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The Lover and the Jester: Romeo/Mercutio












With very, very few exceptions, the world is pretty well united in recognizing William Shakespeare as one of the greatest writers who ever lived. Academia goes into palpitations of joy over Hamlet and King Lear, and even if they’re busy pointing out how Shakespeare is also occasionally a misogynist (see Taming of the Shrew), a racist (see Othello), an anti-Semite (see Merchant of Venice), or a royal boot-licker (see Henry VIII), even while he’s being torn to shreds, usually there’s a hefty dose of respect present for the guy. However, the play that has arguably fallen most out of favor with the many-letters-behind-my-name crowd is Romeo and Juliet, often to the point that, should someone actually publicly announce they like the play, they are regarded with the same uplifted eyebrow and look of severe disapproval as if they had said their very favorite book in all the world is Twilight. The teenage angst! The overblown, impossible love! The flowery writing! The overly attractive protagonists! Ugh!

Allow me to go on record here on two simple points.

    1. I actually like Romeo and Juliet. No apologies.
    2. I read Twilight and thought my eyes were going to start bleeding, so no, there is no connection between liking the two.

Truthfully, R&J (as it will henceforth be referred to in this essay) is the most accessible of Shakespeare’s plays because the plot is pretty simple. By the time most people are fifteen, they can tell you the basic premise: couple meets, falls in love, families don’t like each other, and they die. Whether they got this summary from English class, seeing a performance or movie of the play, West Side Story, or a rerun of The Brady Bunch or The Andy Griffith Show isn’t important. Maybe it’s the fact that people actually understand the plot that makes some people shake their heads and mutter the infamous mantra, “If normal people like it, it can’t be any good.” This is probably also why normal people often loathe English professors, but I digress.


Mercutio: Because Sanity Is Over-Rated



However, even in academia, professors’ eyes dance with glee when someone mentions the magic word “Mercutio.” Suddenly, there is an aspect of R&J that is wonderful, superb, worthy of the Bard himself! Many who reportedly despise the play roundly will also bizarrely list Mercutio as their favorite character in all of Shakespeare, bar none. Why?

I submit to you the following simple truth about Mercutio’s character. He is fun. In the middle of a grand tragedy that leaves six dead by the end of the play including both title characters and Romeo’s poor mother who most productions don’t even bother to put on stage, there is this wonderfully funny, very intelligent, extremely entertaining character who is by turns insulting, bawdy, a jokester, and a fighter. He stands out a mile. Half the females I know who have read this play find themselves at one point or another in the action at least a little in love with Mercutio. And yes, I would indeed be among that number.

But when we get down to really looking at Mercutio’s character, there isn’t all that much to know about him. He’s a friend of Romeo and Benvolio and thus on the side of the Montagues in the feud, but he’s actually related to the Prince and Paris, so there’s really no blood related reason for him to take any stand on the vendettas at all. His social rank does suggest that he would probably have a decent amount of money. He also most likely would have been given an education, and this is pretty easily seen from his level of diction and the classical allusions he makes in his dialogue, but we don’t know for certain how much formal schooling he’s had. According to the list of guests for the Capulets’ party, he has a brother named Valentine who is never seen on stage (though some critics argue this isn’t even the same Mercutio, though the coincidence would be pretty far-fetched). We know he has a tendency to go off on tangents when he speaks, flitting from one topic to the next as his stream of consciousness takes him, which can lead the audience or a director to regard him as having a wit like lightening, having a form of ADHD, being mentally unhinged, or anything else in between.

Unlike Romeo, who is sixteen, or Juliet, who is thirteen, we have no idea how old Mercutio is. In the Zefferelli version, he is played by John McEnery, who was roughly twenty-five (Olivia Hussey as Juliet and Leonard Whiting as Romeo were in their teens). In Luhrman’s version, Harold Perrineau was in his early thirties when he played Mercutio (Claire Danes as Juliet was in her teens while Leonardo DiCaprio was in his early twenties). At the more extreme end, John Barrymore played Mercutio when he was 54 in the 1936 Cukor-directed film, but then again, as Norma Shearer’s Juliet was about 34 and Leslie Howard’s Romeo was pushing 43, this last age is more in proportion to the rest of the cast than it at first appears. Therefore, a Mercutio anywhere from a contemporary of Romeo up to a contemporary of Romeo’s grandfather has a precedent.

Mercutio’s character, then, is in some ways a nearly blank slate with only a few lines drawn on it. Recent scholarship from several different critics, however, has begun to suggest that there is some evidence in the script to suggest that Mercutio might be gay. He is openly disdainful of love in general and women in particular, showing utterly no textual interest in any of the ladies of Verona but quite openly mocking them. In this way, he acts as Romeo’s foil, a mirror opposite of the melancholy, lovelorn, hopeless (literally) romantic. Could some lovely Italian lady have broken poor Mercutio’s heart and left him a bitter, cynical man? Certainly. Could the gentleman, to paraphrase the fair Gertrude, be protesting too much and actually be in love with one of the beauties of the town? It’s very possible. On the other hand, could Mercutio be angry and dismissive of Romeo’s tendency to fall in love because Mercutio is jealous since he’s in love with Romeo himself?

Oh. Heck. Yeah.

Now, there are critics who claim that Mercutio cannot possibly be gay, that there is no evidence to support this, that Shakespeare would simply never create a character who is gay. Does Mercutio have to be gay? No. Do directors and performers regularly make the choice anyway? Hmmm. Let’s think...











The very first time I saw R&J was in ninth grade English. When we got to this scene (Queen Mab), the guy next to me actually muttered, “If they start kissing, I am so out of here.” When the subtext smacks a high school freshman in the noggin, it’s subtext written in a very large font.

But perhaps Zefferelli’s version is simply a bit too heavy-handed, too lacking in subtlety. Maybe no other director would be so deliberately obvious…









Yeah. Guess not.

Luhrman’s version is actually my least favorite (yes, worse than Cukor’s practically octogenarian young lovers) for many reasons, but I have to hand it to the guy for not being too coy here. Perrineau’s Mercutio makes Richard Simmons look straight. And as for his interest in Romeo and possibly vice versa?









I really don’t think I’m imagining it.


Romeo: More Than Just an Italian Elizabethan Ken Doll



So why Romeo of all people for Mercutio to get googly eyes over? Why not Benvolio (and there actually is a pretty sizable number of Mercutio/Benvolio ‘shippers out there) or Tybalt or some other gentleman of Verona? Well, as previously stated, Romeo and Mercutio are foils to one another, and not to get all Jerry Maguire on you, but they complete each other. They balance well.

Romeo is pretty much the stereotype of the melancholic lover who was in vogue during the Elizabethan period. Even before meeting Juliet, he’s crazy for Rosaline, wandering around like a brooding zombie while his friends, most notably Mercutio, make fun of him. Romeo is also a very good swordsman, pretty intelligent, more interested in keeping the peace than his comrades are (again, even before Juliet), impetuous, a poet, sentimental, and a true believe that love is the most important thing in the world. Granted, this can come off as sappy if it’s done wrong. Romeo can be pretty dang emo. There’s no denying he is besotted with the sheer idea of love, and it appears on a closer look that he rather enjoys being utterly despondent about it.

But at the same time, Romeo obviously cares very, very deeply for Mercutio. When Mercutio gets too wound up and a little crazy during the Queen Mab speech, Romeo calms him down, taking care of him. When Mercutio starts fighting Tybalt, Romeo tries to stop him. And when Mercutio is killed, Romeo goes utterly ballistic. It’s his death that is the only thing capable of over-riding his concern for Juliet and her family, ending with Romeo killing his new wife’s cousin. That shows a rather strong bias for Mercutio over Juliet, at least in the heat of the moment. There’s a very wide range in Romeo’s character when he’s dealing with Mercutio, ranging from tender to explosive. Pairing the two of them allows the writer to play with these other sides to Romeo’s personality and make him not simply melancholic but more three-dimensional.

On the other hand, the whole premise of the play deals with Romeo being head-over-heels in love with Juliet. Does that kill the possibility of Mercutio/Romeo? No. Romeo/Juliet does not have to deal a death blow to Mercutio/Romeo. Romeo could be bisexual, he could be oblivious to Mercutio’s feelings for him, he could be still trying to deal with the ramifications of what he feels for his friend… there are a hundred possibilities, but they don’t have to make the primary canonical romantic relationship of the play obsolete. It’s very difficult to work from the concept that Romeo is entirely faking his passion for Juliet, so fic writers would probably be better off not trying to completely undo the plot of Shakespeare’s play in order to get Romeo and Mercutio together, though, hey, it’s fanfic. Take a swing at it if the muse hits you. For once, the copyright holder seriously can’t show up and take offense at what you’ve done to his characters.

How’d You Get into This Most Doomed of ‘Ships (and How Can I Get into It Too, Forsooth)?



So, basically, you’re asking why a nice girl who writes BtVS and Potter fanfic landed inside the land of Shakespearean slash. I’ve got a one-word answer for you: Yuletide. The rare fandom Yuletide fic exchange ended up slipping me an assignment for Mercutio/Romeo slash, and I was stunned by how easy they were to match up together. They meld well, and yes, my latent crush on Mercutio came back in full force.

Again, while I am a boring traditionalist who doesn’t really think that R&J actually needs a Romeo who drops acid to fall in love with Juliet or a bunch of firearms named after various period weapons, I credit Luhrman’s version with a sharp uptick in the amount of R&J fanfic that’s been written. Really, you just don’t see that kind of interest in Titania/Oberon or even Iago/Othello. The movie made the play “cool” again, and while that word carries a whole carrousel’s worth of baggage, increased visibility of the story means an increase in fandom activity. Yes, as is the case with most fanfic, there is a high percentage of just plain dreck out there, and in the case of R&J there isn’t an actual home for fandom-specific fic that I’ve come across. It takes some creative Googling as well as delving into the infamous Pit of Voles, more commonly known as Fanfiction.net, before you hit the good stuff. But when you do, it’s worth it.

Should you choose to write Romeo/Mercutio, I strongly suggest that you see an actual production of R&J. Films are great, but plays are meant to seen from only a few feet away, live. It’s a tremendously different experience to watch flesh and blood actors inhabiting the roles than to see them on a two-dimensional movie screen or TV. Thankfully, R&J is probably the most produced of Shakespeare’s plays, again because everyone’s heard of it and the plot is very widely known and therefore a lot less intimidating than, say, Hamlet. I saw the play live for the first time at Stratford, Ontario’s Shakespeare festival in the early 1990s, and the choices the director made were unexpected, wonderful, and things I would never in a thousand years have taken away from the script just on my own reading. Prokofiev’s ballet version is a completely different experience, and when I had the opportunity to see the Moscow Festival Ballet’s performance a couple years ago, their version of Mercutio was absolutely wonderful, as was the apparently invisible Mab (who happened to be dressed in a slashed leather body suit and looked like she was intent on kicking the posteriors of the entire population of Verona just for fun… and she succeeded admirably). I have not had the chance to see any of the opera versions as yet, but hey, if you run into one, go for it.

However, chances are there isn’t a live production of R&J sitting at the end of your block right this minute, but your friendly neighborhood video store probably has it on the shelf. R&J is easily the most filmed of all of Shakespeare’s plays, so there’s no lack of choices out there. The three most popular are Cukor’s, Zefferelli’s, and Luhrman’s. While all three are worth a look, they all have their problems. Cukor’s “young” lovers, as previously stated, look downright middle-aged, which unfortunately does lead to accidentally comic moments. It doesn’t help, either, that Romeo, played by Howard, keeps popping up in my head as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, which was filmed later but in which for some odd reason he looked remarkably younger. In short, while it has some very good moments, I wouldn’t suggest it for a beginner. Luhrman’s, while it will undoubtedly be in stock at any normal video place, is often actually confusing because of the choppy cinematography and the odd pairing of Shakespearean dialogue with modern settings. I almost wish he’d ditched the play itself and rewritten it in modern speech as a new variation on the work. It often sounds like half the actors have absolutely no idea what they’re saying (see Mickey Rooney as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a perfect parallel to this… and he openly admits that he was clueless as to what any of his lines meant). Luhrman’s version’s great vice is that it is simply trying too hard, but again, it’s worth seeing. Zefferelli’s version has the downside of missing large segments of the original script, but honestly nearly every Shakespeare production cuts out scenes or lines from final productions because the plays are quite long. Kenneth Brannagh, bless his heart, kept the full text of Hamlet, and while it is brilliant and wonderful and riveting and uses every single word of Shakespeare’s beautiful script, it is also four hours long. For many people, that's an eensy bit off-putting. The prologue to R&J says the play runs two hours. If you lit the actors’ clothes on fire and did not permit them any water until they finished their lines, you still couldn’t get that play done in less than two hours without cuts, no, not even if the dude who used to do the Micromachines commercials back in the 1980s was reading it. Zefferelli’s version is lush, rich in color, matches the dialogue to the surroundings, and uses actors who were the appropriate age for their roles yet still performed beautifully. Is it over the top? Sure, but so is the play. Plus you get to see Mercutio take a bath… granted, with all his clothes on, but still.

Then there are other adaptations. West Side Story, again, is best seen live, but the film version is decent in spite of some problems with casting. Natalie Wood as a Puerto Rican? Seriously? On the other hand, Rita Moreno as Anita covers a multitude of sins. The problem with this version for Mercutio/Romeo shippers is that the character of Riff is essentially the stand-in for Mercutio, but also possesses some of Romeo’s original traits, such as being the leader of the opposition gang to the one Maria’s (Juliet’s stand-in) brother is in, and seems to be partially Benvolio as well. This changes motivation quite a bit. While the plot is borrowed heavily from R&J, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t necessarily match in all matters. Shakespeare in Love uses the play as a backdrop for what amounts to a RPF of Shakespeare’s relationship with Viola, an OC. Unfortunately, there is nearly nothing left of Mercutio in the script, so unfortunately it won’t be much help to you for the pairing, but the rhythm of speech and turns of phrase are good practice.

Finally, there’s the play itself. The script is available online in probably a hundred different places, so take your pick. Obviously, you need to read the whole play in order to understand the characters, especially Romeo. Mercutio is featured in only a few scenes. Act I, scene 4 gives us our first glimpse of Mercutio and includes the infamous Queen Mab speech. We can safely assume that Mercutio is at the Capulet’s party, but he has no lines during it, and we don’t see him again until Act II, scene 1, in which he is trying to track down Romeo, assuming he’s still brooding over Rosaline, which suggests he didn’t notice Romeo’s dance with Juliet at the party. Scene 4 of the same act has some banter between Mercutio and Benvolio, followed by Mercutio and Romeo exchanging light-hearted jokes and good-natured insults until Juliet’s nurse arrives. In Act III scene 1, Mercutio and Benvolio comment on the probability of a fight with Capulets, and Romeo arrives fresh from his secret wedding to Juliet and refuses to fight Tybalt. This leads Mercutio to start dueling with Tybalt to uphold Romeo’s honor (nope, no sign of slash here at all), during which Mercutio is killed because Romeo tries to block Tybalt’s sword, misdirecting it so it accidentally hits Mercutio. Mercutio dies while making jests and muttering curses against the two people he considers responsible for his death: Romeo and Tybalt. This is possibly the most difficult bit of Mercutio’s character to line up with Mercutio/Romeo as it seems his curse certainly does take effect, with Tybalt and Romeo both dead within a day or so. Every good couple needs an obstacle for a fic writer to get around, though, so have at it.








Fic, Fic, Wherefore Art Thou, Fic?



There are several things to watch out for in Mercutio/Romeo fic. Obviously, unless the fic goes very AU, this romance does not have a happy ending, so be prepared for heavy doses of angst. Mercutio is killed in a duel, so images of blood and violence are likely to pop up, and Romeo commits suicide via poison, so these are also warnings to keep in mind. It probably will not shock you to know that there is slash in Mercutio/Romeo fics. However, that does lead to a more difficult problem.

An issue that rears its head in this fandom deals with age of consent. Renaissance Italy was a very different place than the modern world. Juliet’s parents were planning to marry her off at the age of thirteen to Paris even if she hadn’t already married Romeo, and Juliet’s mother drops the double bombshell that “women of esteem” in the town at her age are already “happy mothers made,” suggesting that it was common to marry daughters off at the age of twelve, including Juliet’s mother herself, who tells Juliet that by the time she was Juliet’s age, she had already given birth to her. For the society at that time, this was not shocking, but while many of Shakespeare’s romantic heroines are in their mid-teens (Miranda in The Tempest is fifteen, for example), Juliet is the youngest. Obviously, the concept of anyone marrying a thirteen year old today is repugnant, as it should be. Romeo/Mercutio fairs better by comparison. Romeo is sixteen, which is the legal age of consent in many areas of the world (including where I live), but again, eighteen is the magic number in a great many places. During the Renaissance, a sixteen year old was considered pretty much an adult, capable of marrying or going off to war, holding a full time job and providing for a family, even ruling a country under the right conditions, but then people were usually dead by 35 or so back then, too, and the lurking shadow of the black plague meant anyone could die within a few days. It’s possible to run into fic that could involve underage sexual activity depending on what age of consent is where you are. Approach that sort of thing with extreme caution.

A few Suggestions:



Fic
-In cases where no rating was given, I've done my best to make a stab at them.

“Entreat” by Val Mora – rated K+ - A brief ficlet with a cameo by Friar Lawrence
“Duologue for Would-Be Lovers” by Athousandwinds – rated PG-13 - A different end to the Queen Mab speech, written in Shakespearean dialogue
“Idiot Violet” by Hobbity – rated T - Set in Luhrman’s version, Mercutio dreams of Romeo. Warning for drug use. All of Hobbity’s Mercutio/Romeo fics, including “Deep Plum,” “No Mood for Jest,” “Staring at Stars,” and “Saying Nothing” warrant a look.
“Stars and Trees Our Witnesses” by Padfoot Reincarnated – rated T - Mercutio sets out to prove he will be the constant love in Romeo’s life. A very prettily written piece.
“Though Lovers’ Brains” by Insertclichehere – rated K+ - Playful banter between Romeo and Mercutio after the Mab speech.
“A Plague on Both Your Houses” by Joram – rated T - Deals mainly with Mercutio’s death, but also his feelings for Romeo. Ends differently from most.
“The Madness of Love” by Meltha – rated soft R – That’d be mine.
“Waste Our Lights in Vain” by Nifra Idril – rated soft R - More graphic than the others, contains Mercutio/Tybalt. Beautifully written, though, and definitely worth reading. Also, I will never look at a pear quite the same way.
“Fortune’s Fool” by Fox – rated about PG-13ish – Absolutely superb, written in iambic pentameter and weaves new scenes into the original text of the play.
“Brawling Love” by Piratemistress – rated PG-13 – Set in Luhrman’s Verona Beach, Mercutio and Romeo discuss his love for Rosaline in modern dialect.
“Dedicate His Beauty” by Sanj – NC-17 – Cross-dressing worked for Portia and Viola, so why not Mercutio? Somehow, this succeeds in blending well with Shakespeare’s script. Cautions for some religious discussion.

Fanlisting
Fortune’s Fools, run by Missy, last updated June of 2009

Videos

“Always” vidded by Lauraism – Very well done Luhrman-specific version that fits beautifully. Also, Perrineau does a very good job of making the camera all but catch fire with repeated scintillating glares.


“Brokeback Verona” vidded by civilwarchick1862 – Uses Zefferlli’s version to create a “Brokeback Mountain” style trailer. Very cleverly done.


“Mercutio v. Tybalt” vidded by foolishosric – Essentially, this is the duel and death scene from Zefferelli’s version, which is worth watching if for no other reason than to show what an incredibly huge change in tone happens in the play with Mercutio’s death: the boys are only play-fighting until Romeo blunders in and, by trying to stop the duel, sets off the domino effect.


"Mercutio's Loser Anthem" by Slaughterersrock - This is a Mercutio character study, using clips from the Zefferelli and Luhrman versions as well as the anime Romeo x Juliet, in which the character of Mercutio appears but is somewhat radically different from the play from what I understand.

Credit is very gratefully given for the screencaps of Zefferelli's version to [livejournal.com profile] deadbetty and for Luhrman's to Screenmusings.
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