Heads and heels and clunking legal humour (3.1.27-31)

BENVOLIO      And I were so apt to quarrel as thou art, any man should buy the fee-simple of my life for an hour and a quarter.

MERCUTIO     The fee-simple? O simple!

EnterTYBALT, PETRUCHIO, and others.

BENVOLIO      By my head, here comes the Capulets.

MERCUTIO     By my heel, I care not. (3.1.27-31)

Benvolio seems to have been listening in open-mouthed amazement as Mercutio gets into his stride, but finally intervenes: if I were anywhere near as quarrelsome and hot-headed as you are, then (legal joke follows) I would be prepared to sell all rights in my life, the absolute possession of myself, as opposed to a lease: the fee-simple means that land, for instance, is held absolutely and in perpetuity. Paradoxically, therefore, Benvolio is saying that he’d sell these rights in himself for an hour and a quarter; it’d be a good deal for him because – were he that quarrelsome – he’d be dead long before the seventy-five minutes had expired. Legal jokes, eh. Mostly what this allows Benvolio to do is to say, you have to be kidding me, you’re the one who’s always scrapping and spoiling for a fight, and then Mercutio to come back at him and say, really, is that the best you can do? Your clunking legal joke is simple.

And then trouble arrives. Petruchio is a ghost-character, that is, he doesn’t speak, although he was on the Capulet guest-list. It would entirely make sense for him to be over from Padua (and the Shrew), though, egging Tybalt on, and realising too late – perhaps – that words can be deadly. Benvolio is slightly, well, I told you so, but apprehensive too. In addition, he is – perhaps ‘unconsciously’ – punning, Capuletsuggesting the Latin caput, head. Cap-à-pie, from head to foot (as the Ghost’s armour is described in Hamlet) is also here (and head to heels is also the whole body, as in Autolycus’s sales patter in Winter’s Tale, as he offers what maids lack from head to heel), and if we do hear cap as head-covering, too, then there’s a thing going on here about courtesy: cap and knee, or cap and courtesy are phrases meaning to show respect, do honour to, by doffing the cap and bowing. The heel suggests contempt, to cast someone down, or perhaps to turn one’s back and walk away from them, turn on one’s heel, an insult which is the gallant’s equivalent, perhaps, of biting the thumb. Mercutio is also simply dismissive: while you might swear by your head, to swear by your foot would be ridiculous. This may be overthinking, but it’s part of the scene’s recapitulation of the opening brawl: the anxieties over the performance of status, the perceived insults to honour. Not the servants this time, but the masters, warier about their personal honour, more reckless, and better-armed. And, as in the opening scene, there are body parts.

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