Mercutio, winding up Tybalt and Benvolio (3.1.43-52)

BENVOLIO      We talk here in the public haunt of men:

                        Either withdraw unto some private place,

                        Or reason coldly of your grievances,

                        Or else depart; here all eyes gaze on us.

MERCUTIO     Men’s eyes were made to look, and let them gaze;

                        I will not budge for no man’s pleasure, I.

                                                Enter ROMEO.

TYBALT          Well, peace be with you, sir, here comes my man.

MERCUTIO     But I’ll be hanged, sir, if he wear your livery.

                        Marry, go before to field, he’ll be your follower;

                        Your worship in that sense may call him man. (3.1.43-52)

And these are the last lines that Benvolio – lovely, sensible, conciliatory Benvolio – speaks in the scene until it’s too late and things have taken a terrible, irrevocable turn. He’s aware that the crisis is approaching, and in particular just how volatile Mercutio is, so he’s trying to head it off by introducing another consideration: the feud and its impact on Verona, and the danger that they’re all in because of it. It’s an oblique reminder of the Prince’s angry proclamation after the brawl, way back in 1.1, that the next people who disturb our streets may well be punished with death. Wherever this scene is taking place (one imagines a nicely sun-kissed piazza – thanks Zeffirelli – or, OK, a beach) it’s not private; you’re making a spectacle of yourselves and someone is going to call the watch (or the cops) if it goes much further. If you’re not going to take this inside (or at least get on to family-owned territory) then you need to calm down, quite literally chill (stop being so hot-tempered and reason coldly, have a cool, calm conversation) – and if you can’t do that, then you both need to get out of here. Don’t care, says Mercutio, get out of my face, I’m not going anywhere, not even to please you, and if people want to stare that’s their problem.

What’s startling here is first, how little Tybalt has to say, and second, how courteous he remains in the face of Mercutio’s needling. Yes, it can be played with sneering faux courtesy and barely concealed menace, and that’s a legitimate choice, but it doesn’t have to be. He appears perfectly ready to drop Mercutio – peace be with you, sir– when Romeo appears, which is pretty decent of him, given the provocation. Ah, Romeo. Does he enter, yet again, at a run, incandescent with joy, delighted both by what has just passed and to see his friends, perhaps even planning to tell them what he’s done? In a dreamy reverie? either way, he’s coming straight from the wedding. But Mercutio won’t let it drop, even though Tybalt’s not interested in him any more: he picks up on the possibly entirely neutral my man and accuses Tybalt of insulting Romeo by calling him a servant, his man: he’s not wearing your livery, he says, but if you lead the way to a field of combat, somewhere to have a duel, he’ll be right behind you, raring to go. Mercutio is setting up Tybalt’s fight with Romeo before Romeo is even properly in the scene. Oh, Mercutio…

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