“Act 3, Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet

– a key scene in which a fight breaks out between the Capulets and Montagues.

Image: bronze statue, in Verona, of Juliet.

Emma Torrance, “experienced teacher and a passionate student of Shakespeare”, posted at bl.uk on 19 May 2017:

MERCUTIO Men’s eyes were made to look, and let them gaze;
I will not budge for no man’s pleasure, I. (3.1.54–55)

The fight which breaks out between the Capulets and Montagues in Act 3, Scene 1 is central to the plot of Romeo and Juliet: its consequences shift the story from romantic comedy to tragedy in a few short lines. The catalyst, Mercutio, is ironically a member of neither family. It is the day after the Capulet ball, and he, always ready to cause trouble, is hanging around the Verona streets with Benvolio and other Montague men. Tybalt is also out, determined to challenge Romeo to a duel. He thinks Romeo has insulted and mocked his family by disguising himself to gatecrash their ball. Tybalt wants to restore his offended honour publicly.

Mercutio is unpredictable. He starts the scene in prose and slips in and out of meter at will. Through this verbal movement Shakespeare indicates his volatile and erratic temperament; he seems impossible to define or pin down. This is what makes Mercutio such an appealing character: we cannot predict what he will do next.

His name, derived from mercury, reflects this. It symbolises his role as both a messenger, like the god Mercury, and his unpredictable instability, like the chemical element (also known as ‘quicksilver’). These qualities clearly play out in this scene. Mercutio is the messenger for the ultimate tragedy: in his final lines he repeats ‘A plague a’ both your houses!’ (3.1.99–100) as both a fatal prediction and curse. Equally, his unpredictability, volatility and impulsiveness are shown as both reckless and entertaining. His ‘quicksilver’ wit and hot-temper are highlighted through clever puns and aggressive, audacious behaviour. 

Here, as in Act 1, Scene 4, Mercutio takes centre stage. He demands to be looked at:

Men’s eyes were made to look, and let them gaze;
I will not budge for no man’s pleasure, I. (3.1.54–55)

This quotation sums Mercutio up: it conveys that he thrives on public admiration. The verb ‘gaze’ depicts the crowd as amazed, unable to look away, and implies that he imagines they see him as unique and spectacular. In many ways he is; Shakespeare wants the audience to admire and enjoy his reckless and irrepressible behaviour. Because of the clever, witty and complex speeches Shakespeare gives him, Mercutio is often the character actors want to play, despite having a relatively limited role. 

In this example, Shakespeare also reveals Mercutio’s confidence, arrogance and power. He refuses to ‘budge’ and affirms forcefully his status by asserting that he ‘will not’ change or adapt to anyone, ‘for no man’s pleasure’. He behaves as if he doesn’t care what others think of him. Shakespeare repeats the pronoun ‘I’ at the beginning and end of the line to emphasise Mercutio’s show of arrogant confidence. It makes him seem egotistical and communicates his absolute refusal to back down or submit. Whilst this conforms to our expectations of Mercutio, who seems to fear nothing, we could interpret this self-importance as a necessary tactic to help protect his reputation and high status by avoiding a loss of public face.

As in earlier scenes, Shakespeare presents Mercutio as fiercely clever and humorous, despite the danger of the conflict. His brain is so swift, moving like mercury, that other characters and the audience often struggle to keep up with his endless puns and jests. Even in death he continues to play on words, ‘Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man’ [italics my emphasis] (3.1.96–97). This double meaning of ‘grave’ characterises his role as entertainer, a quality which ensures the audience, like his friends, grieve over his death. Whilst aspects of Mercutio’s behaviour may seem arrogant, it is important to remember that he ultimately acts in defence of his friend, demonstrating courage, loyalty and honour by standing in for Romeo when he refuses to fight Tybalt.”

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