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-- Philip Weller, November 13, 1941 - February 1, 2021
Dr. Weller, an Eastern Washington University professor of English and Shakespearean scholar for more than 50 years.

Romeo and Juliet Navigator:

Detailed Summary of Act 1, Scene 4

Page Index:

Enter Romeo, Mercutio, Benvolio, with five or six Maskers, Torch-bearers, and others:
In the previous scene, a servingman told Lady Capulet and Juliet that the feast was already beginning. Now, at about the same time of evening, we see what is happening just outside Capulet's door. Romeo, Mercutio, Benvolio, and some others are about to make an appearance at the feast. Mercutio may be an invited guest, but Romeo and Benvolio, Montague kin, certainly are not. Nevertheless, they are not malicious party-crashers. They have masks, they are prepared to dance, and they have an introductory speech written. As the scene opens we hear Romeo, who may have a copy of the speech in his hand, saying "What, shall this speech be spoke for excuse? / Or shall we on without apology?" (1.4.1-2).

Benvolio wants to go right on in, so he declares that "The date is out of such prolixity" (1.4.3), meaning that such windy introductions are out of date. Then he mocks what used to be done: "We'll have no Cupid hoodwink'd [blindfolded] with a scarf, / Bearing a Tartar's painted bow of lath, / Scaring the ladies like a crow-keeper [scarecrow]" (1.4.4-6). Lath is cheap wood, suitable only for making a fake bow, and a "Tartar's bow" is short and arched like Cupid's bow. Benvolio is making fun of maskers who used to have one of their number dress up as Cupid to make a pretty speech about love. Besides, such speeches often turned out badly, so they'll have "no without-book [memorized] prologue, faintly spoke / After the prompter, for our entrance" (1.4.7-8). Such a prologue was supposed to be memorized, but the person who delivered the speech usually stumbled through it with much help from a prompter who had the speech written down. So, away with all that, says Benvolio. Let the guests at the feast think what they want to, he says, "We'll measure [give] them a measure [dance], and be gone" (1.4.10).

Benvolio's speech about what they're going to do makes us understand what kind of thing they're up to. It's going to be fun. They're going to make the festivities more festive by being quick, being gone, and leaving everyone wondering. But Romeo is not in the mood. He says, "Give me a torch: I am not for this ambling; / Being but heavy, I will bear the light" (1.4.11-12). As a torch-bearer, he wouldn't wear a mask or do any dancing. He's being a party-pooper, and why? Because he's "heavy," depressed, melancholy. He does make a little pun on the word "light," but he's still ruining the fun. For the rest of the scene Mercutio tries to talk Romeo into a better mood, but Romeo constantly resists, using word-play as his defensive weapon.

Mercutio insists that Romeo must dance, but Romeo replies, "You have dancing shoes / With nimble soles: I have a soul of lead / So stakes me to the ground I cannot move" (1.4.14-16). "Soles . . . soul" is another pun, but more lugubrious than humorous. Mercutio points out that love and sadness don't have to go together; he says, "You are a lover; borrow Cupid's wings, / And soar with them above a common bound" (1.4.17-18). A "common bound" is an ordinary leap in a dance; Mercutio is telling Romeo that love can give him the power to make an extraordinary leap. (Dancers were proud of their high leaps; Queen Elizabeth's were famous.) Romeo replies that he can't borrow Cupid's wings because he has been so badly wounded by Cupid's arrow. He says that he is "so bound [tied down], / I cannot bound [leap] a pitch [height] above dull woe: / Under love's heavy burden do I sink" (1.4.20-22).

At this point Mercutio switches tactics, and tries some dirty jokes. Romeo has just said that he is sinking under the burden of love, so Mercutio replies that Romeo would "sink in it, should you burden love -- / Too great oppression for a tender thing" (1.4.24). This means that if Romeo is going to blame ("burden") love for his state of mind, he will only sink further into love. It also means that if he gets what he wants (sex) he will sink into the woman and be a burden to her. Mercutio's general point is that Romeo is taking himself way too seriously, but Romeo is not convinced. He says that love is not a "tender thing" at all, but rough and "pricks like thorn" (1.4.26), which gives Mercutio an opening for the best pun of the scene: "Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down" (1.4.28). In Mercutio's view, Romeo's love-sickness is caused by a lack of sex; if he'd just have some, he'd get over thinking that he needs to be in love.

Having passed his judgment on Romeo's state of mind, Mercutio is ready to lead the way into Capulet's feast. He puts on his mask, commenting that it is so ugly that he won't care what anyone says about him. Benvolio is also eager to go, and he tells everyone to start dancing as soon as they are in the door. Romeo, however, isn't done being a party-pooper or playing with words. He says again that he will only carry a torch; he'll let those who are light-hearted dance, but as for himself, "I am proverb'd with a grandsire phrase; / I'll be a candle-holder [onlooker], and look on. / The game was ne'er so fair, and I am done" (1.4.37-39). A "grandsire phrase" is an old proverb. Romeo actually uses two. The first is "A good candle-holder proves a good gamester." It was usually applied to gambling, and means that a person can't lose if he doesn't play. Romeo doesn't believe he can win at the game of love, so he doesn't want to play. The second proverb is "He is wise who gives over when the game is fairest"; the modern version of this one is "It's best to quit while you're ahead." Romeo twists the proverb to make the point that he can never get ahead in the game of love. "Ne'er so fair" means "most beautiful," and Romeo now uses the word "game" to mean "quarry." He's saying that the quarry he is chasing (Rosaline) is most beautiful, but he's out of the running, "done."

Mocking Romeo's attitude, Mercutio takes "done" to mean "dun" and says, "Tut, 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 stick'st / Up to the ears" (1.4.40-43). Dun, the color, is a kind of nondescript gray-brown, the color of a mouse, and somehow "dun's the mouse" came to mean "be as quiet as a mouse." This saying, "dun's the mouse," is -- according to Mercutio -- the constable's motto ("own word") because constables were famous for sitting around silently and doing nothing. Mercutio is telling Romeo to shut up about being "done" and to quit being a do-nothing. He then adds that if Romeo is "done," he's Dun the horse, which was the name of a log that people pulled out of mud during a Christmas game. Only it's not mud that Mercutio and Benvolio will pull Romeo out of; it's "this sir-reverence love." "Sir-reverence" was short for "save your reverence," which was something you said when it would be offensive to use the word you really meant. Mercutio means that love is bullcrap, and that Romeo is stuck in it up to the ears.

Now Mercutio again urges everyone to go to the party, saying, "Come, we burn daylight, ho!" (1.4.43), but Romeo doesn't move, and says, "Nay, that's not so" (1.4.44). "Burn daylight" was a common phrase for "waste time," but Romeo, taking the phrase literally, is pointing out that it's not really daylight now. Patiently, Mercutio explains that he only meant that they are wasting their time and their torches, and then asks Romeo to please be reasonable. He says, "Take our good meaning, for our judgment sits / Five times in that ere once in our five wits" (1.4.47). The "five wits" are either the five senses (sight, hearing, smelling, taste, touch) or the five kinds of intelligence (common sense, imagination, fantasy, judgment, reason). Either way, Mercutio is asking Romeo to stop being witty and just "take our meaning," but Romeo refuses. Instead, he makes puns on "meaning" and "wit." He says, "And we mean [intend] well in going to this mask [party] ; / But 'tis no wit [wisdom] to go" (1.4.48-49).

Once again Romeo seems determined to spoil everyone's fun. This whole conversation began when Romeo said he wouldn't dance, but now he's saying something more serious -- that it wouldn't be a wise thing to go to the feast at all. Mercutio asks why, and Romeo says he had a dream, though he doesn't say anything about what the dream was. Mercutio, imitating Romeo, says he had a dream, too. Romeo asks what Mercutio's dream was. Mercutio replies that it was "That dreamers often lie" (1.4.51), and Romeo wittly finishes Mercutio's sentence by saying, "In bed asleep, while they do dream things true" (1.4.52).

Mercutio's "Queen Mab" speech:
Mercutio's famous "Queen Mab" speech is movtivated by Romeo's stubborn refusal to join in the fun that Benvolio and Mercutio have planned. In Franco Zeferelli's often-shown film version, Mercutio delivers the speech as though he were afflicted with some sort of deep personal hysteria. This delivery makes for an interesting effect, but it obscures the fact that Mercutio has a very clear main point, which is that Romeo is being silly.

Romeo has just said that his dream has told him it is not wise to go to Capulet's feast, and Mercutio sets out to show how unreliable dreams are. When Romeo declares that dreams are truthful, Mercutio replies, "O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you" (1.4.53). It's possible that "Mab" was a Celtic name for the Queen of Fairies, but Shakespeare's audience would have heard "Quean" combined with "Mab," both slang names for a slut or harlot. "Mab" was also used to refer to a woman who dressed sloppily. Thus the name "Queen Mab" summons up a picture of a careless, good-time girl who will give you what you want. Mercutio then goes on to describe Queen Mab as "the fairies' midwife" (1.4.54). A human midwife is a woman who assists with the birth of a baby, but "the fairies' midwife" assists with the birth of people's dreams, and the rest of the description of Queen Mab is a kind of commentary on how dreams are born.

Mab, says Mercutio, is "no bigger than an agate-stone / On the fore-finger of an alderman" (1.4.55-56). Agate is not really a gem, so to give cheap rings more class, jewelers would etch tiny figures on agates. Queen Mab is as tiny as those figures, and -- it is suggested -- just as trashy and flashy. Going on, Mercutio says that Mab is "Drawn with a team of little atomies / Athwart men's noses as they lie asleep" (1.4.57-58). In other words, her carriage, drawn by a team of creatures so tiny that they are practically invisible, gallops across sleeping men's noses. This suggests that a dream begins at random, with something as meaningless as a faint itch in the nose.

Mercutio goes on to describe the rest of Queen Mab's equipment. It's all nearly illusory, made of material that is there, but on a second look, not there, like a dream. The materials are spider's legs, grasshopper wings, spider web, moonbeams, cricket's bone, and "film" (1.4.66), fragments of spider web that float on the wind and are visible only when they catch a sunbeam. Finally, Queen Mab's "waggoner" is described as a "small grey-coated gnat, / Not so big as a round little worm / Prick'd from the lazy finger of a maid" (1.4.67-69). Old wives' tales had it that worms grew in the fingers of lazy girls; when such a girl pricked her finger with a needle, the worms floated out in the blood. But the worms were so tiny that they couldn't be seen. So Queen Mab's coachman is smaller than an invisible worm.

After having described Queen Mab and her carriage, Mercutio proceeds to tell about her effect on dreamers. She "gallops night by night / Through lovers' brains, and then they dream of love" (1.4.70-71). She gallops over a courtier's knee and he dreams of bending that knee in a graceful bow; she gallops over the fingers of a lawyer and he dreams of collecting a fee. And so on, through five more examples of the general idea that dreams are wish-fulfillment in action, which contradicts Romeo's idea that his dream was some sort of prophetic wisdom.

Queen Mab is also a mischief-maker. She tangles the manes of horses and the hair of people. She introduces virgins (presumably through their dreams) to sex: "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" (1.4.92-94). "Good carriage" is good deportment, but as Mercutio uses it, it's the ability to carry the weight of a man.

Mercutio is about to say more about Mab's mischief when Romeo asks him to please, please shut up, crying out, "Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! / Thou talk'st of nothing" (1.4.95-96). Well, yes, the idea that he's talking of nothing is exactly Mercutio's point, and he hammers it in: "True, I talk of dreams, / Which are the children of an idle brain, / Begot of nothing but vain fantasy" (1.4.96-98). Mercutio goes on to say that fantasy is as changeable as the wind, and Benvolio (who really wants to go to the party) remarks that this "wind" (that is, Mercutio's windiness) is getting to be a real problem. Supper is over, and if they don't go into Capulet's soon, they will be too late. To this, Romeo replies:

I fear, too early: for my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels and expire the term
Of a despised life closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But He, that hath the steerage of my course,
Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen.   (1.4.104-113)
This is a foreshadowing of what actually happens in the rest of the play. A fateful chain of events ("consequence") does begin its appointed time ("date") that night, and that chain of events does terminate the duration ("expire the term") of Romeo's life with premature ("untimely") death. But, despite his premonitions, Romeo does go into Capulet's house. He says that he is doing so because he is entrusting his fate to "He, that hath the steerage of my course." "He" is presumably God, but Romeo seems more melodramatic than religious. Mercutio has lightheartedly urged him to be lighthearted, but Romeo has steadfastly held onto his image of himself as a victim of hopeless love and implacable fate.

Benvolio calls on the drum to strike, and they all march around the stage once to indicate that they have entered Capulet's house. Then servants appear, carrying away the remains of the supper, and the next scene begins.