Hoar bawds and hare pie (2.4.106-120)

BENVOLIO      She will indite him to some supper.

MERCUTIO     A bawd, a bawd, a bawd! So ho!

ROMEO           What hast thou found?

MERCUTIO     No hare, sir, unless a hare, sir, in a lenten pie, that is something stale and hoar ere it be spent.

[He walks by them and sings.]

An old hare hoar,

And an old hare hoar,

Is very good meat in Lent;

But a hare that is hoar

Is too much for a score,

When it hoars ere it be spent.

Romeo, will you come to your father’s? We’ll to dinner thither.

ROMEO           I will follow you.

MERCUTIO     Farewell, ancient lady, farewell, lady, [Singing.] ‘lady, lady’.

                                                                  Exeunt [Mercutio and Benvolio] (2.4.106-120)

Mercutio’s great and everything, but a little bit goes a really, really long way. Benvolio could be mocking the Nurse’s tendency to get words mixed up with his indite for invite (Q1 has invite), but the point is setting up the next joke: that the Nurse is a bawd, a madam (clearly inviting gallants to supper was a way of saying, come to the bawdy house, the brothel). (The irony is that this is sort-of true: the Nurse is acting as a go-between or bawd; she is about to facilitate a sexual encounter, albeit one preceded by a marriage.) But – who knew?! – bawd can also be a dialect word for hare. So it’s back to the hunting metaphor that was there in the wild-goose chase (because hares were routinely hunted, as in Venus and Adonis, and as is still the case, illegally, today), and a final outburst of furious, moderately smutty wordplay, underpinned by deeply embedded misogyny. Because hare sounds a bit like whore and hoar (meaning old, stale, mouldy) sounds exactly like whore; in essence Mercutio is calling the Nurse not just a bawd but an old whore, unattractive. A lenten pie shouldn’t contain any meat; the joke here is that even an old whore is acceptable if no fresh meat is available. (Although hare pies are a thing [scroll down] and are associated with the Midlands, not that far from Stratford…) Mercutio’s always thinking about sex, and here that’s overlaid with food, because it’s now dinner time (another way in which the passing of time is incorporated into the play) and he’s hungry. But it’s pretty nasty, and one of the things that this part of the scene is establishing – as has already been seen in a different mode, in the Queen Mab speech – is that Mercutio doesn’t know when to stop. His mouth runs away on him. That is going to matter very much in a scene or two.

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