What is Mercutio’s purpose in the play?


Mercutio (or Merc) as we’ve been calling him in the rehearsal room, has been called many things in his time. But that’s another story for another time. Today we’re talking about his role in Romeo and Juliet, what purpose he plays, and we’ll talk a little bit about what type of person he is – and how his actions impact those around him.

I thought that before we go into the main question, I might kick things off trying to unpack Mercutio’s personality, or character traits – based on what’s given to us in the text by Shakespeare, as well as one or two other sources before Shakespeare’s time.

Mercutio name appeared in the 1530 ‘Giulietta e Romeo‘ by Luigi Da Porto as ‘Marcuccio Guercio’ . By the time William Shakespeare came to write his version of Romeo and Juliet in 1597, he’d anglicised the characters’ names from the original Italian text – and thus Mercutio was born. In Da Porto’s text he was actually Romeo’s rival, because they both wanted to marry Juliet. He was said by Da Porto to ‘be a lion among lambs’ and to have an ‘ice-cold hand’. But that’s also another story for another time.

Shakespeare may have taken this idea about cold hands and extended on it because people have since associated Mercutio with the word Mercurial i.e. having unpredictable moods or behaviour. At Mercutio’s hottest we see him cursing love, dreams, ambitions and most notably, the Montagues and Capulets. At his coolest, we see him making inappropriate jokes, flirting with Juliet’s Nurse and trying to make his mates laugh. We see him change from one to the other often very quickly. He’s shown as being very skeptical of the things Romeo stands for, and it’s pretty quickly noticed that while him and Romeo are best mates, they’re also polar opposites. What ties him and Romeo and together though is probably their wit, they’re always talking in riddles and wordplay to try and outsmart each other. Mercutio is also shown to be pretty flippant about feelings, relationships and the more sensitive subjects raised by Romeo. He is shown to be a class clown figure, rejecting norms and living in a self-decided freedom. It’s also important to remember that Merc is not actually a Montague or a Capulet – but is related to the Prince of Verona as well as (The County) Paris, which possibly adds to his carefree and licentious behaviour.

This is a very, very, very brief character summary but I feel as though I should answer the question – or else I’ll never get to it.

As a dramatic device in the play – Mercutio operates as Romeo’s foil. He’s the opposite in every way. Writers often put in a foil character to more clearly define the morals and characteristics of the lead character – but also to offer some lightness to the dilemmas the lead may be going through. We see this constantly in Mercutio’s scenes with Romeo. Romeo complains to Mercutio and Benvolio about being in love with Rosaline (a girl we never see) and Mercutio tells him very crudely that what he’s feeling isn’t love or romance but instead, a more sexual urge. So in this instance, Mercutio’s purpose is to deter Romeo from pursuing love – which builds up Romeo’s momentum to pursue love – which ends in disaster.

This is furthered in Mercutio’s ‘Queen Mab’ soliloquy – when he creates an entire imaginary world and then destroys it – just to prove to Romeo that dreams and love are worthless, meaningless things. Merc counterpoints Romeo perfectly – he uses language that appeals to Romeo to entice him into the story, but then flips it on its head and makes his point that ‘dreams… are the children of an idle brain’.

Through his next scene with Benvolio when they’re drunkenly calling out at Romeo – Mercutio makes some very lewd and objectifying comments towards Rosaline. This functions in two ways, the first being that even though they are supposedly best friends, Merc and Benvolio don’t even know that Romeo is out of love with Rosaline and in love with Juliet – which could say something about the trust levels between Romeo and Merc (especially after all the crude comments Merc has made in previous scenes). The second way it functions is in commenting on how Mercutio perceives women in contrast to Romeo. Mercutio objectifies Rosaline – talking about various body parts in a menacing way, whereas in the next scene Romeo uses some of the most well known Romantic language to describe Juliet.

The next time we see Mercutio – he’s in a jovial mood, making fun of Tybalt, flirting inappropriately with the Nurse and generally being a fool. But it’s really the scene after this one that most states Mercutio’s purpose (dramatically) in the play. It shows Mercutio and Benvolio hanging out on a hot day – when they come across Tybalt, who’s looking for Romeo. This is where we see Mercutio’s fatal flaw or hubris which ultimately results in his death.

We’ve already established that he switches between hot and cold in an instant – and we see that in this scene, except he doesn’t cool down til the very end… And then heats up again…And then cools down, for good. The sight of Tybalt makes his blood boil and he’s instantly keen to fight him – then Romeo comes in and tries to make peace, which makes Mercutio even more fired up – because Tybalt is insulting Romeo but Romeo isn’t putting up a fight. So Merc fights Tybalt and then gets cut because Romeo is in the way. He proceeds to joke and laugh as he normally does about the cut – until it’s too late and he realises he’s going to die. It’s at this point that he says the most damning words that make this scene the turning point of the play.

‘A plague o‘ both your houses’

So Mercutio’s parting words serve to foreshadow the tragedy that takes place later on in the play – starting first with Tybalt’s death, then Romeo’s banishment – and then the death of the lovers. As soon as Mercutio’s gone – everything takes a turn for the worse. If that isn’t dramatic function and purpose in the plot – i don’t know what is !

Hope y’all are enjoying your break !

Shiv xoxo


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