Roger Allam on Mercutio from ‘Romeo and Juliet’

I was offered the part of Mercutio early in 1983, and there were many reasons why it was an important turning point for me. It was the first good Shakespearean part I played with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and was a role which from the start I felt an affinity towards. Romeo and Juliet was to be one half of the 1983 regional tour, an area of the RSC’s work to which I was, and am, particularly committed. Sheila Hancock, the tour’s artistic director, involved myself and some other actors in the Barbican company, by discussing with us, as a group, the general idea of the tour, the choice of plays, the need for a vigorous barnstorming style and attitude given that we were playing in a motley collection of town halls, leisure centres, gymnasium, and the like. So I was in at the planning stage, an unusual position for actor at the RSC. Later on, Sheila asked me to play the double of Oberon and Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It became an offer I could not refuse. There were, however, many months between offer and rehearsal. I was meant to be working right up to when we started in August, but because Trevor Nunn’s production of All’s Well that Ends Well, in which I played a small character role, closed early on Broadway, I not only had this long period to get to know both plays, but also two months of leisure in which there was nothing else to occupy my energies. I began to recall my own experience when I was Mercutio’s age (late teens I decided, a year or two older than Romeo) as a pupil at a public school called Christ’s Hospital. This school is situated in the idyllic countryside of the Sussex Weald, just outside Horsham. I recalled the strange blend of raucousness and intellect amongst the cloisters, the fighting, the sport, and general sense of rebelliousness, of not wishing to seem conventional (this was the sixties); in the sixth form (we were called Grecians) the rarefied atmosphere, the assumption that of course we would go to Oxford or Cambridge; the adoption of an ascetic style, of Zen Buddhism, of baroque opera, the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, and Mahler; of Pound, Eliot and e. e. cummings. We perceived the world completely through art and culture. We were very young, very wise, and possessed of a kind of innocent cynicism. We wore yellow stockings, knee breeches, and an ankle length dark blue coat, with silver buttons. We had read Proust, we had read Evelyn Waugh, we knew what was what. There was a sense, fostered by us and by many teachers, that we were already up there with Lamb, Coleridge, and all the other great men who had been educated there. We certainly thought that we soared ‘above a common bound’. I suppose it is a process of constant mythologizing that is attempted at any public school. Tom Brown’s Schooldays is a good example. Girls were objects of both romantic and purely sexual, fantasy; beautiful, distant, mysterious, unobtainable, and, quite simply, not there. The real vessel for emotional exchange, whether sexually expressed or not, were our own intense friendships with each other. The process of my perceptions of Mercutio intermingling with my emotional memory continued intermittently, up to and including rehearsals. I am now aware that that possibly I re-constructed my memory somewhat, mythologised it even, excising what was irrelevant, emphasising what was useful, to accord with how I was beginning to see the part, and what I wanted to express with it. What I was seeing in Mercutio was his grief and pain at impending separation from Romeo, so I suppose I sensitised myself to that period of my life when male bonding was at its strongest for me.

Romeo and Juliet 9All’s Well finished its run by the end of May, and so, funded by inflated Broadway wages, I did not need to work and took a holiday in Italy. I spent a week in Venice, staggered by the confidence and wealth of its past, drinking in its painting and architecture. As I looked at the paintings in the Accademia from Byzantine to Mannerist, I felt I was witnessing the emergence of an ever more complex view of the world, alongside the means to express that complexity in oil paint, and through the angle, colour and light. I felt a vivid sense of the correspondence between this visual richness and the developing language of English drama and poetry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Making visual connections is very important to many actors as we have become used to appreciating complexity of meaning expressed as a stream of pictures in film. Personally I play and re-play sections of my favourite films on a video machine, analysing obsessively the detailed visual choices of actors and directors. For me, standing in front of a Botticelli or a Veronese was like seeing a Shakespeare speech brought to life, a kind of visual equivalent which stimulated my feeling for the world of the play. I went south to a rented farmhouse in the Chianti hills near Siena. Italy still has a provincial sophistication that comes from its long history as a collection of city states. That, combined with a hot climate, means that the Italians occupy their streets and squares with much greater ease than the English. The resultant street life is very rich, even in small towns like Arrezo and Giaole, fertile ground for the peeping Tom aspect of an actor’s preparation. I took many trips to Siena, and was struck by its beauty, but also by the beauty of the Siennese themselves. They are dark, fierce, and aristocratic, very different to the much paler Venetians or Florentines. They have always looked like this, as the paintings of their ancestors testify. I observed the groups of young people, the lounging grace with which they wore their clothes, their sense of always being on show. I walked the streets, they paraded them. It did not matter that I do not speak a word of Italian; I made up stories about them, and took surreptitious photographs. I was in Siena on the final day of the Palio, a lengthy festival ending in a horse race around the main square. Each district is represented by a horse and jockey and a pair of flag-bearers. The day is spent by teams of supporters with drums, banners, and ceremonial horse and rider processing round the town singing a strange chanting song. Outside the Cathedral, watched from a high window by a smiling Cardinal and a group of nuns, with a huge crowd in the Cathedral Square itself, the supporters passed, and to drum rolls the two flag-bearers hurled their flags high into the air and caught them, the crowd roaring in approval. The winner of the extremely dangerous horse race is presented with a palio, a standard bearing the effigy of the Virgin. In the last few years the jockeys have had to be professional by law, as when they were amateurs, corruption and bribery were rife. The teams wear a curious fancy dress encompassing styles from the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries. They are followed by gangs of young men, supporters, who create an atmosphere or intense rivalry and barely suppressed violence as they run through the narrow streets in the heat of the day. It was perfect. I took many more photographs. At the farmhouse that evening, after far too much Chianti, I and my friends played a bizarre game. In the dark, some of us moved lighted candles from one room to another, whilst others watched the effect of the light on faces and on the rooms from outside. It was like a strange living film of the paintings we had seen. Maybe Derek Jarman was spying on us.

I write about this at some length, because my experience at that time became inextricably linked with what I brought to Mercutio. I am aware that I was coming up with a version of Italy to suit my needs, much as I was doing with my memory. Any tourist does that. Looking back, perhaps I came into rehearsals with too much data swirling about my brain, like an overcrowded soup. Perhaps it prevented me from sharing and discovering as openly as possible with John Caird, the director, and, more importantly, my fellow actors. I know I had never had so much leisure between being offered a part, and starting rehearsals. Certainly to get to know the play, whilst recalling my own adolescence, in the atmosphere of Tuscany, is a heady mix. It was this smaller part, rather than the larger challenge of Oberon/Theseus, that I became obsessive about before rehearsals. I was fortunate to be sharing this time with my dearest friend Susan Todd, a theatre director, so that all my perceptions about the past, Italy, and the play I could examine and test with her.

In reading the play I noticed how, through its different characters and their attitudes, it seemed to ask what the true value of love is, and whose valuation of it we are inclined to accept. Shakespeare often uses a key word to express an idea. In The Merchant of Venice it is ‘bond’, in Romeo and Juliet it is ‘bound’. Romeo speaks of love as being ‘bound, shut up in a prison’, Capulet says ‘Montague is bound as well as I’, Lady Capulet speaks of ‘unbound lover’, in the sense of being incomplete like an unbound book. Mercutio wants Romeo to ‘soar… above a common bound’, a phrase that reminded me very much of my own youthful pretensions. Once Romeo is beloved by Juliet he is unbound and can ‘o’erperch these walls’ with ‘love’s light wings’. Because Juliet’s ‘bounty is as boundless as the sea’, she does not want Romeo to ‘swear’, to be bound lightly, in that context, although she does seek marriage, to be truly bound. I made connections with other Shakespeare plays, The Merchant of VeniceAs You Like ItLove’s Labour’s Lost, which centralise the action of the female educating the male to the true and serious nature of loving relationships between the sexes, only of course in this story with tragic results. Mercutio seems obsessed with destroying Romeo’s romantic view of love, and always speaks of love for women crudely and reductively in terms of sex. His repetitive use of sexual punning seemed neurotic to me, and I saw it as springing from his sense of loss, that Romeo was irrevocably changing, that their own friendship could not ‘soar above a common bound’„ that his closest, most passionate, and intense relationship was ending. A similar, but more explored, version of this psychic battle goes on in The Merchant of Venice, between Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia. I noticed the young men’s use of language; that even when Mercutio is at his crudest in sexual terms, there is a brilliant and inventive linguistic wit on the surface. Romeo’s language has a similar punning quality, which deepens and becomes more emotionally direct as he is loved by Juliet.

As rehearsals began, I was fortunate in establishing an easy rapport with Daniel Day-Lewis and James Simmons (Romeo and Benvolio respectively), not dissimilar on the surface to our characters’ relationships in the play. I discovered later that all three of us went to public schools. Ilona Sekazc’s music played an important part in our production, and as a number of us played musical instruments, this was incorporated into the production as well. So, at the beginning of Act 1, Scene 4, we entered grotesquely masked, myself playing the guitar, Jimmy Yuill’s Balthazar dressed up as a blind Cupid, singing a raucous Latin song. This was to be our masquerade for the ball. The basic physical objective of the scene is to go in to the dance, an objective on which Romeo is consistently pouring cold water. Mercutio’s and Benvolio’s differing attitudes to Romeo’s melancholy are very quickly established in the scene; Benvolio is placatory, Mercutio irritated and sardonic/ Up to the beginning of the Queen Mab speech a rapid verbal sparring takes place in which Mercutio quickly establishes his reductive attitude to Romeo’s love for Rasaline: ‘Prick love for princking, and you beat love down.’ He also refers to love as a ‘mire… wherein thou stickest up to the ears’ (I.4.28, 41). The tempo quickens until Romeo claims that it is not good sense to go to the masque as he has had a dream. This starts the argument and arc of the Queen Mab speech. I had never seen Romeo and Juliet on the stage before, and had only seen the Zeffirelli film as a schoolboy. I was, however, aware that Mercutio was traditionally seen as being somehow taken over by his own extraordinary invention in his speech. This never seemed the case to me. Romeo and Mercutio are having an argument about felling versus intellect. Mercutio is disgusted and betrayed that Romeo is putting his faith in love and dreams: ‘dreamers often lie’. This argument between them continues right to the end of the scene. The first section of the speech builds up a brilliant and witty picture of Queen Mab. John Caird suggested that it was like some insane Jackanory nursery tale, and indeed this was how we did it, myself seated on a bench, the others on the floor around me: Mercutio doing one of his turns. The tension drops, everyone relaxes. It seems irrelevant to the proceeding argument as the picture gets more and more detailed, almost pedantically so, as Mab’s waggon spokes, covers, traces, collars, whip, and waggoner are itemised. Mercutio now commands the attention of the group:

And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love. (I.4.70-1)

This I took to be the central moment, and I put a substantial pause in the middle of the second line while staring accusingly at Romeo. The images get sharper and more satirical as the picture now builds up of Mb being that tiny germ which makes everyone behave according to their mould- conventionally, materialistically, boringly; that which makes courtiers obsequious, lawyers grasping, ladies flirtatious and prey to the gratification of their appetite for sweet things; a solider a braggard and a coward; a person think only of his tithes.

The images get darker and more sexually nightmarish as Mercutio goads Romeo and tries to get some response:

This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage. (I.4.92-4)

Having started with a lover dreaming of love, the speech ends in a misogynistic image of rape and pregnancy, which at last gets a response from Romeo:

ROMEO … Thou talk’st of nothing.
MERCUTIO True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air,
And more inconstant than the wind. (I.4.96-100)

By placing his faith in ‘dreams’, feeling, love for women, Romeo is being ‘inconstant’ to Mercutio. He is betraying a relationship based on a higher, truer love, the bond between men. I did most of the second half of the speech directed very strongly at Romeo. When he, finally responding, got up and moved away, I leapt to my feet following him, shouting ‘True I talk of dreams’, very hurt and angry. After Benvolio’s ineffectual attempt to be placatory, Romeo takes up the argument and rejects Mercutio. His dream is a dark premonition of early death. John Caird made the useful comment that this speech with the equivalent to Romeo saying ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Mercutio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ ‘But he that hath the steerage of my course / Direct my sail.’ Romeo is fatalistic and filled with foreboding, but will not change his course of action. Mercutio wants to take control of his own destiny with his intellect and not be ‘Mab-led’. Queen Mab links in this way with the central theme of fate in the play. She is also, perhaps, that irrationality that fuels and keeps alive the ‘ancient grudge. The scene is difficult as one is thrust right into the middle of Mercutio’s and Romeo’s relationship, but once I had perceived Mercutio as being hurt and indeed jealous of Romeo’s love for Rosaline, I did not then find the Queen Mab speech isolated, but part of a continuing and passionate argument, and therefore possible to make sense of.

Akthough we have nothing to say in the next scene, Act I, Scene 5, Mercutio and Benvolio are very much leaders of the revels. I played the guitar, Benvolio a drum, both dancing and singing more Latin songs, wearing the masks of the previous scene. This was useful preparation for Act 2, Scene 1, as I could actually experience, to some degree, the exhilaration and excitement of that expenditure of energy at a party, after which one is left drunk out in the street at about three in the morning. This seemed right for my physical and mental state in the next scene. Mercutio brings back on stage the feelings of hurt between himself and Romeo, that are unresolved at the end of Act I, Scene 4. The information that Romeo has ‘leapt this orchard wall’ (2.I.5), presumably in pursuit of Rosaline, sparks off the bitterness again. Once more Mercutio’s emotional pain is filtered and expressed through a series of rapid, cruel, witty, misogynistic jokes. It is an attempt to call Romeo back both actually and metaphorically from danger. The conventional image of the lover is again mocked. I sang some of these lines to an impromptu guitar accompaniment. As is often the case, a number of elements came together to produce this piece of stage business. The scene is a string of extremely explicit sexual jokes. Brian Gibbons, the editor of the invaluable Arden edition, uses the somewhat understated phrase ‘with a bawdy quibble’ to indicate this. It made us laugh very much in rehearsals. We invented a pastiche Elizabethan song called ‘with a bawdy quibble’, which was sung in cod operatic tones to the guitar. It made us laugh even more. As I was playing the guitar in the production anyway, it was a short step to introduce the idea into the scene itself. It became an extension of Mercutio’s purely verbal virtuosity. And anyway it got a huge laugh to say ‘He heareth not’, after that assault on the eardrums. Much use is made of the word ‘conjure’: ‘conjure’ in the sense of invocation, trying to make Romeo actually appear, and also punning on the sense of conjuring down an erection. It is a short step, in punning terms, from conjure to conjugal. Mercutio first conjures Romeo to appear by itemising Rosaline, and reducing her to her physical parts: forehead, lips, foot, leg, thigh, vagina.

… ‘twould anger him
To raise a spirit in his mistress’ circle,
Of some strange nature, letting it there stand
Till she had laid it and conjur’d it down.
That were some spite. (2.I.23-7)

By violating the object of Romeo’s love, Mercutio can revenge himself on Romeo for leaving him, all in bitter jest, of course.

… My invocation
Is fair and honest; in his mistress’ name
I conjure only but to raise him up. (lines 27-29)

He is ironically aware that the only way he can give Romeo an erection is by naming the physical attributes of Rosaline. Mercutio’s drunkenness and sense of loss reveal confusion around the sexuality of his relationship to Romeo, a sexuality that neither he nor Romeo allow:

O, Romeo, that she were, O that she were
An open-arse and thou a pop’rin pear! (lines 37-8)

Here Mercutio almost pleads. If only Romeo’s love for women were purely sexual, ‘an open-arse’ and ‘a pop’rin ear’, then Mercutio would not feel so threatened. Women as sex objects he can cope with, as rivals for Romeo’s love he cannot.

Romeo’s line ‘He jests at scars that never left a wound’ not only ironically prefigures the nature of Mercutio’s death, but also suggests that Romeo is unaware of the depth of Merctio’s feelings for him. Throughout the scene, Benvolio continues his placatory function, his love for Romeo being of a far simpler kind, and requiring less affirmation than Mercutio’s. This scene is very dense and packed with meaning. The discovery of Mercutio’s physical state was a great help in unlocking it for me. He is drunk, it is after a party, late at night, all of which heighten his emotional hurt and confusion. The double irony is that Mercutio does not know that Juliet is now the object of Romeo’s love.

Romeo and Juliet 5Act 2, Scene 4, is the following morning. Mercutio is very quickly informed by Benvolio that Romeo has not been home all night and that, by letter, Tybalt has challenged Romeo to a duel. For Mercutio these two facts are immediately connected. Romeo obviously ‘leapt this orchard wall’ to try to see Rosaline. Tybalt has somehow found out. ‘Alas, poor Romeo, he is already dead, stabb’d with a white wench’s black eye, run through the ear with a love-song, the very pin of his heart cleft with the blind boy-boy’s butt-shaft’ (2.4.13-16). Mercutio equates Romeo’s love for Rosaline with death through fighting Tybalt. Tybalt is, however, a more tangible enemy: ‘and is he a man to encounter Tybalt?’ The thought begins to form in Mercutio’s mind that he could fight Tybalt in Romeo’s stead. Fight him, beat him, and, as it were, physically win back Romeo by saving him physically. He can literally fight for Romeo’s life. Although Mercutio can mock Tybalt for being the over-correct ‘fashion monger’, he is also ‘More than Prince of Cats… a duellist, a duellist’, a very real danger. Interestingly it is the youthful Tybalt who, more than any other character in the play, is the most active in keeping alive the ‘ancient grudge’. Romeo enters (2.4.35). After the by-now-usual mocking diatribe on conventional love, ‘Laura to his lady was a kitchen wench’, Mercutio tries to discover through much sexual innuendo precisely what did happen the previous night. Romeo, however, responds in kind: ‘O single-sol’d jest, solely singular for the singleness’. Gone is the morose adolescent, ‘bound’ by love; here is the old Romeo, witty and affectionate. The joking takes over: ‘now art thou Romeo; now art thou what thou art’… I held his face between my hands… ‘by art as well as by nature’. I joked to undercut and conceal my own sincerity: ‘for this drivelling love is like a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole’. Mercutio again equates love for women with mechanical mindless sex. ‘I was come to the whole depth of my tale, and meant indeed to occupy the argument no longer.’ Mercutio wins first prize for inserting more ‘bawdy quibble’ in one sentence than any other Shakespeare character. The entrance of the Capulets’ Nurse and her request for ‘some confidence’ with Romeo sparks off further bawdy quibble at her expense: ‘A bawd, a bawd! So ho!’ Sub-textually for Mercutio, her link with Romeo must confirm that Romeo has indeed become Rosaline’s secret lover and the Nurse is the go-between (not too far from the truth). Tybalt has found out, so there is the reason for the dual. Romeo now seems his old self, his love for Rosaline does not now seem so threatening to Mercutio, perhaps it has become purely sexual, the ‘open-arse’ and the ‘pop’rin pear’, the ‘bauble in a hole’. Tybalt remains a real danger; if Mercutio can remove him, he will bind Romeo to himself still further. I did this rather pedantic reasoning, as it was important for me as an actor to string together consistent psychological reasons for Mercutio to intervene in the duel, which is quite clearly what he intents by the start of Act 3, Scene I.

Benvolio is unaware of Mercutio’s intentions, and, again placatory, tries to get him home and out of trouble. As Benvolio is obviously not the quarrelsome character that Mercutio describes, I used the next few speeches as a ploy to keep him and our companions from leaving. Mercutio is buying time until Tybalt arrives. His verbal invention creates both a ludicrously unlikely picture of Benvolio and also comments ironically on himself: ‘What eye but such an eye would spy out such a quarrel?’ (3.I.21). On Tybalt’s entrance, Mercutio immediately tries to pick a fight: ‘Couple it with something, make it a word and a blow’ and ‘Here’s my fiddlestick, here’s that shall make you dance’ (lines 39, 48). But Tybalt is resistant, and then Romeo enters. John Caird rightly made Romeo’s refusal to fight as difficult as possible. Tybalt brutally slapped him and finally spat in his face. This give Mercutio a clear opportunity to intervene, but crucially alters his motive. For myself, Mercutio does not want Romeo to fight Tybalt, as Tybalt is a very dangerous duellist. He does, however, want Romeo to want to fight Tybalt. The fact that he doesn’t proves to Mercutio that Romeo is still ‘bound’ by love. If Rosaline were a purely sexual object then Romeo would not say to Tybalt ‘good Capulet- which name I tender / As dearly as mine own’. In Mercutio’s terms, Romeo has been unmanned by love. It is impoosible to play all the myriad reasons why Mercutio still takes up the gauntlet, but they form the foundation for the final impulse to draw a sword, and risk death. In the end the physical situation gives you that: it is very hot, you are faced by an enemy you despise, who has just humiliated your dearest friend. The fight is a scene in itself, and we were lucky to have Malcolm Ransom as fight director, who always conceives his fights in terms of character. ‘Tybalt is “a duellist, a duellist”, Mercutio a fighter’ said Malcolm. This simple observation enabled us to characterise very clearly the streetwise Mercutio and the punctilious Tybalt. At one point, for instance, Mercutio hit Tybalt in the groin, disarming him and thereby making the watchers think he had won. It enabled us to take Mercutio’s wit into his fighting, by constantly mocking Tybalt’s correctness and playing to the gallery. But for Romeo’s intervention Mercutio could have won. Malcolm was very helpful in solving Mercutio’s death as well. Is Mercutio aware that he is dying, but still joking? Are Romeo and Benvolio aware? Malcolm confronted this problem when he was doing the play at the Sheffield Crucible. A stagehand showed him a T-shirt with one small red blot on the front and on the back. He had been a builder working on a site using a nailgun. A nail had ricocheted from the concrete right through his body, passing through his lung. He felt a sharp pain then carried on with his work. A minute later he was choking as his lung filled with blood. Luckily he was rushed to hospital just in time. This was perfect for Mercutio. Tybalt’s rapier pierces his lung on ‘I am hurt’ (line 90). He still thinks it’s serious on ‘Go, villain, fetch a surgeon.’ The initial pain passes; he looks at the wound, there is the merest spot of blood. ‘No’ (pause) ”tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door.’ He does a turn, the mock-heroic duellist, with sly asides to Romeo: ‘I am pepper’d, I warrant, for this world’, ‘a plague a’ both your houses’. He shouts after Tybalt: ‘a villain, that fights by the book of arithmetic’. Suddenly he chokes, and coughs up blood onto his handkerchief. ‘Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm’ (lines 102-3). Agonisingly he realises that Romeo has caused his death. ‘Your houses!’, his final cry, still refers to the pointless, ‘Mab-led’, ‘ancient grudge’ which has caused his death. The huge irony for Romeo is that Mercutio does succeed in piling up an emotional debt which forces Romeo to avenge Mercutio’s death by killing Tybalt. By his death Mercutio does, then, force himself between Romeo and Rosaline / Juliet, and starts a chain reaction that destroys them both. The infuriated and destructive impulse that leads Mercutio to his death shows that he too is prey to the ‘Mab-led’ irrationality that he so despises in the world.

The point of this analysis and work was so that in performance I had a solid foundation from which I hope I was able to develop the interpretation so that it came with ease and was not forced. There were some cast changes when we moved the production from the tour to The Other Place. Most importantly for me Dan Day-Lewis left and Simon Templeman took over as Romeo with only two weeks’ rehearsal. This could have been a massive trauma for me, but luckily Simon knew both the production (having played Tybalt on the tour) and me well, as we had joined the RSC at the same time and done many plays together. He grasped his opportunity with relish. The Other Place itself is a much more intimate theatre than the average sports hall of the tour. Technically this led to greater variety and subtlety of inflection, as less effort is required simply to command the attention of the audience. Perhaps there was the loss of a certain barnstorming vigour that was present on the tour; but for those of us who went on to Stratford, the tour had unified us into a close ensemble, and given us a sense of ourselves that fed our other work there.

Written for Players of Shakespeare: Further Essays in Shakespearean Performance by Players with the Royal Shakespeare Company, 1989.

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