Saucy, scurvy knaves (2.4.121-132)

NURSE            I pray you, sir, what saucy merchant was this that was so full of his ropery?

ROMEO           A gentleman, Nurse, that loves to hear himself talk, and will speak more in a minute than he will stand to in a month.

NURSE            And ’a speak any thing against me, I’ll take him down, and ’a were lustier than he is, and twenty such Jacks; and if I cannot, I’ll find those that shall. Scurvy knave, I am none of his flirt-gills, I am none of his skains-mates. [She turns to Peter, her man.] And thou must stand by too and suffer every knave to use me at his pleasure!

PETER                        I saw no man use you at his pleasure; if I had, my weapon should quickly have been out. I warrant you, I dare draw as soon as another man, if I see occasion in a good quarrel, and the law on my side. (2.4.121-132)

Now that Benvolio and Mercutio are out of the way, the Nurse lets her guard down a bit. Romeo perhaps guesses that he’s being tested here; Mercutio has been pretty vile and a man is judged by his friends – so he’s polite, and also quite dismissive of Mercutio: don’t mind him, he’s all talk, full of hot air, loves the sound of his own voice. Just a slight pulling of rank, perhaps? Mercutio may be a saucy merchant but he’s also a gentleman; she, quite properly, addresses Romeo as sir whereas he, quite properly, addresses her as Nurse (but he could have said Madam). But she’s on a roll and it’s lovely to see how she really lets rip; there’s a sense of an accent slipping, even, in the And ’a speak any thing against me, I’ll take him down, and the shift in register from saucy merchant to the much more colloquial Jacks, scurvy knave, flirt-gills, skains-mates. These last two are both vividly and more or less incomprehensibly imagining the sort of women who might be more appropriate for Mercutio’s banter: in essence, she’s saying, do I look like a Wench? The humour here is partly in the double entendres (take him down meaning both defeat, humble and reduce or deflate in a sexual sense; lustier, ditto, obviously, and use me at his pleasure, again, obviously). Peter the otherwise laconic manservant picks these up and adds emphasis: he can’t intervene because these are gentlemen and he’s a servant, but what he does do is echo some of the phrases from the play’s opening scene – which was, let us remember, still only yesterday – where those two other Capulet servants, Gregory and Sampson, had bragged, speaking of thrusting maids to the wall and their own naked weapons. A slightly nasty twist at the end, perhaps? if I’d seen another man using you at his pleasure, I might well have joined in. But it’s only a hint: more significant is where he ends up, with the way in which a good quarrel will draw in others, and the question of whether the lawis on your side is central; this last is a reminder of the Prince’s explicit pronouncement at the end of the brawl in the first scene, that such quarrels have consequences not simply for individuals and families, but in law, and the penalty that will be applied is death. Like Mercutio’s inability to shut up, this timely reminder is going to be very important not long after this.


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