Visors, hearts, and heels (1.4.29-39)

MERCUTIO     Give me a case to put my visage in, [Puts on a mask.]

                        A visor for a visor! what care I

                        What curious eye doth cote deformities?

                        Here are the beetle brows shall blush for me.

BENVOLIO      Come knock and enter, and no sooner in,

                        But every man betake him to his legs.

ROMEO           A torch for me: let wantons light of heart

                        Tickle the senseless rushes with their heels;

                        For I am proverbed with a grandsire phrase,

                        I’ll be a candle-holder and look on:

                        The game was ne’er so fair, and I am done. (1.4.29-39)


It’s firmly established that they’re disguising themselves with masks; Mercutio’s is perhaps grotesque, with prominent beetle brows. He’s self-deprecating about his appearance, saying that he’s putting an (ugly) mask on an ugly face, and he doesn’t care what anyone says about (cote meaning quote or note) his deformities – which in early modern usage often means blemishes, skin problems, rather than misshapenness. Is Mercutio suffering from acne?! (Am I over-thinking this?) Benvolio interjects to remind them of the plan, and he also establishes that they are now at the door or gate of the Capulet house (so they can knock and enter). Once they’re inside, they have to split up and join the dancing – including, implicitly, Romeo. But he’s still hanging back, no, he’ll stay on the sidelines with a torch, like an old man, spouting proverbial wisdom. Others can dance: the rushes are strewn on the floor (as they would have been on the stage), and here Romeo’s perhaps trying to steer away from sex: he is not one of the wantons who is going to flirt and have fun (although wanton doesn’t just mean lustful), oh no. But it’s there: tickle often has a sexual sense, and the parallel of heart with heels suggests that heels too might be light (at the end of Much Ado, Benedick calls for a dance ‘that we may lighten our own hearts, and our wives’ heels’; to have light heels is to be sexually available). Both of Romeo’s closing lines here (I’ll be a candle-holder and look on; The game was ne’er so fair, and I am done) are traceable to proverbs current in the sixteenth century, but the main point here is that Romeo is being adamant – even if he’s a bit torn – that he’s not going to join in the dancing. That the game was ne’er so fair suggests frustration: he’s growing tired of being in love; he’s a bit over it even though he’s not over it.

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