[2.4] Enter BENVOLIO and MERCUTIO
MERCUTIO Where the dev’l should this Romeo be?
Came he not home tonight?
BENVOLIO Not to his father’s, I spoke with his man.
MERCUTIO Why, that same pale hard-hearted wretch, that Rosaline,
Torments him so, that he will sure run mad.
BENVOLIO Tybalt, the kinsman to old Capulet,
Hath sent a letter to his father’s house.
MERCUTIO A challenge, on my life.
BENVOLIO Romeo will answer it.
MERCUTIO Any man that can write may answer a letter.
BENVOLIO Nay, he will answer the letter’s master, how he dares, being dared.
(Is there a running gag here? so many scenes or exchanges begin, Where’s Romeo?) We imagine Mercutio and Benvolio entering in conversation, and there’s a marked change of pace: if Romeo has exited at a run, dragging the Friar after him, Mercutio and Benvolio stroll in (they’re not really worried about where Romeo is, they’re used to him disappearing). The urgent, rapid-fire rhyming couplets of the previous scene give way to very loose blank verse, which sometimes lapses (I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense) into prose. It can be played as very morning after the night before, although in performance we’re more likely to see stylish sunglasses and double espressos than McMuffins and full-fat Coke. There’s an ongoing sense that Romeo’s a bit of a worry in general, and also that his friends – and his servant, his man (and as we’ve just seen, Friar Lawrence) – keep a closer eye on him than his parents do. (An anachronistic concern, probably, but it does point up the play’s generational divide.) Mercutio’s comment about Rosaline has the air of something that’s been said many times before, but it jars a bit: we know how much everything has changed, and yet Romeo’s best friends don’t.
The first few lines suggest that Benvolio and Mercutio are going to go over familiar ground – Romeo’s got to get over this, it’s not going anywhere, Rosaline’s such a [insert locker-room witticism here] – but then Benvolio changes tack and introduces a new concern: Tybalt. Although he qualifies his introduction, the kinsman to old Capulet, Tybalt’s reputation is clearly well-known, because Mercutio immediately knows what’s up:A challenge. Ears prick up; Mercutio likes a challenge. Benvolio’s response can be read in several ways: Romeo will answer it because he’s a man of honour and that’s a good thing; Romeo will answer it because he’s a man of honour and that’s a bit of a worry (because Tybalt is genuinely dangerous). Mercutio wants to turn it into banter:Any man that can write may answer a letter, but Benvolio really is concerned about this, so he pretends not to understand Mercutio, and is doggedly literal: Romeo will surely accept Tybalt’s challenge. There’s an echo here of the scene with the Capulet servant earlier in the play, where Romeo’s literacy has allowed him to read the guest list and so discover that Rosaline will be at the party. It seems another life, but it was only yesterday.