Utterback, Raymond V. "The Death of Mercutio."
Shakespeare Quarterly 24 (1973): 105-116.

Thesis: According to Dryden, Shakespeare said that Mercutio had to be killed off so that he wouldn't ruin the play. Shakespeare never said any such thing, but Dryden began a controversy about Mercutio's death. Utterback reviews this controversy and then segues to his point, which is that Mercutio's death is extremely significant, for two reasons. The first reason is that it "affects the action critically and thoroughly alters the tone of the play" (107). The second -- and more important -- reason is that "it establishes a pattern repeated at other points in the action" (112). This pattern results in "a blurring of the sense of personal responsibility for the events by a shift of dramatic attention to the impersonal elements of the situation" (113). (For example, Mercutio's dying curse, "a plague o' both your houses" suggests that the feud is the cause of Mercutio's death, even though Mercutio is neither a Capulet or a Montague, and even though it is Mercutio who picks the fight with Tybalt, not the other way around.) Because of this pattern, Utterback says, "the final impression of the tragedy is that those who have suffered death have been the victims of vast and powerful forces which have operated for their destruction as well as for peace in Verona" (116). Utterback points out many places where he believes that the pattern occurs, then goes on to assert that this pattern is essential to the play:

This structural pattern in Romeo and Juliet manifests the unique quality of the play, for the tragedy contains a powerful emphasis upon external destiny operating in the lives of the characters and an equally powerful depiction of characters making realistic and crucial decisions that are morally significant and responsible. Each emphasis seems essential: the first, if found alone, would make the characters seem merely puppets, while an exclusive emphasis on the second would lead to a heavily moral and judicial conclusion. Shakespeare balanced one motif against the other in attempting the creation of drama that is both vital and tragic.      (115)

Bottom Line: Utterback has an interesting point, but often it seems that the pattern that he sees exists only because he sees it.

   Author: Philip Weller
   Last Modified: 3 April 2002