Romeo and Juliet – the billing’s pretty clear. Romeo is the hero of this piece. But if that’s so, why does our attention so often drift to his super-cool best friend? The one with all the wit, the wordplay, the swagger? Here’s the case for a move to Team Mercutio.
Romeo might have the rep as the world’s greatest lover, but give me Mercutio. He’s the dasher, the dancer, the Cool-Hand Luke. Quite literally: Shakespeare built the character from an intriguing mention in Arthur Brooke’s The Tragical History of Romeo and Juliet, the source on which he based his play:
At th’ one side of her chair her lover Romeo,
And on the other side there sat one called Mercutio;
A courtier that each where was highly had in price,
For he was courteous of his speech, and pleasant of device.
Even as a lion would among the lambs be bold,
Such was among the bashful maids Mercutio to behold.
With friendly gripe he seized fair Juliet’s snowish hand:
A gift he had that Nature gave him in his swathing band,
That frozen mountain ice was never half so cold,
As were his hands, though ne’er so near the fire he did them hold.
Just why an ice-cold hand was prized remains unclear, but still, you have to admit it’s piquant, and the lion-among-lambs things is stylish. From these seeds, Shakespeare made one of his most memorable characters, whose glittering wit, lustiness and sprezzatura ever threatens to overshadow the sappy love-puppy Romeo. According to the 17th-century poet John Dryden, even the Bard recognised his force: “Shakespeare show’d the best of his skill in his Mercutio, and he said himself, that he was forc’d to kill him in the third Act, to prevent being killed by him.”
It’s not just the sense of inevitable tragedy that overshadows Romeo and Juliet after Mercutio’s death. The spark has gone out. Mercutio has a good proportion of the best lines, including the best death cry (“A plague o’ both your houses! They have made worm’s meat of me …”) and the wild virtuosity of the Queen Mab speech, where Shakespeare’s fancy gallops as furiously as the fairy’s midwife he describes. Such facility captivated the Romantic poet Coleridge, who had something of a boy-crush on Mercutio:
Wit ever wakeful, fancy busy and procreative as an insect, courage, an easy mind that, without cares of its own, is at once disposed to laugh away those of others, and yet to be interested in them — these and all congenial qualities, melting into the common copula of them all, the man of rank and the gentleman, with all its excellences and all its weaknesses, constitute the character of Mercutio!
Translated into film, Mercutio’s still drawing the gaze. In Zeffirelli’s iconic version he’s played by the incomparable British stage actor John McEnery (check out his matchless Queen Mab turn, with its hints of madness and melancholia); in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, suave Harold Perrineau Jr. thoroughly out-charismas Leonardo di Caprio’s Romeo; in George Cukor’s 1936 version, an aging John Barrymore has all the life that foppish Leslie Howard lacks (although that hair isn’t doing him any favours).
In the major ballet versions of the play, Mercutio gets all the laughs – and the longest death scene in dance history. Prokofiev, it seems, was not immune to the Scene-Stealer’s charm: he composed a “worm’s meat” passage of such length that any choreographer who follows the clear dictates of his score must give Mercutio his centre-stage moment, complete with poignantly fading heartbeat from the percussion section.
In Graeme Murphy’s Romeo & Juliet, Mercutio is a live wire, given pyrotechnic choreography, slapstick japes with Benvolio, and double his share of the girls. Daniel Guadiello, on whom Murphy made the role (Daniel also dances Romeo), says of him: “He’s so sexual, and he has so much fun – he’s like the alter-ego of Romeo. He’s like a matchstick ready to be lit.”
Looks like that scene’s been stolen again.