The Role of Comic Characters in a Tragedy
In Act II, Scene 1, Mercutio and Benvolio's search for Romeo after the feast provides a comic interlude between Romeo and Juliet's first meeting and the famous balcony scene in Act II, Scene 2, juxtaposing two very different and conflicting attitudes to love. Mercutio and Benvolio call to Romeo, who has climbed into Capulet's orchard in the hope of seeing Juliet again. Mercutio's teasing is ironic because he is unaware that Romeo has fallen in love with Juliet and mistakenly invokes images of Rosaline to call him:
I conjure thee by Rosaline's bright eyes,
By her high forehead and her scarlet lip,
By her fine foot, straight leg, and quivering thigh,
And the demesnes that there adjacent lie.
Mercutio's coarse physical imagery and sexual jokes contrast sharply with Romeo's religious imagery for love. Romeo describes Juliet as "bright angel" and "dear saint." Shakespeare uses Mercutio's cynical attitude to distinguish Romeo and Juliet's love as innocent, spiritual, and intense. Because the audience is aware that Mercutio's speech falls on deaf ears, Mercutio's speech illustrates that the Romeo, the lovestruck youth, has begun to mature in his outlook on life and love.
Like Mercutio, Juliet's Nurse views love as a purely sexual and temporary relationship, as opposed to Romeo and Juliet's love which is presented as fragile and eternal. The Nurse's bawdy humor is less sophisticated than Mercutio's. Her comedy comes from the Nurse's misunderstanding of language and her habit of repeating herself, rather than clever wordplay. For example, in Act I, Scene 3, the Nurse exasperates Lady Capulet, who has come to talk to Juliet of the proposed marriage to Paris, with her repeated and unrelated assertions that Juliet is only 13 years old.
Likewise, when the Nurse laughingly recounts the lewd joke her husband made when Juliet fell over learning to walk — "Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit" — her earthy humor contrasts with Juliet's adolescent innocence, while simultaneously pointing to Juliet's sexual development from a girl to a woman. Reflecting on the sensual pleasures that await Juliet on her wedding night, the Nurse puns about the likely consequence of pregnancy for her young charge: "I am the drudge, and toil in your delight, / But you shall bear the burden soon at night."
The Nurse's preoccupation with sexual love prevents her from understanding the nature of Juliet's love for Romeo. Even though she fully understands that Juliet is being bartered like livestock, she cannot see that any other social fate could exist for women. So, in Act III, Scene 5, the Nurse advises Juliet to forget Romeo and marry Paris when Capulet demands it. This development of her character further isolates the couple and fuels the tragic consequences of their elevated love. Thus, while the Nurse drives some of the most comedic scenes in the play, within her comic commentaries are woven the subtler threads of tragedy created by enslavement to social conventions.
Shakespeare uses the comic roles of Mercutio and the Nurse to develop the roles of Romeo and Juliet as young tragic lovers. Prior to Tybalt and Mercutio's deaths, the Nurse had served primarily as comic relief. After Mercutio dies, the Nurse's comic role changes to a less sympathetic one — helping to shift the focus to the tragic plight of Romeo and Juliet. Both comic characters' rejection of the ideal of love shared by Romeo and Juliet emphasizes the vulnerable quality of that love and its inability to survive in the world of the play.