Critical Essays The Role of Comic Characters in a Tragedy


Shakespeare uses Mercutio and the Nurse to explore the relationship between comedy and tragedy inRomeo and Juliet. These characters, in their comic roles, serve as foils for Romeo and Juliet by highlighting the couple's youth and innocence as well as the pure and vulnerable quality of their love.

Mercutio, Romeo's quick-tempered, witty friend, links the comic and violent action of the play. He is initially presented as a playful rogue who possesses both a brilliant comic capacity and an opportunistic, galvanized approach to love. Later, Mercutio's death functions as a turning point for the action of the play. In death, he becomes a tragic figure, shifting the play's direction from comedy to tragedy.

Mercutio's first appearance in Act I, Scene 4, shows Romeo and his friend to be of quite opposite characters. Mercutio mocks Romeo as a helpless victim of an overzealous, undersatisfied love. Romeo describes his love for Rosaline using the clichéd image of the rose with thorns to stress the pain of his unrequited love.

Mercutio ridicules Romeo as a fashionable, Petrarchan lover for his use of conventional poetic imagery. He puns lewdly, "If love be rough with you, be rough with love; / Prick love for pricking and you beat love down." Whereas the naïve Romeo is in love with the idea of being in love and devoted to the distant Rosaline, Mercutio is a predatory lover, hunting for objectified, female prey. His bawdy wit thus sets up Romeo to take the role of the innocent tragic hero.

When Mercutio delivers his Queen Mab speech (also in Act I, Scene 4), he again characterizes Romeo as a clueless romantic for believing that dreams portend future events. Dismissing Romeo's Petrarchan outlook, Mercutio presents his vision of a fantasy world in which dreams are the products of people's fleshly desires. The speech reflects both Mercutio's eloquent wit and his aggressive disposition. In his speech, the comic activities of the mischievous fairies are juxtaposed with the violent images of a soldier's dream:

Sometime she driveth o'er a soldier's neck
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscados, Spanish blades . . . .

After falling in love with Juliet, Romeo cannot confide in his anti-romantic friend, so Mercutio never discovers Romeo's love for Juliet. Mercutio's ignorance of Romeo's new love, although potentially comical, propels him to the fatal fight with Tybalt in Act III, Scene 1. Mercutio's death enables Shakespeare to develop him as a tragic figure and alter the trajectory of the play from a comic to a tragic course.

Mercutio's final speech employs dark comedy to illustrate the tragic significance of the latest violence. After being stabbed by Tybalt, he admits his wound is fatal. Mercutio puns, "Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man." Mercutio dies frustrated and angry — shocked and in disbelief that his fate is upon him. Until and even in the midst of that moment, his ignorance of the underlying forces that brought him to such an untimely end provides much of the ironic humor for the play.

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