The role of a comic character: Mercutio

Shakespeare uses Mercutio as one of the characters to explore the relationship between comedy and tragedy in Romeo and Juliet. Mercutio, in his own comic role serves as a foil for Romeo by highlighting his youth, innocence and the purity of his love which sets Romeo as the innocent tragic hero. His rash purist of honour softens our impression of Romeo’s rashness and his concept of love as a physical pursuit casts Romeo’s love for Juliet into a spiritual light. Mercutio is important to the plot because his actions bring about the turning point of the play and alter its course towards tragedy.

Mercutio’s first appearance shows Romeo and his friend as quite opposite characters. He is bawdy, talkative, a witty skeptic, clever, quick-tempered and brave. He tries to tease Romeo out of his lovesickness for Rosaline and accepts Tybalt’s challenge to defend Romeo’s honour and is killed, precipitating Romeo’s enraged reaction during which Romeo kills Tybalt.

Mercutio acts in contrast from Romeo and Benvolio. He teases Romeo for his love for Rosaline by using images of Petrarchan infatuation. For example, when Romeo refuses to dance at the feast because he is suffering unrequited love, Mercutio mocks; “You are a lover, borrow Cupid’s wings and soar with them above a common bound”. Mercutio emphasises his physical view of love with his bawdy wordplay; “If love be rough with you, be rough with love: prick love for pricking and you beat love down”. His repeated references to the physical aspect of love casts Romeo’s love for Juliet in a more spiritual light.

In his famous Queen Mab speech, Mercutio shows his eloquence and vivid imagination while illustrating his aggressiveness and cynical side. While building tension for Romeo’s first meeting with Juliet, this speech indicates that although Mercutio is Romeo’s friend, he can never be his confidant.

Mercutio treats the subject of dreams like love with witty scepticism and describes them as ‘fantasy’.

He suggests that fairies bring dreams to humans as a result of men’s desires and anxieties. To him, lawyers dream of collecting fees and lovers dream of encounters. In juxtaposing lawyers and lovers, soldiers and the fairies, his eloquent speech touches on a number of the opposing themes such as love and hate, fantasy and reality, idealism and cynicism.

It also gives insight into Mercutio’s aggressive and cynical nature. His description of the lovers is brief compared with the violent image of the solider who dreams of “cutting foreign throats”. The beauty of the ladies’ lips is quickly followed by the image of Queen Mab blistering their lips with plague sores because they had eaten too many sweets.

After the feast, Mercutio and Benvolio’s search for Romeo provides a comic interlude between Romeo and Juliet’s meetings, juxtaposing two very different and conflicting attitudes to love.

Mercutio’s teasing is ironic because he is unaware that Romeo has fallen in love with Juliet and mistakenly invokes images of Rosaline to call him; “I conjure thee by Rosaline’s bright eyes” and his ideas contrast sharply with Romeo’s religious imagery of “bright angel” and “dear saint”. Having teased Romeo earlier that day, Mercutio now adds more stings to his barbs. He jests that Romeo will think of Rosaline as a medlar fruit, which was supposed to look like the female genitalia and himself as a poperin pear shaped like the male genitalia;

“Wish his mistress were that kind of fruit as maids call medlars… O that she were an open-arse, thou a pop’rin pear!” Shakespeare uses Mercutio’s cynical attitude to distinguish Romeo and Juliet’s love as innocent, spiritual, and intense. Because the audience is aware that Romeo is not moved by Mercutio’s speech, this proves that Romeo has begun to mature.

The morning after the Capulet feast, Mercutio and Benvolio search for Romeo. Mercutio blames Romeo’s absence on his love for Rosalind; “Why, that same pale hard-hearted wench, that Rosaline”. Benvolio discovered that Tybalt has sent Romeo a challenge, and Mercutio is amused at the thought of an encounter between Romeo, the romantic and Tybalt, the fashionable “Prince of Cats”; “Alas poor Romeo, he is already dead…run through the ear with a love-song…is he a man to encounter Tybalt?”

Romeo than arrives and meets Mercutio’s barbed verbal challenges with puns and quibbles