December 04, 2015
‘O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?’ (2.2.33) (i). We may know this line (ii) from our pre-college education. When asked about the theme of Romeo and Juliet (Rom.), student responses tend to revolve around the ‘star crossed’ lovers and their tragic price for love. In fact, several publications that aim at helping students understand (e.g. study guides) often list this as the major theme of Romeo and Juliet. However, this type of understanding neither addresses the structural nor content-based implications that the story defies heteronormative roles.
Using a textual and source analysis based method, I demonstrate the disconnect that the characters of this play, especially Romeo, have with a heteronormative model. My analysis interrogates the role of form and content led textual evidence that demonstrates the sexual identity confusions that both Romeo and Juliet portray. Furthermore, I will demonstrate that this might be a love story for Romeo, but the lover in question is not Juliet, but rather the brash Mercutio. In order to do so, I first examine Romeo’s relationship with Mercutio, then briefly touch upon the role of soliloquy, and I finish with the textual analysis of characters’ insistence that Romeo is acting counter to gender conforming demands.
Shakespeare’s Mercutio is a purely Shakespearean creation (iii). We see in him, at first glance, a character full of sexual energy and the pivotal actor in Romeo’s downfall. Mercutio’s death is linked directly to Romeo’s action of stopping the fight between him and Tybalt. When Romeo stops the fight by physically restraining Mercutio, Tybalt takes advantage of the situation and slays Mercutio. The death weighs heavily on Romeo, and it is an act of vengeance for his friend that seals Romeo’s fate (iv). Many scholars, such as Oxford editions editor, Jill Levenson, and researcher, Coppelia Kahn, explore Mercutio in terms of either his overt phallic (v) language or as a model of anti-feminist attributes (vi). However, a few, such as Joseph Porter (vii) and Jennifer Ailles (viii) explore the character as a homoerotic component to Romeo’s underdeveloped concept of love.
We see evidence of Mercutio’s non-platonic love for Romeo when we examine the interchanges between Mercutio and Romeo. Our introduction to Mercutio comes with him trying to give his friend encouragement over his lost love, Rosaline. Romeo complains that his recent emotional wound makes him poor company and Mercutio consoles him, ‘Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance’ (1.4.12-13). The dance here is a double play of the dance that Romeo and his friends are about to crash and that of a more intimate nature, namely, sex. Here, Mercutio demonstrates that his cure for an emotional wound is found in the physical. The sexual thrust of the argument continues with Romeo objecting that Mercutio is far more learned in sex than he is; the response from Mercutio lends itself to state Romeo is, perhaps, focusing his love in the wrong direction.
The direction that Mercutio seems to point Romeo is one of flesh and maleness, his advice to ‘sink in it’ (1.4.23) and then to utilize any ‘case to put my visage in’ (1.4.29) demonstrates the difference between the poetic lover, Romeo, and the physical lover, Mercutio. This overtly sexual context is directed at demonstrating to Romeo that there are other bodies to love than Rosaline. Furthermore, this context happens without much of a reference to a woman but rather it is encapsulated within the trio of Mercutio, Benvolio, and Romeo. In case Romeo, or the audience, has not quite understood the message, Mercutio further explains that exchanging one mask (of sexual normative nature) for a mask that covers the true relationship (that of a homoerotic nature) is liberating. ‘What care I/ What curious eye doth deformities?’ (1.4.30-32) demonstrates that, for Mercutio, it is far better to be true to your own sexuality than wear a mask of sexual normality (ix).
The language in 1.4 continues to be ever sexual and directed at Romeo. ‘Dun’s the mouse, the constable’s own/ word!/ If thou art Dun, we’ll draw thee from the mire/ Of this sir-reverence love, wherein thou stickest/ Up to the ears’ (1.4.39-43). When read on page, it may not be apparent the full meaning, however, with pronunciation–especially in the original pronunciation (x)-the meaning shifts from a simple talk about a horse stuck in the mire and where Romeo’s love should take him, into the physical manifestation of the situation offered. The translation then becomes, ‘to draw thee from the faeces of this male love where you are stuck up the arse’.
When Romeo leaves his friends to talk to Juliet and profess his love to her, Mercutio confesses to Benvolio his feelings for Romeo. He mentions that would readily invoke the image of Rosaline (xi) in order to make Romeo sexually intensify in his presence. He does such in a way that attacks love and demonstrates his distaste for Juliet taking away Romeo’s attentions from him. ‘If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark’ (2.1.33). The love here can be taken for Romeo’s love with Juliet because of Romeo’s past inexperience with Rosaline; however, the meaning here goes directly to the matter of Mercutio feeling scorned by love’s arrow and having Romeo leave his company for Juliet. The matter is further expounded upon, much to the blush of Benvolio, when Mercutio is quite plain in his meanings (xii) ‘O, Romeo, that she were,/ O that she were / An open arse, thou a pop’rin pear!/ Romeo, good night. I’ll to my tuckle bed;/ This field bed is too cold for me to sleep’ (2.1.37-40). The meaning here becomes quite clear. Not only does Mercutio mention sodomy, but he gives a note that he would rather have Romeo be in a purely sexual hunt for women so that he could at least offer Romeo that sort of physical release; whereas, if Romeo’s hunt is for an emotional love, Mercutio fears that he cannot compete (xiii).
The jealously that Mercutio demonstrates after Romeo spent time with Juliet is quite apparent. In 2.4, Romeo comes back from a rather late night. Mercutio wastes no time implying that Romeo was false with his intentions of spending time with Mercutio and Benvolio, ‘There’s a French/ salutation to your French slop. You gave us the/ counterfeit fairly last night’ (2.4.46-48). When Romeo feigns ignorance, Mercutio continues to demonstrate his displeasure of being left by Romeo, ‘That’s as much as to say, such a case as/ yours constrains a man to bow in the hams’ (2.4.56-57). This line is a refrain back to Mercutio telling Romeo that a visor can be put into any case. Romeo’s case–both the receptacle (xiv) and the case of his ignoring Mercutio’s advances for that of Juliet’s–is explained by Mercutio that Romeo can bend over (‘bow in the hams’) which is a reflection back to what Mercutio posited should have happened to Juliet, namely opening her ‘et cetera’ (xv).
Mercutio, in death, puts forth his curse on Romeo, ‘A plague a both houses! I am sped.’ (3.1.2) and he repeats it on his dying breath, ‘A plague a both your houses!/ They have made worms’ meat of me. I have it,/ And soundly too. Your houses!’ (3.1.108-110). The curse stems from Romeo’s hand in the killing of Mercutio for the love of Juliet. He curses Juliet’s house as well in so that if it wasn’t for her, not only would Romeo be still in his sphere of influence but Mercutio would also still live. In short, Mercutio dies from his unrequited love for Romeo (xvi). Thus, the real tragedy of the play falls.
As the relationship between Mercutio and Romeo demonstrates a homosexual aspect of Rom., the language and structure of the play itself also reinforces this non-heteronormative reading. The concept of love is poetic for Romeo and earthly for Juliet, this is a reversal of sexual roles. In fact, Shakespeare furthers this reversal with giving the soliloquy, which was usually reserved for the male protagonist, to Juliet (xvii). Thus, Juliet’s own sexual identity is in question. This does feed into Romeo’s own non-normative sexuality. Simply put, Juliet’s ‘manliness’ makes Romeo’s attraction to her more palatable to the heteronormatively masked Romeo.
Romeo is the embodiment of the ‘poetic’ love (xviii). He demonstrates this from the start with his lines pining over a woman we never see in the play, Rosaline ‘She hath, and in that sparing make huge waste;/ For beauty, starved with her severity,/ Cuts beauty off from all posterity./ She is too fair, too wise, wisely too fair/ To merit bliss by making me despair’ (1.1.220-225).
He further augments his position as poetic love when he addresses Juliet and professes his love with allusions to the moon. ‘Lady, by the yonder blessed moon I vow,/ That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops’ (2.2.107-108).
Even Juliet, the person he is trying to woo, cuts him short. Her response is grounded and she implores him not to swear by the moon or anything at all. Her love is earthly and not ethereal. In this, we see a reversal of roles where Juliet takes the male traditional role of love with it being grounded and flesh whereas we see Romeo is firmly in the camp of love being a poetic construct that he has little, if any, control over.
Romeo’s manhood is further questioned by the Friar. In the scene where Romeo and the Nurse converse with the Friar, Romeo answers the nurse’s news of Juliet with a melodramatic and half-hearted attempt of killing himself since his Juliet cannot have him if he is a Montague. Romeo makes a show of crying fretfully to show him what ‘vile part of this anatomy/ Doth my name lodge? Tell me, that I may sack/ The hateful mansion’ (3.3.107-109).
The Friar, in response allows the nurse to snatch the dagger away and then he chastises Romeo for being too much like a woman, ‘Art thou a man? Thy form cries out thou art;/ Thy tears are womanish’ (3.3.109-110) and he continues with calling Romeo an ‘Unseemly woman in a seeming man!’ (3.3.112). The Friar then points out Romeo’s shortcomings of manhood when, in the same scene, he states, ‘Fie, fie, thou shamest thy shape…digressing from the valor of a man’ (3.3.122-127). The comments of the Friar are quite direct. There is a disturbance in the play and it stems from Romeo rejecting his gender normative role. This disturbance is acknowledged immediately by Romeo after Mercutio’s death, ‘O sweet Juliet,/ Thy beauty have made me effeminate’ (3.1.115-116).
Even the suicide of Romeo occurs in a non-normative way with respects to gender. Romeo, upon seeing Juliet’s false death takes not the dagger but rather uses poison, traditionally a ‘woman’s weapon’, and ends his life. This is dramatically played opposite of how Juliet kills herself. When she learns that Romeo is dead, she takes the dagger and forcefully ends her life. It is important to note that the death of Romeo happens first and this is the only time that Romeo actually leads Juliet in an action. His death, although through the means of a ‘woman’s weapon’ is the first time we see Romeo taking the gender normative active role of leading Juliet in their relationship.
To conclude, I leave you with Juliet’s line, ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other word would smell as sweet’ (2.2.43-44). Although Juliet is applying the line to Romeo (xix) in an obvious word play with his name, I posit that this line should be directed towards Mercutio. It is Mercutio who was Romeo’s true lover in this romance and the rose, itself, is love. Love—either heteronormative or homosexual—by any other name is still love.
i I am using Signet Classic’s with Sylvan Barnet as general editor. It is the 2nd revised edition of 1998.
ii The line itself is often misinterpreted as ‘Where are you, Romeo?’. The correct modern translation here is actually, ‘Why do you have to be Romeo?’ and made in reference to the anguish Juliet expresses when she learns her mysterious beau is from her family’s sworn enemy.
iii In the source materials of The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke and William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure do mention Mercutio but he isn’t nearly as developed as he is in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
iv Note, the source material has Romeo’s fight with Tybalt be an occasion of self-defense and not vengeance, as Mercutio was not a feature player.
v Levenson argues for this.
vi Kahn argues that Mercutio is a strictly anti-feminist and misogynistic character in Man’s Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare.
vii This can be seen in his Shakespeare’s Mercutio: His History and Drama text.
viii Ailles does so in Queering the Queer(ed): Homosexual “Readings” of Shakespeare’s Adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.
ix This is a masking that Peter Donaldson discuses in his Shakespearean Films/Shakespearean Directors. He states that Romeo dons the mask in searching out for heteronormative relationships with a woman—any woman—whilst Mercutio is portrayed as a former lover of Romeo being cast aside for a woman.
xi In this, Mercutio actually quite aptly describes the details of Rosaline’s body to Benvolio.
xii Note: This line is actually edited in the Signet Classic version as “et cetera” and I had to switch to the Ardent version from Bloomsbury Publishing to quote this line properly.
xiii This is a thought that is echoed by actor Roger Allum in his discourse in “Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet” from Players of Shakespeare 2: Further essays in Shakespearean performance by players with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
xiv The receptacle being Romeo himself either physically or emotionally.
xv E.g., her ‘fruit de trou de cul’.
xvi Ailles states this quite clearly in her own work, ‘If Romeo ever experiences any homoerotic feelings they are seen to be clearly evanescent pending his meeting of the right woman, his Juliet, to make him the heterosexual man he was always destined to be.’
xvii Gayle Whitter explains this most excellently in her “The Sonnet’s Body and the Body Sonnetized in Romeo and Juliet” essay.
xviii Whittier also makes a mention of this in her “The Sonnet’s Body and the Body Sonnetized in Romeo and Juliet”.
xix There is also an argument that Romeo had already applied this argument to Juliet when he shifts his love from Rosaline to Juliet.