MERCUTIO O calm, dishonourable, vile submission!
‘Alla stoccata’ carries it away. [Draws.]
Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you walk?
TYBALT What wouldst thou have with me?
MERCUTIO Good King of Cats, nothing but one of your nine lives that I mean to make bold withal, and as you shall use me hereafter, dry-beat the rest of the eight. Will you pluck your sword out of his pilcher by the ears? Make haste, lest mine be about your ears ere it be out.
TYBALT I am for you. [Drawing.] (3.1.66-75)
And Mercutio is out of control, taking offence on Romeo’s behalf but also unable to believe what he’s seeing, his friend being so calmand not engaging at all with Tybalt’s challenge, instead rather prepared to walk away and lose face. This just doesn’t fit with what Mercutio knows either about his friend or about the world they live in, where a challenge must be answered and honour and reputation is all. He doesn’t like Tybalt’s version of honour either, satirising it again as being all about tricksy Italian swordplay with complicated names, like the one – literally ‘at the thrust’, o horrible irony – with which he addresses Tybalt. In English a stockis a post or a pole, often used as a metaphor for someone dull and stupid; it also suggests stockfish, a dried fish, often used as a mocking phallic reference. Mercutio is being very rude to Tybalt; he can’t believe that Romeo is letting this man whom they despise – about whom the three of them have presumably laughed together – carry it away, win the bout, destroy Romeo’s reputation. Rat-catcher sets up King of Cats, and makes it even more ridiculous in anticipation. (Sadly I think that the possibility of infuriating Tybalt by suggesting that he’s just a big pussycat really – or indeed any other effeminate feline suggestion – the one which springs to mind, modesty forbids, and in any case the OED suggests that the first occurrence is late C17….) So there’s a cat joke here, mocking Tybalt with the nine lives stuff: I’ll take one of your lives with my sword (which has been drawn) and then I’ll just pummel you, beat you like someone not even worthy of a proper gentlemen’s fight. Go on, draw your sword out of its nasty cheap and limply phallic leather scabbard (a pilch is a leather coat; more elite scabbards would be made of metal) by its ears, like you would a reluctant child; get on with it or I’ll just start battering you anyway.
Tybalt does seem genuinely surprised that Mercutio is back in the scene. He is an astonishingly focused character; his single, and declared, intention is to fight Romeo for what he deems a specific and personal slight. Mercutio is just a distraction, but now he’s become – as it seems he always has to be – the main attraction; his needling has had its desired effect and he’s got the fight that he’s been spoiling for since, well, since the start of the play. I like that the stage directions have to be editorial; it’s so clear what’s happening, and so fast-moving, as Benvolio and Romeo look on in utter disbelief at the turn of events, and the stupid, desperate thing their beloved friend has done. But maybe it’ll turn out fine; this has probably happened before….