Mercutio, on picking fights; also, egg jokes (3.1.10-26)

MERCUTIO     Come, come, thou art as hot a Jack in thy mood as any in Italy, and as soon moved to be moody, and as soon moody to be moved.

BENVOLIO      And what to?

MERCUTIO     Nay, and there were two such, we should have none shortly, for one would kill the other. Thou? why, thou wilt quarrel with a man that hath a hair more or a hair less in his beard than thou hast; thou wilt quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason but because thou hast hazel eyes. What eye but such an eye would spy out such a quarrel? Thy head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat, and yet thy head hath been beaten as addle as an egg for quarrelling. Thou hast quarrelled with a man for coughing in the street, because he hath wakened thy dog that hath lain asleep in the sun. Didst thou not fall out with a tailor for wearing his new doublet before Easter? with another for tying his new shoes with old riband? and yet thou wilt tutor me from quarrelling? (3.1.10-26)

Mercutio is warming up nicely, baiting Benvolio in his (self) portrait of a quarrelsome man, with hot now meaning hot-tempered. Being quickly moved– to anger, to violence – was part of the opening exchange between Gregory and Samson, still only yesterday; Mercutio is describing a man who is not only hot-tempered, but quick-tempered, and also thin-skinned. This is going to matter, not least because Tybalt is both. What Mercutio outlines is ridiculous, picking fights over beards (vital to the cultivation of fashionable masculinity at this time), eye-colour (the nut-cracking detail makes it seem particularly trivial), and waking a dog (by coughing, not even by shouting). The detail about tailors suggests either that the tailor has had the cheek to wear the new doublet he has made for ‘Benvolio’ himself before handing it over to him in time for Easter, when it was customary to wear new clothes, or else that the tailor has worn his own new doublet in Lent, violating this social convention. The new shoes tied with old riband suggests that the customer has paid for new ribbon for his shoes (to match his new doublet?) but instead discovered that the tailor has recycled, stealing the money or the new ribbon itself. (Tailors have their own chapter in the other book-in-progress; suffice it to say that they’re conventionally accused of dishonesty, often as part of a larger performance of anxious masculinity, which is certainly partly what’s going on here.) And Mercutio also makes the point that such readiness to quarrel has often not turned out well. His simile of the egg, stuffed full with quarrels and their possible causes, and then beaten soundly, so that it’s muddled, and also rotten, like an addled egg, is comic, but also perhaps introduces a note of physical fragility. Heads, and bodies, are not as fragile as eggs, but they too can be broken. (Mostly it’s just a yolk, though, and on Mercutio himself. Take the metaphor where you will.)

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