REVIEW
Porter, Joseph A. Shakespeare's Mercutio: His History and Drama.
Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1988.

Thesis: Good luck finding one. Porter, in his "Introduction," provides a taste of his general method. He points out that Capulet's guest list contains the phrase "Mercutio and his brother Valentine," then uses a ten-page examination of the name "Valentine" -- in Shakespeare's other plays, in poetry of Shakespeare's time, in stories about St. Valentine -- to arrive at the conclusion that Mercutio is like a brother to Romeo. The rest of the book also takes torturous back roads to arrive at conclusions which are sometimes obvious and sometimes just silly.

The book has three sections. The first section, "Shakespeare's Mercury," concerns stories and pictures featuring the mythological god Mercury, which may (or may not) have influenced Shakespeare's portrait of Mercutio. The second section, "Shakespeare's Mercutio," uses various critical approaches -- including speech-act theory, new historicism, psychoanalytic analysis -- in order to explore the relationship between Mercutio and cultural currents of Shakespeare's time. The third section, "Mercutio Since," examines the presentation of Mercutio in performances since Shakespeare's time and moves on to commentary on various aspects of Mercutio's cultural significance.

Sample Silliness:

     Mercutio's most interesting reference to money follows his greeting to Romeo in 2.4.44-45: "Signor Romeo, bonjour. There's a French salutation to your French slop." Whatever other reasons there may have been for costuming Romeo in slops, the word calls to Mercutio's mind another word, which he first masks with a synonyn [sic.]:

Mer.     You gave us the counterfeit fairly last night.
Romeo. Good morrow to you both. What counterfeit did I give you?
Mer.     The slip sir, the slip.     (ll. 46-50)

This is Mercutio's nearest reference to theft, and in it Romeo's presence equals true value and his absence stolen value. The figure thus puts into monetary terms the struggle for Romeo being carried out between Juliet (or Rosaline, as Mercutio supposes) and Mercutio -- terms Romeo adopts in his reply, "my business was great," and terms that understandably legitimize Romeo's allegiance to his friend and criminalize his allegiance to his fiancée.

     This figure completes the economic version of a structure the play has already presented otherwise, as with the paired summonings of Romeo; that is, Mercutio : Romeo :: Romeo : Juliet. Most of the play's language of valuation is in Romeo's descriptions of Juliet, as has been widely noted. The most familiar instances are at the Capulet feast where to Romeo Juliet seems to hang upon the cheek of night "As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear -- / Beauty too rich for use" (1.5.45-46), and there are many others. Of the ten appearances of the word "rich," for example, eight have directly to do with Juliet or her father "rich Capulet" (1.2.81, 2.3.54), and one of the others has to do with Juliet's surrogate predecessor Rosaline (1.1.213). In contrast, when Juliet expresses her love for Romeo there is virtually no such figurative language. Until Mercutio's death, then, a vector of increasing one-way valuation runs from Mercutio through Romeo to Juliet. The riches-beauty equation, so prominent in the Romeo-to-Juliet half of the vector, appears also as a trace in the Mercutio-Romeo half read backwards, in Mercutio's deprecation of his own face (1.4.29-32), and hence implicitly there also with the vector read forward -- in the implicit suggestion of the possibility that beauty makes Romeo valuable to Mercutio.    (125-126)

Bottom Line: It's enough to make your head explode.


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   Author: Philip Weller
   Last Modified: 3 April 2002