likely to be associated with comedy. It is not quite the world of "tragical mirth" we find in "Pyramus and Thisbe," the play-within-the-play of A Midsummer Night's Dream (see 5. 1. 57), but critics have often been uncomfortable with the machinery of a comic plot in a tragedy of the intensity of Romeo and Juliet. Certainly you will have found Romeo and Juliet different from the major tragedies you have read. In particular, the story concerns young--very young--lovers, rather than those in a position of power.

Is there a correspondingly lower level of intensity in the play as a result?

Compare the deaths of Romeo and Juliet with those of the mature lovers, Antony and Cleopatra.

What difference is there between the plays apart from the ages of the protagonists?

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Romeo and Juliet as tragedy

One consistent ingredient of tragedy is a largeness of scale that allows us to see beyond the individual to the tragedy we all share. In Aristotle's terms, there is not merely pity (an emotion which implies a distance between audience and protagonist and which can indeed be patronizing), but there is also terror, a feeling which reflects back upon the audience a shared sense of the suffering endured by the protagonist. We feel pity for someone; we share a terror with someone. Is Romeo and Juliet a play therefore of pity--pathos--only? The title page (this time of the second quarto) describes it as a "lamentable" tragedy.

Certainly we are less conscious of the larger fate of the nation or city-state resting on the deaths of Romeo and Juliet than we are in the deaths of Hamlet, Macbeth, or Lear.

Are there other ways in which the intensity of the play reaches beyond pity?

Let me suggest four ways in which the question may be answered positively.

  1. There are many references in the play to fate, beginning with the opening chorus. As you work through the play, make a note of the various times the stars, or fate, are seen as arbitors of human misfortune. Greek tragedy emphasized the powerlessness of humans in the face of the fate decreed by the gods.

    If there is a consistent sense of fate in the play, does this lend it a wider sense of the tragic than a simple story of two young lovers?

  2. Contrasting with the feeling that humans are not fully in control of their destinies is the unquestioned emphasis in the play on the destructive effects of excessive haste. Again, look for the many occasions when hotheadedness leads to disaster--not only in the actions of Romeo and Juliet, but in those of Tybalt, Paris, and Old Capulet.

    Does the urgency of action, its impatience, also heighten the intensity of the play?

    How do you reconcile the seeming contradiction between seeing human misfortune as the result of fate, and seeing it as the result of a flaw in the individual--excessive haste? Read the "Introduction," pp. xxiv-xxvi, and (as Bryant suggests) compare the similar counterpoint between individual choice and external prompting (ghosts, witches, etc.) in the later tragedies.

  3. Many of the first group of Sonnets (1-20) suggested that children offered a kind of immortality or continuity. Both Romeo and Juliet were the only children of the feuding families.

    Is there a kind of tragedy of waste and sterility in the ending, with the other young bloods Tybalt, Mercutio, and Paris also gone?

  4. The extreme youth of Romeo and Juliet means that their lives have had less effect on those around them than have the lives of Hamlet, Macbeth, or Lear. But can it be said that their very youthfulness is a kind of hyperbole, an exaggeration which intensifies our response much as does Lear's extreme age, for example? Look at the scenes which some have found embarrassing, when Romeo and Juliet succumb to excessive passion (both scenes with the Friar, 3. 3 and 4. 1).

    Is it fair to call their rages tantrums?

    Old Capulet does pretty well too when he is angry at Juliet's refusal to wed Paris--3. 5. 142-97.) One modern stage practice which may have emphasized the embarrassing near-childishness of these scenes is the tendency for the parts to be taken by established--and therefore older--actors and actresses. Remember that Juliet would have been acted by a boy of no more than Juliet's age (thirteen). If you have see the Zeffirelli film of Romeo and Juliet -- or the more recent film of Baz Luhrmann -- you will have seen how effective the casting of truly young actors in these roles can be.

    I also think that Shakespeare's audience would have found the extreme youth of the hero and heroine unusual enough to be a source of added intensity in response. Contrary to popular belief about the period, it was unusual for people to marry at a young age in Shakespeare's day; even the occasional youthful marriage of members of the nobility was arranged to cement alliances of power or commerce, certainly not as the result of a romantic passion like that of Romeo and Juliet.

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This page last updated April 16, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best,
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