Wings, birds, burdens and pricks (1.4.17-28)

MERCUTIO     You are a lover, borrow Cupid’s wings,

                        And soar with them above a common bound.

ROMEO           I am too sore enpiercèd with his shaft

                        To soar with his light feathers, and so bound

                        I cannot bound a pitch above dull woe:

                        Under love’s heavy burden do I sink.

MERCUTIO     And to sink in it should you burden love,

                        Too great oppression for a tender thing.

ROMEO           Is love a tender thing? it is too rough,

                        Too rude, too boist’rous, and it pricks like thorn.

MERCUTIO     If love be rough with you, be rough with love:

                        Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down. (1.4.17-28)


I think we can imagine Mercutio dancing the odd step here, and there may be music playing too. The punning is dense: the common bound is both an ordinary leap or jump, a dance step, and a state of limitation; lovers should be god-like, able to leap tall buildings with a single bound. (In 2.2, this is what Romeo will do.) Romeo retorts that he’s love’s captive, bound, and (continuing the heavy-light quibble of the previous lines) his woe is heavy and dull (like lead). The wound of love is sore, and means that he cannot soar, fly. The shaft or arrow will have feathers – like Cupid’s wings – and the pitch continues the feather-bird connection, being the highest point of a falcon’s flight. (Birds are important in the play. Romeo is connected with falcons on more than one occasion, and if he’s disguised here as a pilgrim, peregrine, he’s explicitly punning on himself: I am a bird that cannot fly.) The musical sense of pitch is – just – current at this time; a burden is a load, but it’s also the refrain of a song, the thing that keeps coming back (Romeo’s weighed down, repetitive, stuck – in pitch, tar?) and can be used, too, for the bass-line of a song. Mercutio tilts the dialogue towards sex: a burden can be sexual, imagining lying on and sinking in to the body of a lover (the Nurse will use the same word in a similar sense). Romeo says he’s the victim of love, beaten up by Cupid: the arrow returns in the prick of the thorn, and also, implicitly, he invokes the rose, the flower that most often appears in the play. This is too easy for Mercutio – prick, really? – he’s all about seizing back the (sexual) initiative, getting it out of the way, out of your system: be rough with love, beat love down. There’s more than a slight edge of sexual violence. Worth noting that prick-song is also a thing, both music sung from written notation and, sometimes, a descant or counterpoint. The opposite, therefore, of a burden. Top banter all round.

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