Mercutio, the Messenger

March 11, 2010 at 7:17 pm (Analysis and Discussion, Romeo and Juliet) (, , , , , , , , )

Here again is the (modern) meaning of the name Mercutio: “The name comes from Mercury, the Roman messenger god. It may also be related to the vocabulary word “mercurial,” originally designating someone with the characteristics of eloquence, shrewdness, swiftness, and thievishness attributed to the god Mercury, or more commonly with an unpredictable and fast-changing mood.” (Source: ParentsConnect)

I’m fascinated by this, because I keep looking for how Shakespeare wove the name’s meaning into the character. In my edition’s notes, I believe it said there was a character named Mercutio in the sources used by Shakespeare, but that the character was not fully developed. Shakespeare just ran with the name. And I note the modern meaning, because Shakespeare didn’t have access to the Internet to look up name meanings, so who knows what he was really assuming.

But so far, we’re doing pretty well: Mercutio was eloquent, shrewd, and had a swift wit. I don’t see theivishness. I’ve stated that he seems less mercurial to me than many of the characters with their quick switcharoos. That’s not to say that Mercutio doesn’t have a changeable quality to him. He’s certainly unpredictable! He’s a nut! You never know what will come out of his mouth next. It’s just not the flip-of-a-switch kind of changes that I see in other characters.

Notably, in his final scene, I can see his temperature rise as he talks to Tybalt. I don’t know if mercury was used in Renaissance thermometers, but I can see him about to blow a gasket with Tybalt as things heat up that hot summer day. He has a temper.

For me, the biggest change in Mercutio is the most mysterious. When we meet him, he spouts the long Queen Mab speech. I have been reading this speech for over a week now, and I still don’t get it. I just finished watching it performed in the BBC video; I still don’t get it. It is so completely different from every other word out of Mercutio’s mouth. For one, there is not any sexual punning. There’s really not that much wordplay at all here… not compared to the later Mercutio.

ROMEO I dream’d a dream to-night.

MERCUTIO And so did I.

ROMEO Well, what was yours?

MERCUTIO That dreamers often lie.

ROMEO In bed asleep, while they do dream things true.

MERCUTIO O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
 She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
 In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
 On the fore-finger of an alderman,
 Drawn with a team of little atomies
 Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
 Her wagon-spokes made of long spiders’ legs,
 The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
 The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
 The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,
 Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
 Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,
 Not so big as a round little worm
 Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
 Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
 Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
 Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
 And in this state she gallops night by night
 Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
 O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on court’sies straight,
 O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees,
 O’er ladies ‘ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
 Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
 Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are:
 Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,
 And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
 And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail
 Tickling a parson’s nose as a’ lies asleep,
 Then dreams, he of another benefice:
 Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,
 And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
 Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
 Of healths five-fathom deep; and then anon
 Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,
 And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two
 And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
 That plats the manes of horses in the night,
 And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
 Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes:
 This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
 That presses them and learns them first to bear,
 Making them women of good carriage:
 This is she–

ROMEO                   Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!
 Thou talk’st of nothing.

MERCUTIO True, 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
 And more inconstant than the wind, who wooes
 Even now the frozen bosom of the north,
 And, being anger’d, puffs away from thence,
 Turning his face to the dew-dropping south.
 (I.4.50-103)

It’s baffling to me. It’s so unlike the Mercutio I come to know later in the play. So, that signals to me a purpose to the speech. What is it?

I won’t make a habit of reading analyses of Shakespeare’s works, but this one had me so completely confused that I Googled it. I was getting nowhere figuring it out on my own, so I looked at SparkNotes. I still don’t feel like I get it!

But I feel like there must be a message in these words—a message for Romeo. And Mercury is the messenger, befitting his name. But, what’s the message? I guess I can see what the SparkNotes essay says at the end… that Mercutio is cynical/pragmatic and bursting the dreamy romantic bubble that Romeo lives in.

But… I’m just not satisfied! Does anyone have a better explanation for me? I feel like the Queen Mab speech must be very important, and it bothers me that I don’t get it!

The other reason I feel like there’s a message to Romeo here is the way that Mercutio interrupts him when Romeo mentions having a bad dream. There is so much foreshadowing throughout the play; a big dark cloud hung over all of Verona that week. But here, Mercutio filibusters Romeo out of really talking about his bad dream. Why? Someone, please shed light!

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10 Comments

  1. Jamie said,

    Hi again
    It seems to me that the whole speech is just a way of teasing Romeo (Very poetically), telling him to grow up, or maybe wake up and get real. when Romeo says “In bed asleep, while they do dream things true.” Mercutio seems to come back in a teasing manner “O’ then I see you also believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. lets detail their exploits”

    Then Mercuio follows up with “True, 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
    And more inconstant than the wind”

    When I read the rest of Mercutio’s parts where he is talking to Romeo (even has he’s looking for him), up to the point where Tybalt ruins his mood, Mercutio’s teasing Romeo. Which make’s me think – No wonder Romeos hiding from him.

    The last words they speak to each other (out of each others eyesight) before their worlds turn up side down, is Mercuio teasing Romeo pretty much saying, (I hope this isn’t to vulgar), “You just need to get laid”. Medlar being the euphemism for the female anatomy and a poperin pear for the male.

    “If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.
    Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
    And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
    As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
    Romeo, that she were, O, that she were
    An open et caetera, thou a poperin pear!
    Romeo, good night: I’ll to my truckle-bed;
    This field-bed is too cold for me to sleep:”

    To which Romeo responds
    “He jests at scars that never felt a wound.”

    • orwhatyouwill said,

      Hi Jamie — ha ha! Yep, Mercutio sure does tease R mercilessly. But the QM speech feels different to me. I see the start of it as silly and teasing… maybe. But then as it goes on, it gets a bit dark and… I dunno… pointed, I guess is the word. It just feels to me like there is more than joking and teasing here.

      Maybe since there is so much foreshadowing all over the place throughout R&J… maybe M really had a dream about his own death? Because as the QM speech goes on, he shows that she brings specific dreams to specific people. So maybe he’s had a dream of his own death and that’s what causes him to go off on the tangent? It doesn’t feel light and teasing toward the end.

      I still feel like there’s a *message* for Romeo… especially since that is really the most obvious/classic meaning of the name Mercutio/Mercury.

  2. Ted Leach said,

    Well, the QM speech is a problematic one. Not sure I’ll shed any new light here — you pretty much have covered it all. But I do think that it’s important to note the progression in the images through the speech — from light and cute (“her chariot…made by the joiner squirrel” — picture that) to “cutting throats.” There’s an anger in the speech, which I think can support a reading of Mercutio as a “player” in the modern sense who –once — lets his guard down and lets you see the dark side of his emotion. He knows he’ll never find “love” in the way Romeo might find it — perhaps he’s been hurt one too many times, and this is a reaction to it? Romeo, as Jamie points out, calls him on it (“he jests…” — but not to his face. No clear answer, of course, which is the joy of WS.

    • orwhatyouwill said,

      Hmmm, yes, I can see that. In the film versions he does seem to go inside himself as he’s saying this stuff and it does seem to get angry/bitter… I can see that. He’s been hurt. He doesn’t believe in love, or romantic love, the way that our Romeo does. Thanks for the insight!

  3. Tue Sorensen said,

    This speech is immensely famous, but nobody really knows what it means, of if it means anything in particular. (SparkNotes are generally not helpful; they only simplify the text and meaning, but do not explain their depths and complexities.) It’s a series of loose commentaries on a couple of things. I can give you the comments I wrote to someone who asked me about its meaning on allexpert.com (where I am a resident Shakespeare expert) a year ago:

    Mercutio’s speech mentions different people and their dreams, and he talks about it in a way that sets the listener’s imagination going. He’s describing things so vividly that we are really curious to imagine the scenes and images, trying to figure out what he is really telling us – and that’s quite difficult!

    He’s trying to explain dreams – talking about how different people dream about things that are specific to their passions and professions. Queen Mab, the queen of the fairies, is supposedly responsible for all these kinds of dreams. He’s perhaps using the image of the queen and her fairies as a symbol of some trait of the human mind; some ability to let us focus our emotions on our interests and our work, so that the things we think about when we’re awake also preoccupy us when we’re asleep, making us dream about them. He’s explaining that we dream about things that are important to us; dreams are a kind of conduit for our emotions and thoughts. And Mercutio uses a long list of examples in order to illustrate how this is going on. As we listen to his examples, we may start understanding the mechanism of dreaming.

    The essence of the speech is that Mercutio is explaining how dreams work, and he’s doing this in order to provide a logical and natural explanation of dreams, and dispell the superstitious idea (that many people in Shakespeare’s age had) that dreams are somehow supernatural. Although, being poetic, Mercutio can’t resist talking about it in symbolic terms, i.e. using the fairies as the creatures who imbue sleepers with dreams. But he doesn’t mean this literally.

    However, the ending of the speech goes into somewhat different territory. When he says: “This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, That presses them and learns them first to bear, Making them women of good carriage”, he’s no longer being symbolic. He’s actually suggesting that there is a common mechanism behind both dreams and sex! As if a weaker form of sexual desire is what fuels our nightly dreams, and probably also the thoughts and feelings we have by day. He doesn’t go into detail about this, because Romeo stops him, but he clearly has some ideas on the subject! Exactly what he means, however, is just about impossible to say.

    (end quote)

    Another important element to keep in mind about Mercutio is that he is almost certainly supposed to be Shakespeare’s portrayal of and tribute to his fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe. There are many signs of this (and it is also a theatrical tradition), such as Mercutio’s endless punning on stabbing (Marlowe was stabbed), and the fact that Marlowe wrote himself into one of his plays as a Mercury figure. The Queen mab speech should also be seen in this light, namely as something characteristic for Marlowe to say. In general, the relationship between Romeo and Mercutio probably reflects that between Shakespeare and Marlowe in real life. As the Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate points out, Shakespeare felt guilty about the early death of his only real competitor (and probably friend), and so refers to Marlowe’s death (and his own guilt about it) in at least four different plays.

    Are you feeling a bit more enlightened now? 🙂

    – Tue

    • orwhatyouwill said,

      I’m speechless! 🙂

      (Thanks so much. I’m so glad you are visiting my blog.)

    • Emerald said,

      That was awesome.

  4. Tue Sorensen said,

    🙂 I’m glad you’re writing it!

  5. Not Your Grandma’s Shakespeare! « Or What You Will said,

    […] self. I really love Mercutio in this version. He is fiery and excitable. Perfect! He did the whole Queen Mab speech, and I was surprised at how exceedingly long it felt in performance. It’s so […]

  6. My Shakespeare « Or What You Will said,

    […] part and is able to really project the meaning of Mercutio’s words, including the difficult Queen Mab speech. Romeo is so taken with his experience that he decides to pursue an acting […]

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