MERCUTIO Help me into some house, Benvolio,
Or I shall faint. A plague a’both your houses!
They have made worms’ meat of me. I have it,
And soundly too. Your houses!
Exit [with Benvolio] (3.1.96-99)
Exit Mercutio, with no friendly word of reassurance to the conscience-stricken, appalled Romeo, no affectionate farewells, but instead bitter curses. It’s a swift death: he lurches back from prose into more or less blank verse even as the iambic pulse of his own heart-beat jumps and falters, but really it could be set as prose. It’s disjointed, flailing, unfocused. Named for his niceness, poor Benvolio again bears the immediate emotional burden, and here a physical burden too: we imagine Mercutio’s arm flung around Benvolio’s neck, being half-dragged off-stage. Mercutio knows he’s got moments, seconds to live; he imagines the finality of death, I have it, and soundly too, The End, but he also adds a characteristically grotesque, corporeal note: they have made worms’ meat of me. This is Hamlet’s something after death; it anticipates Juliet’s imagining of her awakening in the Capulet vault; this might be where Queen Mab would have ended up. Mercutio imagines himself, too, as having been consumed by the houses, the families that he curses, the two households who were invoked in the play’s Prologue. This is the play’s turning point, or the first part of it, perhaps even identifiable with the end of the Prologue’s first quatrain, civil blood makes civil hands unclean. It’s not impossible that Mercutio was the speaker of the Prologue (it would make sense in the company hierarchy; speaking the prologue was a prestigious role). In practical terms, a swift death off-stage makes sense; it limits the blood (if they bothered to use any, it’s so fast) and hence saves on the laundry bills…
But o the loss, so brutal and abrupt, of this chaotic, brilliant energy from the play, this dangerous wit and bravura risk-taking. Where does that energy go? Into Romeo.