Shakespeare has no doubt created some of the most dynamic and interesting characters in written history, and in Romeo and Juliet there were several memorable ones. Aside from the hero and heroine, the voluble and witty Mercutio is as memorable a character as is found in all of Shakespeare's plays. He acts as a significant character in terms of plot advancement; but more importantly, Mercutio
himself is a fascinating man in many aspects.
Mercutio is not part of the Montague family, he is however a friend of Romeo
's and related to the Prince of Verona. One would think this puts him relatively outside the family feud, but we learn that Mercutio is only all to willing to play along with this adversary, and ultimately his quick and volatile nature lead to his untimely death.
Mercutio was first introduced to us in Act I, Scene 4; when Romeo, Benvolio and the gang are on the way to the Capulets' feast. Although it was only his first appearance, he captured immediate attention with his comments. We get the feeling that Mercutio will not stay a sideline character. He is shown joking and punning with Romeo on heaviness and lightness as well as how it relates to love. Mercutio and Romeo's friendship and obvious closeness is to be noted.
"A gentleman, Nurse, that loves to hear himself talk, and will speak more in a minute than he will stand to in a month."
That was Romeo's description of Mercutio seen in Act II, Scene 4. Indeed, Mercutio is a man of many words and his language is full of jokes, puns and sexual double meanings. To understand Mercutio fully we must first understand his words, and sometimes that can be hard to as his word play is easily interpreted in more than one way. More than anyone else in the play Mercutio uses puns. To an Elizabethan this was the sign of a quick wit, to be able to see different meanings in the same word. Shakespeare knew that well and incorporated his own wit into Mercutio's character. We come to associate Mercutio with puns and it seems almost characteristic of him to do so compulsively, even after he received his death-wound.
"Look for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man."
It is sadly ironic how Mercutio is hinting that perhaps he is facing something serious for the first time in the play, and allows the audience to sympathize for him.
Mercutio demonstrates that he is an interesting personality from his language, which is forceful, mature and witty. He stands in strong contrast to his immediate companions Benvolio who tends to speak rather impersonally with consideration and Romeo, whose words are mostly romantic and poetic.
Mercutio's unique personality is also demonstrated in his views and ideas which parallel those of our hero and heroine's. Shakespeare's genius was that themes in his works were always explored on both spectrums with no clear line on what is right or wrong. Love and loyalty are two of the many thematic areas explored with two sides of the story. Mercutio's character in the play is a bit of a dark horse, the side character who almost seems to present more ideas and dynamics than the main ones. When everyone is optimistic and hopeful about love Mercutio presents his different view on it, one that is entirely focused on the physical aspect.
The very first scene Mercutio appears in he introduces what is to be his constant theme, that of the bawdy side of sex. For Shakespeare to give Mercutio who is technically a side character, such a long and opinionated speech on the dark side of a theme is something to be reckoned with; as aside the main characters Romeo, Juliet
and perhaps the Prince, no other character is given a speech of this length. Mercutio's view on love completely overturns the idea that the story of Romeo and Juliet is an example of perfect romantic love. There is of course a purpose for this and that is to explore different aspects of a theme and keep the audience guessing.
Mercutio's relationship with Romeo is also very interesting. Once you start to see what kind of character Mercutio is, one might wonder how he is such close friends with Romeo whose personality cannot be anymore of an opposite to his. In our first encounter with Mercutio he was talking with Romeo, and we can clearly see some of Mercutio's remarks are personal to Romeo and is trying to get at something. Mercutio then launches into his famous Queen Mab speech which obviously unsettles Romeo. Despite their slight argument we can see that the two get along exceptionally well.
There is evidence to show that Mercutio values his friendship with Romeo a lot. Even though on the outside he might not show it, his subtle words and actions points out that he cares for Romeo's wellbeing and wishes the best for his friend. This can be seen when Mercutio remarked that Romeo is back to his old self. Although Mercutio was unaware of Romeo's secret marriage to Juliet, he noticed the change in his mood just from his behaviour. Mercutio may be a jester who mocks and taunts however there must be another side to him, perhaps a gentle one that we have yet to see but sadly never will.
Mercutio's death is the turning point in Romeo and Juliet, sparking the final events of tragic sequences. It is clear that Mercutio is not put out of the way by Shakespeare for any other reason than the fact that his death generates the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Although immediately after, the tragedy does not unfold with mathematic precision, there is no doubt that Mercutio's death was the trigger.
With this in mind, one might be tempted to ask what might happen had Mercutio not been killed by Tybalt. Obviously, we could have a very different play before us. However the point is that should Mercutio not have been killed, it is still conceivable that most of the subsequent events could happen. The major difference will be the entire significance of those events and their meanings would be changed. From this we can conclude that Mercutio's death is indeed what advances the story that lead to the desperation of so many characters.
Mercutio is someone who will take a challenge head on; he was certainly willing to play along with Tybalt in a duel. However we must not forget that Mercutio stepped up for Romeo who was unwilling to fight Tybalt as he was married to Juliet and technically was family with him. It is hard to tell whether he was defending Romeo more or simply enjoying the thrill of picking a fight. That's another trait to Mercutio's character, his actions and words are almost always two-sided and we can never tell how he really feels. This is very unlike Romeo who is always expressing his feelings - hanging his heart on his sleeve as the saying goes.
It is ironic and rueful how Mercutio received his fatal wound due to Romeo's interference. In his dying state, Mercutio seems to blame the feud between the Capulets and Montagues for his injury, twice cursing "A plague a'both your houses!" He also blames Romeo, "Why the dev'l came you between us? I was hurt under you arm." This does nothing to help Romeo who ended up feeling guilty for Mercutio's death and subsequently in his haste and rush of emotions killed Tybalt, which also triggered events that lead to the ultimate tragedy. Even as his time drew close to an end, Mercutio's words still exercised influence over the play's direction.
It wouldn't be the play Romeo and Juliet without Mercutio. His character gives the play not only comedic moments, but also alternate views on various themes. Mercutio lights up the play with his personality and puns, even his lewd jokes add a certain charm to the play. Mercutio is essential to the play for two main reasons. The first being a perfect character contrast to Romeo and the second being the dramatic turning point for the tragedy to begin in earnest.
Perhaps Mercutio was too strong a character to survive, and Shakespeare brought about his death to make a better play. Whatever the case, this witty, quarrelsome and impulsive jester will most definitely be remembered as a character who is more than just a plot device.