Enter ROMEO, MERCUTIO, BENVOLIO, with five or six other MASKERS, TORCH-BEARERS
ROMEO What, shall this speech be spoke for our excuse?
Or shall we on without apology?
BENVOLIO The date is out of such prolixity:
We’ll have no Cupid hoodwinked with a scarf,
Bearing a Tartar’s painted bow of lath,
Scaring the ladies like a crow-keeper,
Nor no without-book prologue, faintly spoke
After the prompter, for our entrance;
But let them measure us by what they will,
We’ll measure them a measure and be gone. (1.4.1-10)
This seems a rather over-enthusiastic stage-direction, in terms of numbers – but for once there’s at least three people at the top of the scene – and there’s the sense of another movement of the play beginning, a crash of bodies onto the stage after the more restrained domesticity of the previous scene. The torches establish that it’s night, and that the boys are in transit, en route to gate-crash the party (hence the torchbearers, to light them through the streets). What they’re arguing about is the manner of their arrival: are they going to formally announce their arrival and explain their disguises, as masquers often did (a bit like trick-or-treating?) or just turn up and blag their way in? Benvolio says that such formal speeches are old-fashioned, the date is out, and in any case can go on too long (they’re prolix), and he goes on to cite other old-fashioned devices, like a Cupid (presumably a child) blind-folded, with a little ‘cupid’s bow’ made out of lath (light wood; we might say cardboard) making a nuisance of himself. A crow-keeper is a scarecrow, the human version of which would likely be armed with bow and arrows. (The thought that such antics might scare the ladies echoes the anxieties about the lion and the killing in ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ in Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare is thinking about that play here, which becomes even more apparent as the scene develops.) It’s not impossible that there might be a dig here at the plays of John Lyly, written for a children’s company and still being performed at court in the early 1590s: some (Sapho and Phaeo, Gallathea) include the character of Cupid. Whatever, Benvolio says they’re far too cool for all that: they’re going to turn up, have a dance (measure them a measure) and get out of there. Ironies: Cupid will indeed be of the party. And weapons in this play, although not this scene, are all too real.
Mercutio is about to speak his first lines in the play. In a play full of delayed and anticipated entrances, his is both the most delayed and, perhaps the least anticipated – unless he was originally, as seems entirely likely, the speaker of the prologue, and hence once of the company’s star actors. Which might neatly explain the little prologue-baiting joke here, where the prologue has allegedly memorised his speech, without-book, but needs to be prompted for every line.