MERCUTIO Alas, poor Romeo, he is already dead, stabbed with a white wench’s black eye, run through the ear with a love-song, the very pin of his heart cleft with the blind bow-boy’s butt-shaft; and is he a man to encounter Tybalt?
BENVOLIO Why, what is Tybalt?
MERCUTIO More than Prince of Cats. O, he’s the courageous captain of compliments: he fights as you sing prick-song, keeps time, distance, and proportion; he rests his minim rests, one, two, and the third in your bosom; the very butcher of a silk button, a duellist, a duellist; a gentleman of the very first house, of the first and second cause. Ah, the immortal ‘passado’, the ‘punto reverso’, the ‘hay’!
BENVOLIO The what? (2.4.13-24)
Benvolio speaks for all of us: the last 6 lines of this passage are all that will fit on p. 120 of the current Cambridge edition, because all the rest of the space is taken up with annotation. Mercutio is waking up, and giving us the prose equivalent of Queen Mab; Benvolio just has to act as his straight man (I use the word straight advisedly: this scene can be queered in many ways). Mercutio’s two statements here are animated, and united, by the idea of penetration, and by the swords and daggers that are going to dominate much of this part of the play. First of all, Mercutio gives three ways in which Romeo is, in effect, emasculated (dead), because of his infatuation with Rosaline: he’s been stabbedby her eyes, run through by a love-song, and Cupid’s butt-shaft(not at all as rude as it sounds) has hit him right through the pinof his heart, the middle (the pinmarks the centre of a target when practicing archery at the butts; a butt-shafthas no barbs and hence is used for practice and training). The point here is that none of these is particularly scary or substantial: a glance, a tune, the archery equivalent of shooting blanks. (Well, not really. But there’s no easy equivalent.) Romeo’s a push-over (is he a man?) and Mercutio is not going to back him in a fight with Tybalt.
Because Tybalt is Prince of Cats; he’s a legend, although Mercutio manages to cast aspersion on his masculinity too: he’s a classy fighter but it’s all very elegant, very textbook, more style than substance perhaps, although ultimately deadly. Tybalt has learned to fence, to duel, from the popular Italian fencing manuals which were all the rage in London in the 1590s, in which positions and moves had names and were performed as rhythmically and precisely as music, as prick-song. (Tybalt is Zorro, basically, able to whip off his opponent’s buttonwith a flick of his blade.)
Prose can be harder to memorise than verse, but this is rhythmic and highly structured, making heavy use of alliteration (white wench, blind bow-boy’s butt-shaft, courageous captain of compliments) as well as repetition and amplification. Mercutio is doing verbally exactly what he is describing Tybalt as being able to do with a blade.
I like the randomness of this being the extract that’s turned up on Shakespeare’s probable birthday.