Stretchy leather and geese with mucky tails (2.4.68-81)

MERCUTIO     O here’s a wit of cheverel, that stretches from an inch narrow to an ell broad!

ROMEO           I stretch it out for that word ‘broad’, which, added to the goose, proves thee far and wide a broad goose.

MERCUTIO     Why, is not this better now than groaning for love? Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo; now art thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature, for this drivelling love is like a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole.

BENVOLIO      Stop there, stop there.

MERCUTIO     Thou desirest me to stop in my tale against the hair.

BENVOLIO      Thou wouldst else have made thy tale large.

MERCUTIO     O thou art deceived; I would have made it short, for I was come to the whole depth of my tale, and meant indeed to occupy the argument no longer. (2.4.68-81)

The geese persist, but mainly this just gets filthy in a rather adolescent way. First a reminder that Shakespeare was son of a leatherworker, a glover: cheverel is soft, very stretchy leather, such as might be used for gloves (elsewhere Shakespeare refers not just to its stretchiness but to the way it can be turned inside-out because it’s so flexible). Mercutio’s complimenting Romeo’s quick-wittedness, the breadth of his invention, the way he’s bending words and turning them inside-out. His wit used to be narrow, like a ribbon, and now it’s much broader (an ell is forty-five inches). Romeo will take that, and he’ll pick up broad and play with that too, transforming physical breadth to broad meaning obvious, total (as in broad daylight) and broad meaning mildly obscene (broad humour). So if Mercutio is a broad goose, he’s a complete fool. Romeo wins! But Mercutio doesn’t mind; he crows with delight and satisfaction: our Romeo’s back! Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo: here’s our friend again, back to his old self, and we can be daft together. (Some of what is going on here is the rhetorical equivalent of pulling your jumper over your head and running around madly with your arms stuck out making aeroplane noises.) What has restored Romeo to himself? Meeting, and falling in love with, and being loved by, Juliet. And this is a moment where that clicks into focus, recalling the way in which the balcony scene has circled around the relationships between names and identities, and being new-baptised by love. It’s one of the play’s painful ironies that there is such promise of happiness, not just for the lovers, but for their friends. (And it’s sentimental and counterfactual, but wouldn’t Juliet go down a storm with these boys, once they grew up a bit? she’s so quick and subtle, and she loves words with the same fierce, playful intelligence. They could all be friends.) Romeo’s drivelling love for Rosaline has turned him into a boring, pathetic idiot, wittering on, with the additional suggestion that all the wittering – the bad poems, the sighing, the don’t mind me I’ll just stand around not dancing because I’m sad – is both about as sophisticated as a fool waving a stick with bells on it and, more specifically, a unsuccessful attempt to disguise basic sexual desire (to hidea bauble in a hole, yes, OK, Mercutio, we get it).

Stop right there, says Benvolio, and it’s a neat touch that Romeo steps back – does he notice the Nurse entering? – when Mercutio takes the obscenity just a bit far: the tale, the jest, is also a (phallic) tail and the hair is pubic as well as meaning against the grain, against the way it’s tending. Benvolio can’t resist capping that, however – tales get longer and tails get larger, become erect – but it’s Mercutio who has the last word, of course: I’d almost come to the punchline, the climax, at which point the tale would be at an end and the tail would detumesce, as editors like to say.

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