Annette is a language and drama teacher with a master's degree in education.
Mercutio as a Foil to Romeo
An initial and superficial reading might suggest that Mercutio’s purpose in Romeo & Juliet is comical relief, as his mocking of Romeo’s complicated love life is relentless. His wit and intelligence remind one of the Commedia dell Arte character, Arlecchino, and other similar comic relief characters. Mercutio is an obvious foil to the lamenting Romeo and his cynical approach to love and life is in stark contrast with Romeo’s depressing views of his unanswered love for Rosaline.
While this is all true, it is a superficial view of a far more complex character that Shakespeare positions very carefully to move the plot forward. Speculations that Mercutio's love for Romeo was more erotic than platonic is not without merit, but while this is a compelling argument it is not within the scope of this article and would be explored in more detail in a future publication.
This article covers the following five aspects of Mercutio:
- Mercutio as a Structural Device
- Mercutio's Death
- Mercutio as a Tragic Character
- Moving the Play From Tragedy to Comedy
- Mercutio as a Thematic Device
Mercutio as a Structural Device
What is clear is that Shakespeare uses Mercutio as a structural pivotal turning point twice during the play. Before Romeo and his friends reach the Capulet party in Act 1, Scene 4, Mercutio delivers his somewhat confusing Queen Mab speech. It doesn’t seem to have an effect on Romeo as he replies ‘Thou talk’st of nothing’.
This is, however, structurally critical as it happens before Romeo meets Juliet and it creates a distinct division between the previous ‘meaningless’ scenes and the following significantly more serious and meaningful scenes.
The first three scenes in Act 1 consist of fights and Romeo’s desperate attempts to get Rosaline’s attention. This love for Rosaline was clearly not serious as he instantly falls in love with Juliet after seeing her. Romeo’s language changes from lamenting about Roseline and his obvious sexual interest in her to a form of religious language where he refers to Juliet as a ‘holy shrine’ (1:5).
Mercutio on the other hand is pragmatic about love and uses violent language, depicting love as a battle when he says ‘Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down’ (1:4). This is also another foreshadowing of Romeo and Juliet’s love which ends violently after being a battle from the start.
Mercutio’s death is the next turning point in the play where the reality of a tragedy cannot be ignored anymore. When Mercutio gets ‘accidentally’ killed it is clear that the plot revolves around this moment. Many ‘if’ questions are raised.
If Mercutio did not fight Tybalt, Romeo would not have been banned and Romeo and Juliet might not have died. Is Mercutio then to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet? His name foreshadows his unpredictability and intelligence. Mercury (also the name of the Roman god—the master of words) is an unpredictable metal that responds to heat and change quickly.
In Scene 1 of Act 3, Benvolio adds to this understanding with his words ‘ these hot days, is the mad blood stirring’. It was not only his unpredictable nature and hot temper that moved him to fight but also the deep bond of brotherhood he has with Romeo. It is clear that he cares about Romeo when he says ‘gentle Romeo, we must have you dance’ (1:4); trying to convince Romeo to forget about Rosaline.
If Mercutio was indirectly responsible for the deaths it raises another question. If there was no feud, would the fight still have happened? Romeo refused to fight Tybalt as he realised the consequences, but after his best friend was killed, he had no choice and drew his sword.
Shakespeare used Mercutio’s death therefore to drive the plot forward. Mercutio pays the ultimate sacrifice to protect his friends’ honour as Romeo laments, ‘My very friend, hath got his mortal hurt In my behalf’ (3:1). A modern audience might consider this a reckless and unnecessary act, but an Elizabethan audience would have expected this and thematically this reveals the importance of masculinity at the time.
Mercutio as a Tragic Character
Mercutio now becomes a tragic figure as he realises he will die and the wordplay in the word ‘grave’ (‘ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man’ [3:1]) can be a pun referring to his death but also that when he is dead, he will be serious.
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He refers to his mortal wound as ‘a scratch’. This use of meiosis confirms his masculine image must stay intact even till the end. Mercutio’s curse ‘A plague o’ both your houses’ might be one of the most memorable quotes of the entire play, but it is a stark warning against the fighting.
If both the houses of Capulet and Montague realised how futile the fighting was, would it have stopped the deaths of the two eponymous protagonists? But instead of it being a wake-up call for the families it is a foreshadowing of the tragic end of the play.
It is worth mentioning that the superstitious audience of the time might have taken this curse literally and blamed Mercutio for the plague that prevented Friar John from reaching Romeo in time with the message of Juliet’s planned death.
This ‘accidental’ death of Mercutio is a turning point in the play. While the first two acts can be viewed as comedy (a play with a happy ending) it now changes and the last three acts are definitely only tragic.
Moving the Play From Comedy to Tragedy
Mercutio is therefore structurally essential to move the play forward and provide a definitive divide between the potential of it being a comedy to its being a full-flegded tragedy.
That however doesn’t take away from his role as a foil to Romeo and as a comic relief character. Thematically his character is important to emphasise the typical masculinity of the time. As Romeo’s dramatic foil he is aggressive and cynical while Romeo is superstitious, sentimental, and spiritual.
His misogynistic references to women as sexual beings destined to bear children during the Queen Mab speech might be Shakespeare’s attempt to highlight the difference between the status quo and Romeo and Juliet’s devoted and nearly religious love for each other. The audience of the day would have laughed at this, as women were seen as commodities, but a modern audience would definitely find the misogyny offensive.
Mercutio as a Thematic Device
Thematically Mercutio’s language and actions strengthen the ideas of masculinity, violence, love, the violence caused by love, the individual against society, and fate, to name a few.
Mercutio's quick temper and actions when Tybalt insults Romeo and his complete disgust when he utters the words ’vile submission’ (3.1) when Romeo refuses to defend his own honour is typical not only of the masculinity of the time but also says everything about his character.
Mercutio initiated the fight and the audience of the time would have expected this while Romeo’s unwillingness to fight would have been frowned upon. A modern audience would most probably view Romeo’s choice as sensible.
Mercutio had much to say about erotic love as seen in the Queen Mab speech and his conversations with Romeo. While his ideas about erotic love are cynical and cold, there are multiple indications that the love he feels for Romeo is serious, regardless if it is erotic or platonic. He seems genuinely concerned for Romeo’s well-being in Act 1 when he proclaims ‘we must have you dance’ in scene 4.
It is therefore ironic that Romeo’s new happiness is responsible for Mercutio’s death. Romeo’s fear of being banned and separated from Juliet stopped him from fighting Tybalt and allowed Mercutio to be killed. It can be said that the violence of love killed Mercutio. He got caught up in a futile fight which sealed his fate.
The poet John Dryden wrote, ‘Shakespear show’d the best of his skill in Mercutio, and he said himself, that [he] was forc’d to kill him in the third Act, to prevent being killed by him’.
Tybalt and Mercutio's Fight
Bruff. (2017). Mr Bruff’s Guide to Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
Scott, Mark W., ed. (1987). Shakespearean Criticism: Excerpts from the Criticism of William Shakespeare's Plays & Poetry, from the First Published Appraisals to Current Evaluations. Shakespearean Criticism. Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale Research. ISBN 978-0-8103-6129-4.
© 2022 Annette Hendley