Consorting with Romeo, and any excuse for a quarrel: QED (3.1.32-42)

TYBALT          Follow me close, for I will speak to them.

                        Gentlemen, good den, a word with one of you.

MERCUTIO     And but one word with one of us? couple it with something, make it a word and a blow.

TYBALT          You shall find me apt enough to that, sir, and you will give me occasion.

MERCUTIO     Could thou not take some occasion without giving?

TYBALT          Mercutio, thou consortest with Romeo.

MERCUTIO     Consort? what, dost thou make us minstrels? And thou make minstrels of us, look to hear nothing but discords. Here’s my fiddlestick, here’s that shall make you dance. ’Zounds, consort! (3.1.32-42)

There’s a taut combination of courtesy, polite rudeness, and actual rudeness here. When Tybalt asks his companions to follow me close, is he apprehensive, asking for a bodyguard? wanting to make a particularly menacing impression? or merely going through the motions of courtesy, in the assumption that it’s all going to kick off anyway? He is, initially, polite (although it could probably be played sneeringly): Gentlemen, rather than sirrahs, say, and giving a conventional greeting; they begin the encounter as notional equals in terms of rank. It’s Mercutio who escalates it, more or less vertically, with his insolent response (there’s an irony, too: Mercutio never responded with just one word to anyone) and his own coupling of words and blows (which is proverbial); here’s the play’s characteristic slippage between words and actions. Tybalt persists in his courtesies (although sircould be said insultingly), which Mercutio persists in mocking (do you need to have occasion, justification, given to you, surely you could just take it, do what you want, rather than relying on these formal codes of insult and honour in order to have a fight). So Tybalt changes tack, and names his real object, with consorteth slightly the language of the police procedural (as I was proceeding in a westward direction through the public square at approximately 1500 hours, etc): he’s after Romeo. This is what’s been building since the Capulet party, when it was Romeo he specifically recognised, and wished to challenge for the perceived insult to the family honour. But, as ever, Mercutio picks up the – faintly ridiculous – word consorteth and plays with it, thinking of a consort of musicians, perhaps particularly of viols, hence the fiddlestick or bow. And minstrels are not gentlemen; there’s a perceived insult there too. (There’s also a homoerotic strand here, potentially, with give and take, and consort also sometimes being used in a sexual sense.) The musical conceit is mostly about the fiddlestick reference, which allows Mercutio to draw his sword, but it also glances back to the previous scene, and Romeo’s invocation of Juliet as rich music’s tongue, in a passage of verse which is all about balance and harmony and resolution, in comparison with the discords which Mercutio gleefully imagines here. Mercutio’s anger seems put-on, but he is also doing exactly what he’s just been outlining to Benvolio: starting a quarrel over the smallest thing, here mostly Tybalt’s choice of verb. Oh, Mercutio…

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