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MERCUTIO: If love be rough with you, be rough with love; / Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down.
[Act 1, scene 4] Shakespeare characterises Mercutio from the beginning as sexually explicit and combative. Throughout his three Acts, Mercutio will be presented to constantly blend sex and violence, consistently presenting the idea that 'love' is just a fancy cover for our desires for sex and 'honour' is a fancy cover for our desires for violence. Rememeber: if he's not talking about or playing with one sword he's talking about or playing with the other...
MERCUTIO: O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you […] / she gallops night by night / Through lovers' brains, and then they dream of love
[Act 1, scene 4] Shakespeare's most impressive soliloquy for Mercutio, exploring dreams and wish fulfilment. Shakespeare has Mercutio jest with Romeo, musing that Mab, the bringer of dreams, has visited his lovesick friend.
MERCUTIO: O'er ladies ' lips, who straight on kisses dream, / Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues
[Act 1, scene 4] At the beginning of Mercutio's speech Mab seems a whimsical creation, much like the fairies in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. But we soon realise that Mercutio's Queen Mab is a malevolent hag who punishes "unchaste" ladies by blistering their lips and making knots in their hair that cause horrid oozing sores; this is the darker and more dangerous side of love/sex - sickenss, disease, damage, and loss of virginity.
MERCUTIO: Sometime she driveth o'er a soldier's neck, / And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats
[Act 1, scene 4] The same Mab that motivates lovers to love also motivates violent men to murder. For Mercutio, these two emotions - sex and violence - are far closer than most like to admit. But for Shakespeare, this is an idea often repeated (for example the Friar's "these violent delights have violent ends" and Mercutio's own death immediately after Romeo's wedding). Shakespeare uses Mercutio - and othes - to hammer home the message that all emotions, if pushed to extremes, can be dangerous. He also uses this speech to exemplify how quickly Mercutio's 'mercurial' mood can shift: he is a volatile character.
MERCUTIO: Romeo! humours! madman! passion! lover! / Appear thou in the likeness of a sigh: / Speak but one rhyme, and I am satisfied
[Act 2, scene 1] As in Act 1, Shakespeare uses Mercutio as a voice critical of the mock-Petrarchan, fashionably melancholic lover that Romeo has epitomised up to the point of meeting Juliet. Here, Shakespeare has the character describe Romeo in a series of metonyms, equating each of these aspects ("madman! lover!") as equally irritating to the character. He also uses the character to mock the over-the-top sighing and poetry of such lovers, which Shakespeare himself mocks in sonnet 130.
MERCUTIO: O, he is the courageous captain of compliments. He fights as you sing prick-song, keeps time, distance, and proportion
[Act 2, scene 4] Responding to the news that Tybalt has issued a challenge to duel with Romeo following the party scene, Shakespeare has Mercutio elaborate on the antagonist's skill with a sword. Where, contextually, all gentlemen were expected to be proficient with a sword, Tybalt treats it like an art form and fights as if following instructions or following a musical score.
MERCUTIO: the very butcher of a silk button, a duellist, a duellist; a gentleman of the very first house
[Act 2, scene 4] Mercutio further stresses Tybalt's skill with swords, being trained at the best fencing school in one-on-one combat ("a duellist") and likely able to fight with a rapier and dagger at the same time (a 'dualist') whilst being so skillful with both that he can hit a target as small as a silk button. He is a dangerous enemy to have and we as an audience know the danger he poses to Romeo, if not exactly how he will contribute to the overall tragedy.
MERCUTIO: The pox of such antic, lisping, affecting / fantasticoes; these new tuners of accents! […] / Why, is not this a lamentable thing, / grandsire, that we should be thus afflicted with /these strange flies, these fashion-mongers
[Act 2, scene 4] A reminder that - even if impressed by the danger Tybalt poses - the actor playing Mercutio is likely to deliver these lines with complete scorn. This style of combat, like Romeo's style of romance, is another fashion which Mercutio detests, calling both "fashion-mongers" creating the idea that they are cheap salesmen.
MERCUTIO: Without his roe, like a dried herring: flesh, flesh, / how art thou fishified!
[Act 2, scene 4] When Shakespeare has Benvolio announce that Romeo is coming on stage, Mercutio's response is a characteristically crude and sexually explicit one, using a metaphor to suggest that Romeo (as a "herring") is "dried" having spent the evening distributing his "roe" (fish eggs/semen) with - he falsely presumes - Rosaline. To be "fishified" here is seemingly a verb of Shakespeare's own coining, creating the idea that Romeo has turned from flesh to dried fish as a consequence of having too much sex. Whether delivered accusingly for ditching them or admiringly for finally gettign with Rosaline, Mercutio isn't subtle.
MERCUTIO: Why, is not this better now than groaning for love? / now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo; Now art / thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature: / for this drivelling love is like a great natural, / that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole.
[Act 2, scene 4] After a long, banterous exchange between Mercutio and Romeo, with many rude puns and sexual plays on words, Shakespeare characterises Mercutio as pleased that Romeo is exchanging jokes with him instead of moping for his love. Once again, Shakespeare characterises Mercutio as dismissing love as foolish: a “natural” is a fool/jester, and a “bauble” is the stick a professional fool carries. The image of the fool trying to “hide his bauble in a hole” also implies sexual intercourse. Once again, Mercutio’s point is that at its root, love is really just sexual desire. As far as Mercutio is concerned, all of Romeo’s romantic longing is just “drivelling” and “lolling” brought on by sexual frustration and he has been changed into a "fool". Mercutio’s cynical point of view challenges the idealistic romance of the two lovers as well as foreshadowing Romeo's realisation in Act 3, scene 1 that love has caused him harm.
MERCUTIO: [sings] an old hare hoar, / Is very good meat in lent
[Act 2, scene 4] When the nurse enters the stage, Shakespeare first has Mercutio refer to her as a "bawd" (a prostitute) and then sing a song (a bit like a rude drinking song) about a grey old rabbit. The humour of this requires you knowing that 'hair' (on your head), 'hare' (large mammal like a rabbit), 'hoar' (on old word for grey/old), 'hour' (the unit of time), and 'whore' (prostitute) all sound similar in the London accent of Shakespeare's time. Roughly explained, this - on the surface - means 'a tough bit of old meat is happily eaten when there's not much meat available' (traditionally, you're not supposed to eat meat in Lent if you're Christian) but metaphocially sees the character sing that 'an hour spent with old grey-haired prostitute is adequate for sex if there's no-one else available'. Shakespeare characterises Mercutio here has crass, brazen, explicit and insulting to the nurse here.
MERCUTIO: Consort! what, dost thou make us minstrels? […] / here's my fiddlestick; here's that shall / make you dance. 'Zounds, consort!
[Act 3, scene 1] Here we see an example of the quick-to-anger, explosive Mercutio that Benvolio warns of a few lines before. Shakespeare has him furiously interupt Tybalt after the character says that he is a "consort" of Romeo. On the surface this simply means he spends time with the character (true), but can also mean he is Romeo's entertainer/jester/musician, or - in cruder Renaissance slang - his whore. Whilst Shakespeare might have Tybalt mean all of these things (a good acted version of his might see the actor leer when he chooses the word), Mercutio's reaction leaves no room for denial. The character takes up the musical meaning ("fiddlestick" - the bow of a violin; "make you dance") but also - as it's the sex-driven Mercutio - the whore image. His "fiddlestick" here is most definitely the sword he draws but can also be held at his waist like an erection. Sex and violence, again, with some cursing ("'Zounds' - 'By God's wounds') for added emphasis.
MERCUTIO: Men's eyes were made to look, and let them gaze; / I will not budge for no man's pleasure, I.
[Act 3, scene 1] Mercutio is characterised in open defiance of the Prince's rules and stubbornly refusing to back down, much like Tybalt in Act 1, scene 5. The two characters are worryingly similar and their meeting cannot end well.
MERCUTIO: O calm, dishonourable, vile submission![…] / Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you walk?
[Act 3, scene 1] Shakespeare has Mercutio view Romeo's refusal to fight Tybalt as an unmanly disgrace. He has the character list three qualities, uniting them in meaning. For Mercutio, being "calm" is the same as being a slave in "submission" and is "vile". We're reminded of the same technique used when Tybalt claims to hate "hell, all Montagues, and thee" in Act 1, scene 1. Refusing to see the Montague name called into disrepute through Romeo's cowardess, Mercutio takes his place. The noun phrase "rat-catcher" here is both a general insult and also a mockery Tybalt's name (Tybalt was the original name of Puss'-in-Boots in the Medieval story 'Reynard the Fox').
MERCUTIO: Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch; marry, 'tis enough. / Where is my page? Go, villain, fetch a surgeon./ […] 'tis enough,'twill serve: ask for / me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.
[Act 3, scene 1] After Tybalt stabs Mercutio following Romeo's attempt to break them up, Shakespeare has Mercutio attempt a final, mocking 'brave face'. The "scratch", the character is soon made to realise, is "enough" to kill him, as the rapier's point has clearly done in deeply. The character tries for one last pun on "grave" (serious) and "grave" (dead), but we're witnessing him bleeding to death, so the humour is deeply pitiful.
MERCUTIO: A plague o' both your houses! / They have made worms' meat of me
[Act 3, scene 1] Realising that he will not survive, Mercutio is given a very real threat by Shakespeare. The "plague" - much, sadly, like modern equivalents - was a very real threat to life and wishing it on the Montagues and Capulets was a serious dying wish. Considering plague will also stop the message getting to Romeo to stop his suicide, and this play will see most of the young of each family dead, Shakespeare chooses his words carefully here. The final, horrific image can be read of metaphorical or grimly literal: Mercutio will soon be "meat" for "worms" and Shakespeare warns us of the consequences of choosing violence over peace.
BENVOLIO: O Romeo, Romeo, brave Mercutio's dead!
[Act 3, scene 1] In a horrific echo of Juliet's words on the balcony of Act 2, scene 2, Shakespeare has Benvolio make clear to us that the love between our protagonists has just been ruined. The adjective "brave" here - though mean positively - is also open to question. Is this kind of bravery really worth it? Shakespeare clearly wants up to ask the question.