Here’s Romeo! (2.4.32-41)

Enter ROMEO.

BENVOLIO      Here comes Romeo, here comes Romeo.

MERCUTIO     Without his roe, like a dried herring: O flesh, flesh, how art thou fishified! Now is he for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in. Laura to his lady was a kitchen wench (marry, she had a better love to berhyme her), Dido a dowdy, Cleopatra a gipsy, Helen and Hero hildings and harlots, Thisbe a grey eye or so, but not to the purpose. Signior Romeo, ‘bon jour’! there’s a French salutation to your French slop. You gave us the counterfeit fairly last night.

ROMEO           Good morrow to you both. What counterfeit did I give you?

MERCUTIO     The slip, sir, the slip, can you not conceive? (2.4.32-41)

A nice obvious cue for Romeo, who’s again had around 30 lines of quickfire prose to catch his breath following the previous scene. Benvolio’s so relieved he says it twice; Mercutio incorporates Romeo seamlessly into his act (many more commentary notes needed…). The connection is again to do with masculinity or the lack of it: fish is always the opposite of flesh, being cold-blooded and associated with fasting; fish was also often dried, as in the dried herring here, so, bloodless, dried out. If the herring is without its roe it’s spawned, it has no eggs (this dried herring manages to be simultaneously female, phallic, and emasculated); unlike the lisping Italianate gallants, however, Romeo has lost his roe specifically because he is in love. The numbers with which Romeo is now preoccupied – according to his friend – are poems (it’s quite a common term for metrical compositions at the time), not even the beats and counts of fencing that Mercutio has just been mocking. And even Romeo’s poems aren’t up to much in comparison with Laura’s Petrarch, albeit Laura herself is clearly vastly inferior, a kitchen wench, to the much-vaunted Rosaline (who we never see). And then there follows a string of standard classical comparisons with trophy women, nicely alliterated, as if Mercutio himself were speaking in numbers rather than prose. Dido is disparaged as frumpy or slatternly, Cleopatra as a gipsy (the common, quite pejorative diminutive for Egyptian) rather than a queen, and Helen, the face that launched etc. and Hero, the heroine for whom Leander swam the Hellespont are both dismissed as lightweight sluts. (It’s notable that Marlowe wrote about both Hero and Helen, in Hero and Leander and Doctor Faustus respectively, and indeed Dido, in his Dido Queen of Carthage. The latter was first printed in 1594, and Shakespeare probably knew both the others, although they hadn’t yet appeared in print. Marlowe was dead by the time Shakespeare was writing the play, but still cast a long shadow. NB it’s only in Shakespeare in Love that Ben Affleck’s Edward Alleyn, the first Faustus, creates the role of Mercutio, but maybe there’s something residually Marlovian in Mercutio’s gleeful excess, Ovidian frame of reference, and rhetorical facility.) And Thisbe nods at both Ovid and Shakespeare’s own Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which her eyes are not mentioned, but Pyramus’s are as green as leeks.

Mercutio switches from Italian, Signior, to French, bon jour, suggesting that his greeting is appropriate to the cut of Romeo’s breeches, his French slop (the singular form here nicely reminiscent of contemporary fashion-speak, in which journalists and stylists speak of a trouser or a lip); he’s thus circled back to the earlier connection he was making between the foreign fashions that gallants adopt and the foreign words that they employ. (He’s also, perhaps, noting that Romeo’s still dressed in what he was wearing the night before, as some editors point out, although he doesn’t make much of it and the audience may well not notice.) Slips (which also pick up slop) are indeed counterfeit coins, but although Mercutio is really just saying, and where did you get to last night? it’s also ironic: Romeo is indeed going to deceive his friends and not tell them the truth of what’s happened to him. Keep up, keep up, says Mercutio (and he might as well be talking to the audience), but Romeo is being, for the moment, unfailingly polite, and just a little bit knowingly obtuse.

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