Cutting the gallants down to size (2.4.25-31)

MERCUTIO     The pox of such antic, lisping, affecting phantasimes, these new tuners of accent! ‘By Jesu, a very good blade! a very tall man! a very good whore!’ Why, is not this a lamentable thing, grandsire, that we should be thus afflicted with these strange flies, these fashion-mongers, these pardon-me’s, who stand so much on the new form, that they cannot sit at ease on the old bench? O their bones, their bones! (2.4.25-31)

Tybalt may be a highly skilled and effective duellist, but in general, Mercutio suggests, such accomplishments are affectations. The phantasimes are gallants, chasing the latest fashions in speech as well as in fighting and in dress. It’s an appropriately Italianate word, as such decadence was often associated with France and Italy, and the aping of foreign fashions by Englishmen who Should Know Better. Part of what Mercutio seems to be objecting to (paradoxically) is the colourlessness of such men’s language, which is weak and lisping, rather than vibrant and swaggering: By Jesu, a very good blade! a very tall man! a very good whore; if they’re trying to import sophisticated new ‘Continental’ phrases they’re not managing it with much aplomb. Politeness and courtesy – pardon-me– are disparaged as implicitly unmanly. (We have to imagine here that Mercutio is an Englishman, speaking to an English audience, mocking Italianate Englishmen, endorsing properly English masculinity. The Italian setting isn’t the point.) Strange flies suggests modish, extravagant dress (Hamlet mocks Osric’s new hat by calling him a waterfly), and fashion-monger is pejorative – clothes-horse might be the equivalent? As ever with Mercutio, it’s tightly bound together with wordplay. Tuners of accent picks up the musical analogy for fencing he’s used before; the new form (fashion, and something you sit on) is matched with the old bench (a sturdy, traditional piece of furniture). Pardon-me is very close to the pardonnez-moi of its French equivalent (and Mercutio is shortly going to demonstrate that he can pun in French and English simultaneously). And their bones, their bones sounds like their bons, their bons – those repeated goods that Mercutio has already mocked. But their bones, their bones also suggests aching bones, associated with syphilis, the French disease, the Neopolitan bone-ache, or simply the pox, which has been the starting point of this particular riff, allowing Mercutio to suggest (in a not unconventional move) that such men are effeminate, emasculated, and riddled with sexually transmitted diseases. Whatever, he doesn’t like them.

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