Summary and Analysis
Act I: Scene 4
Romeo, Benvolio, Mercutio, and others from the Montague household make their way to the Capulet feast. With their masks concealing their identity, they resolve to stay for just one dance.
Because Romeo continues to be lovesick for Rosaline, Mercutio teases him for being such a stereotypical hopeless lover. Mercutio then delivers his highly imaginative Queen Mab speech in which he describes how the fairy delivers dreams to humans as they sleep.
The scene concludes with Romeo's sense of foreboding at the forthcoming evening:
for my mind misgives
Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars,
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels.
Mercutio acts in contrast to the lovestruck Romeo and the peaceful Benvolio — he is a witty and quick-tempered skeptic. Mercutio teases Romeo for his love melancholy by sarcastically using conventional images of Petrarchan infatuation to underscore Romeo's naive view of love. For example, when Romeo refuses to dance at the feast because his soul is overburdened with unrequited love, Mercutio mocks: "You are a lover, borrow Cupid's wings / And soar with them above a common bound." Mercutio is an anti-romantic; for him, love is a physical pursuit, which he emphasizes through his bawdy wordplay: "If love be rough with you, be rough with love / Prick love for pricking and you beat love down." Mercutio's repeated references to the sexual aspect of love casts Romeo's transcendent love for Juliet in a more spiritual light.
Mercutio treats the subject of dreams, like the subject of love, with witty skepticism, as he describes them both as "fantasy." Unlike Romeo, Mercutio does not believe that dreams can foretell future events. Instead, painting vivid pictures of the dreamscape people inhabit as they sleep, Mercutio suggests that the fairy Queen Mab brings dreams to humans as a result of men's worldly desires and anxieties. To him, lawyers dream of collecting fees and lovers dream of lusty encounters; the fairies merely grant carnal wishes as they gallop by. In juxtaposing lawyers and lovers, soldiers and the fairy entourage, his eloquent speech touches on a number of the play's opposing themes such as love and hate, fantasy and reality, idealism and cynicism.
It also gives insight into Mercutio's antagonistic and cynical nature: His description of the lovers is brief compared with the bloodthirsty image of the soldier who dreams of "cutting foreign throats." The beauty of the ladies' lips is quickly followed by the image of Mab blistering their lips with plague sores because the women had eaten too many sweets. Mercutio is down-to-earth, whereas Romeo continues to indulge in idealistic, lovelorn daydreaming. Indeed, his dream speech contains all the elements that will conspire to bring down Romeo and Juliet's starry-eyed dream of love to the depths of the tomb.
Romeo's final speech anticipates his meeting with Juliet and creates an atmosphere of impending doom, which undercuts the festivities. Instead of a date with a pretty girl on a starlit night, he intuits that he goes to a date with destiny. The heavy tone of this premonition is far more serious than the shallow melancholy Romeo has so far expressed. The cosmic imagery of "some consequence hanging in the stars" echoes the prologue in which Romeo and Juliet are presented as "star-cross'd" lovers, whose destinies are tragically interlinked.
common bound ordinary limit, with a pun on "bound," as bound to leap about and to be confined.
a pitch falconry term used to describe the height from which a bird of prey swoops to seize its prey.
quote note or observe.
Queen Mab a fairy queen who controlspeople's dreams.
agate stone a hard, semiprecious stone.
atomi creatures as small as atoms.
long spinners' legs the legs of the crane fly.
sweetmeats any sweet food or delicacy prepared with sugar or honey.
suit a petition at court which requires the influence of the courtier for it to be heard, for which he will receive financial reward.
benefice an endowed church office providing a living for a vicar, rector, etc.
Spanish blades the best swords were made with Spanish steel.
vain fantasy misleading flights of imagination. This is how Mercutio perceives love.
misgives feels fear, doubt, or suspicion.