Mercutio rocks, Romeo sucks. Fact.

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Forget Romeo: his swooning, wistful, melancholic martyrdom is sleep-inducing. Mercutio’s where it’s at, ladies. Centuries later readers continue to misinterpret Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a play in which the great English bard is sardonic to the max. Shakespeare uses the fantastical extremity of indulgent love – packaged in romance, tragedy and fate – to undermine its very existence. He mocks Romeo and Juliet and criticises their emotional hedonism. Mercutio is the embodiment of Shakespeare’s vitriol.

Mercutio’s wit punctuates Romeo and Juliet with jokes, puns and teasing yet the joviality more often than not masks an intense bitterness.  Mercutio’s seemingly frivolous words are not merely the essence of comic relief; his acrimonious speech serves to make a point: love is suspect. Mercutio’s obscene language and crude sexual humour reviles the purity and sanctity of Romeo’s passionate love for Juliet. In a duel of wits between two friends, Mercutio ridicules Romeo’s sentimentality;

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.

Love makes Romeo something unnatural, someone he is not. One minute he is pining after Rosaline and the next he is head-over-heels for Juliet. His fickle feelings make his claim to love doubtable.  Unlike the play’s other characters, most of whom blame their circumstances on fate, Mercutio dies cursing all Montagues and Capulets. Mercutio believes that specific people are responsible for his death rather than some external impersonal force. In retrospect, Mercutio draws attention to the pathetic notion that all else is to blame for play’s tragic outcome; that decisions made are mere putty in the hands of fate. And thus a new spin is placed on the notion of ‘tragedy’; rather than the death of the ‘star-crossed’ lovers, whose self-sacrifice is rooted in four days of intermittent acquaintance, the play’s tragedy is embroiled in the ignorance and self-centredness that guides the nature of this love-induced suicide. The point is moot but Shakespeare’s contempt for love is unquestionably unavoidable.

The question begs; why is Shakespeare’s malevolent love-hater so utterly delectable? Because he speaks his mind and is mastered by none. Romeo; a tragic hero to some, is putridly prosaic to others. Mercutio is exciting and funny, and real, and exists in the play as Romeo’s antithesis. Mercutio is volatile, his name stemming from the Roman ‘Mercurial’, meaning “having an unpredictable and fast changing mood.” Mercutio is bold, fierce and fearless. He is the quintessential bad boy (and gals always love a badass), cajoling Romeo to forget about Rosaline, his unrequited love, by attending aka crashing a Capulet party. He is loyal and generous of spirit. He is the life of the party and his charisma is delicious! Romeo’s self-indulgence and sentimentality leave him with nothing to give. He is consumed by his own being. Occupied solely with his own emotional existence, he thinks of consequences only when it is too late… and then blames fate; Rome refers to the Mercutio’s death as “this day’s black fate” and after slaying Tybalt calls himself “Fortune’s fool.” It’s an almighty cop out, a lame excuse that is embraced by Romeo but avoided by Mercutio. He dies angrily and unfairly, and Shakespeare’s audience empathises with the calamity of the lively character’s end.

And then there is the controversial Queen Mab speech; so beautiful in linguistic artistry and consequently so completely out of character for its bawdy speaker. So much so that many scholars have argued that the speech was added to the script during the printing of the Second Quarto and was not, therefore, a part of the play as it was originally written. Perhaps the very point is that the Queen Mab speech IS so out of character; Mercutio’s voice thus adopts a new tone, a greater depth. The speech portrays Mercutio as clever, whirling and entrancing. In the encompassing scene he spins wild puns left and right, seeming to speak them as freely as others breathe, Mercutio is established as a friend who can, gently or not, mock Romeo as no one else can. He is both artfully and artlessly intelligent.

Mercutio is a man of excess; he takes things too far and sometimes gets away with it, sometimes not. But his passions are of another sort than those that move Romeo to love and Tybalt to hate. Romeo’s and Tybalt’s passions are founded upon the acceptance of two different ideals trumpeted by society: the poetic tradition of love and the importance of honour. Mercutio believes in neither. Mercutio is able to see through the blindness caused by wholehearted acceptance of the ideals sanctioned by society: he pokes holes in Romeo’s rapturous adoption of the rhetoric of love. Mercutio understands that the ideals held by those around him originate from less high-minded desires than many would care to admit. Romeo’s love is not selfless, and his suicide is not noble… at least that’s how Mercutio would see it. Romeo cannot live without Juliet (or so he supposes) and so HE kills HIMSELF to avoid pain – it’s entirely selfish. Forget the romantic ‘love in death’ utopia. Shakespeare scorns it.

What’s not to love about Mercutio? His mind is alluringly brilliant, his wit is charmingly abrasive, his dependability is enviabl, he claims to be none other than he is and he dies a tragic death to defend his friend’s honour – he is the ultimate tragic hero. It is Mercutio’s antagonism toward love that makes him so scintillating a character; swooning women want to to make him believe, to make him love. Mercutio is a challenge. A beautiful, beastly challenge.

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