What’s in a name? Well potentially a little more than you might think. A couple of characters have names which offer a little about them. To be mercurial is connected with the planet Mercury, and means characteristically to be sprightly, volatile and quick. Seems to hit Mercutio on the head quite nicely, and also offer some foundation for his unpredictability. The word also aligns itself with the god Mercury. He was known, amongst other things, as the god of eloquence. Interestingly, he also acts as a guide to lead souls down the the Underworld - perhaps a little glimpse at his role as a vehicle for fate, by causing the main incident which drives Romeo and Juliet apart, resulting in their tragic demise.
This idea of eloquence and wit is the basis for Mercutio. Though base in some of what he says, he is clearly highly intelligent too: his use of wordplay is one of the most impressive in Shakespeare (akin to someone like Iago) and he often gets to the crux of an issue, without idealising or romanticising it.
Romeo: I dream’d a dream to-night.
Mercutio: And so did I.
Romeo: Well, what was yours?
Mercutio: That dreamers often lie.
He is sharp and quick, his interjections completing Romeo’s iambic pentameter. He is also unromantic in his declaration that “Dreamers often lie”, and plays on the word “lie” to mean lying down, as well as being false. This is just one of countless examples where Mercutio is direct in his speech, but profound in its deconstruction.
His Queen Mab speech captures his eloquence: initially he speaks poetically and impenetrably about dreams. When Romeo calls him out, he points out the point he’s making; that dreams are nonsense, created by a desperate desire for something to be true. And there it also captures his cynicism. It is unclear as to why he is so dismissive of romanticism but he clearly is. He doesn’t believe in dreams having a meaning; he thinks Romeo is foolish for believing Rosaline the only girl in the world for him; overall he views Romeo’s love as a weakness, chiding him at the point of his own death, so much so that Romeo responds by immediately killing Tybalt. If nothing else, Mercutio certainly acts as a strong contrast to romantic and vulnerable Romeo.
In Baz Luhrmann’s film and because of his verbal dexterity, Mercutio is generally presented as the charming life-and-soul-of-the-party type figure. Which is undoubtedly true to a point. But he has another side to him. When the Nurse comes to talk to Romeo (Act 2, Sc 4), Mercutio is vocal. Perhaps he knows she is connected to the Capulets, perhaps he simply views her as beneath him (as she certainly is from a societal and patriarchal point of view) but he is incredibly rude. He instantly calls her ugly “her fan’s the fairer face,” before saying a confusing line about a “hare” and a “lenten pie.” Again lots of wordplay is in action here, but he is essentially calling her a mouldy whore… not so charming, right? It isn’t empty abuse either; the Nurse says after that she is “so vexed, that every part of me quivers.” Thus we see that, for all his charm, Mercutio also has a blunt, cutting side to him too.
The hot-headed side of Mercutio is an intriguing one to explore. Tybalt is undoubtedly fiery; let’s be honest, that’s basically all we see him doing. But Mercutio isn’t. He isn’t involved in the opening brawl, one of the only characters who isn’t. He doesn’t appear to be looking for a fight at the Capulet party at all. So why is he so keen to fight in Act 3? An essential thing to remember is that, because the story is so well known, we all know Mercutio dies. So it isn’t that surprising for us. But for the character, he doesn’t know he’s going to die when he gets into the fight. All the risk is there. He either has to kill someone or die, if it doesn’t get broken up. Before Tybalt even turns up, Mercutio refuses to go inside and avoid a fight. He tells Benvolio that ‘Men’s eyes were made to look.” Yet when he is dying he curses both the houses. We read that as a reminder of the feud, but don’t forget that Mercutio started all of this.
There is one other curious thing to explore with Mercutio, in relation to Brooke’s source text. In Romeus and Juliet he is sat on the other side of Juliet, when Juliet first meets Romeus. Both men physically take her hand at the table, and it is made clear that Mercutio is a great match: well-respected and charming, but also confident with the ladies. Yet she is immediately drawn to Romeus and that is the last we see of Mercutio. There is a contrast made between the warmth of each man’s hand, Mercutio’s “cold” hand perhaps a metaphor for his cold view on love. But perhaps Shakespeare puts in a little challenge to his audience; those who know the source text, might have a little insight into Mercutio’s motivations. Once again, Romeo comes between Mercutio and what he wants, perhaps.
To Romeo: “If love be rough with you, be rough with love.” (Act I, Sc iv)
On dreams: “Dreamers often lie.” “I talk of dreams,/ Which are the children of an idle brain,/ Begot of nothing but vain fantasy;/ Which is as thin of substance as the air.” (Act I, Sc iv)
Romeo on Mercutio: “He jests at scars, that never felt a wound.”_ (Act II, Sc ii)_
Mercutio to Romeo: “I will bite thee by the ear for that jest.” (Act II, Sc iv)
On the Nurse: “To hide her face; for her fan’s the fairer face.” (Act II, Sc iv)
Romeo on Mercutio: “A gentleman, nurse, that loves to hear himself talk, and will speak more in a minute than he will stand to in a month.” (Act II, Sc iv)
Also on Mercutio: “I warrant thee my man’s as true as steel.” (Act II, Sc iv)
To Tybalt: “Make it a word and a blow.” (Act III, Sc i)
On fighting in public: “Men’s eyes were made to look, and let them gaze;/ I will not budge for no man’s pleasure, I.” (Act III, Sc i)
After being stabbed: “A plague o’ both your houses! I am sped.” (Act III, Sc i)
His final lines: “They have made worms’ meat of me: I have it,/ And soundly too: - your houses!” (Act III, Sc i)
Benvolio on Mercutio: “Brave Mercutio’s dead;/ That gallant spirit hath aspir’d the clouds.” (Act III, Sc I)