March 11, 1302, marks the wedding day of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s doomed lovers. We are all of us familiar with the play—whether we chose to be or not. While it is not my favorite of the great Bard of Avon’s plays (that would be Hamlet), it’s still, well, Shakespeare, meaning you can’t really go wrong. The highlight of the play for me is the character Mercutio.
Mercutio, Romeo’s hot-tempered and witty friend, provides not only a practical perspective to contrast Romeo’s dreamy and romantic one, he also provides some much-needed comic relief. While we tend to read the play as a simply a romantic tragedy, there is still within it, as is the case with most of Shakespeare, some mirth to be found.
On occasion, it seems that Mercutio, too, is being carried away on the waves of romance:
“You are a lover; borrow Cupid’s wings,
And soar with them above a common bound.” (I,4,513)
Don’t be fooled by Mecrutio’s line. He is actually giving Romeo the brush-off, and in telling him to fly is attempting to bring him back down to earth. Mecrutio, along with Juliet’s nurse, point to romance as a great joke, one that has more to do with physical longings than longings of the heart.
“Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down.” (I,4,523)
And note, in the above that Romeo is pining away, not for Juliet, but for Rosaline, who does not share his feelings. Our fair Romeo has not yet encountered Juliet. As we all know, he’ll go over the romantic abyss for that young lady. Despite Mercutio’s warnings, of course, Romeo will do anything but come back down to earth. For this, Romeo and Juliet, and the loyal Mercutio will pay the ultimate price. In his attempt to kill Romeo, Tybalt instead stabs Mercutio under Romeo’s arm.
“No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a
church-door; but ’tis enough,’twill serve: ask for
me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I
am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o’
both your houses! ‘Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a
cat, to scratch a man to death! a braggart, a
rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of
arithmetic! Why the devil came you between us? I
was hurt under your arm.” (III,1,1601)
A true master of wit, Mercutio, even in death, brings comedy to a tragic event. An intertwining of comedy and tragedy is a common thread in the works of Shakespeare. Humor makes the tragic bearable. That’s what makes his stories so very human and why they are still relevant. So, centuries later, let us bid Happy Anniversary to Romeo and Juliet. And a fond farewell to Mercutio.
Image: Harold Perrineau as Mercutio in Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996)