Geese. But of course. (2.4.59-67)

MERCUTIO     Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am done; for thou hast more of the wild goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five. Was I with you there for the goose?

ROMEO           Thou wast never with me for any thing when thou wast not there for the goose.

MERCUTIO     I will bite thee by the ear for that jest.

ROMEO           Nay, good goose, bite not.

MERCUTIO     Thy goose is a very bitter sweeting, it is a most sharp sauce.

ROMEO           And is it not then well served in to a sweet goose? (2.4.59-67)

This is tag-team banter, with high-speed word play and an ever-increasing density of puns. Mercutio takes over the idea of a horse race – the swits and spursof the previous line – and suggests a wild-goose chase, a horse-race in which the leading rider sets the course until overtaken (and hence going all over the place and having no defined route or end-point). But it’s the goosethat really takes off… What’s going on with geese? They’re foolish, so when Mercutio suggests that Romeo has more of the wild goose in one of thy witshe’s suggesting that he’s a fool, and will therefore win the wild-goose chase. And gooseis also an affectionate way of mocking, you silly old thing. But goosealso means prostitute, and that’s a sense that’s lurking here too; it’s one of the reasons why Mercutio – mostly in jest, but perhaps not entirely – offers to biteRomeo by the ear. Geese are known for biting, and here bitingbecomes bitter; if Mercutio is a goose he is bitterand sharp(as well as saucy) because he rails and mocks (he’s a satirist), but goosemeat is sweet and rich, often served with a sharp sauce, such as might be made of tart apples. (And if Mercutio is also referring to Rosaline as Romeo’s goose, a goose because she’s not a swan, and also because all women can be referred to as if they’re prostitutes, obviously, then she’s a bitter sweetingbecause she is unavailable, cruel, sweetingalso meaning darling.)

Birds, though. Benvolio has offered to make Romeo think thy swan a crow, that is, to revise his opinion of Rosaline by comparing her, unfavourably, with other women, but there’s also the proverbial ‘every goose a swan’, that is, being prone to over-exaggeration. These geese, silly as they are, are part of a much larger picture in the play. I’m not planning to advance a grand unified theory of birds in Romeo and Juliet, but swans and crows, geese and swans, nightingales and larks, tercels, peregrines, ravens… Some of them can fly. Some of them can sing.


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