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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