Mice, lights, and dreams (1.4.40-52)

MERCUTIO     Tut, dun’s the mouse, the constable’s own word.

                        If thou art Dun, we’ll draw thee from the mire,

                        Or (save your reverence) love, wherein thou stickest

                        Up to the ears. Come, we burn daylight, ho!

ROMEO           Nay, that’s not so.

MERCUTIO                                         I mean, sir, in delay

                        We waste our lights in vain, like lights by day.

                        Take our good meaning, for our judgement sits

                        Five times in that ere once in our five wits.

ROMEO           And we mean well in going to this mask,

                        But ’tis no wit to go.

MERCUTIO                                         Why, may one ask?

ROMEO           I dreamt a dream tonight.

MERCUTIO                                                     And so did I.

ROMEO           Well, what was yours?

MERCUTIO                                         That dreamers often lie.

ROMEO           In bed asleep, while they do dream things true. (1.4.40-52)


Do not try to out-proverb Mercutio. Dun is, well, mouse-coloured; it’s a suitable word or watchword/password for a constable or watchman because mice are also quiet and inconspicuous. Shut up then and blend into the background, if that’s what you want, but if you want to get out of the mire, mud (or pitch) of love (like the Dun or a log of wood apparently pulled out of imaginary mud in a party game played by those crazy Elizabethans), then let us know and we’ll help. (I really want there to be another pun here on John Donne. He liked puns too, and sometimes punned on his own name.) Whatever, we need to get on with it, we’re wasting time, burning daylight – a metatheatrical moment here – it is of course daylight, and the torches signal that it’s night in the world of the play. So, paradoxically, this, and the lines following, remind the audience that it’s dark.

I suspect that quite a lot of this is usually cut in performance because the proverbial stuff is largely incomprehensible; it makes sense to pick up with And we mean well in going to this mask, because that’s what introduces the idea of the dream. (Romeo doesn’t relate his dream here; he does in 5.1, where his dream does indeed turn out to be partially true.) What I think matters here is, first, the punning, the sharpness and pace, back and forth, sometimes bawdy, picking up each other’s cues and outdoing them. This is reinforced by the shift into rhyming couplets and then into stichomythia, the rapid alternation of half-lines between Mercutio and Romeo. It’s fast, quite aggressive, intimate: these are friends, but also – rhetorically at least – temporary rivals. The increasing pace makes the scene more intense, the audience has to concentrate more to keep up, and it’s about to demand even more of us. Deep breath…

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