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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 2, Scene 4

Page Index:

Enter Benvolio and Mercutio:
The last time we saw Benvolio and Mercutio, it was late at night and they were looking for Romeo. Now it's fairly early the next morning, and they're looking for Romeo again. Mercutio asks Benvolio, "Where the devil should this Romeo be? / Came he not home to-night?" (2.4.1-2). Benvolio answers that he has spoken with Romeo's servant and found out that Romeo isn't at home. Mercutio, assuming that Romeo is doing as Romeo has done in the past -- moping over Rosaline -- comments, "Ah, that same pale hard-hearted wench, that Rosaline, / Torments him so, that he will sure run mad" (2.4.4-5). Then Benvolio mentions that Tybalt has sent a letter to Romeo at his father's house. Mercutio is sure it must be a challenge, and Benvolio is sure that "Romeo will answer it" (2.4.9). Benvolio means that Romeo will answer the challenge and fight Tybalt, but Mercutio doesn't seem to be sure that's such a good idea.

Sarcastically, Mercutio says "Any man that can write may answer a letter" (2.4.10), and Benvolio replies that Romeo will "answer the letter's master, how he dares, being dared" (2.4.11-12), meaning that "being dared" to a fight, Romeo will fight, "how he dares" -- no matter what time or place Tybalt proposes. Jokingly, Mercutio says that Romeo is already dead because he has been "stabbed with a white wench's black eye, run through the ear with a love-song," and shot right through the heart with Cupid's arrow. "And" -- Mercutio asks -- "is he a man to encounter Tybalt?" (2.4.14-17).

Benvolio asks "Why, what is Tybalt?"(2.4.18), which is not the same as asking "Who is Tybalt"? Benvolio knows very well who Tybalt is, and is asking if he's really such hot stuff. Mercutio's answer is deliciously sarcastic:

More than prince of cats, I can tell you. O, he is
the courageous captain of compliments. He fights
as you sing prick-song, keeps time, distance, and
proportion; rests me his minim rest, one, two, and the
third in your bosom: the very butcher of a silk button,
a duellist, a duellist; a gentleman of the very first
house, of the first and second cause: ah, the
immortal passado! the punto reverso! the hay!" (2.4.19-26)
According to Mercutio, Tybalt has been to a fencing school ("house") with a big reputation, and it shows. He a skilled duellist, but not natural or spontaneous; instead, he fights as a person sings from sheet-music ("prick-song"), following all the rules about proper timing and distance until he puts his sword in exactly the right place and kills you. Not only can he hit a target as small as a button, he knows all the rules about "the first and second cause," which supposedly give him the right to be insulted and demand satisfaction. Then, when he fights, he shows off all his cool moves, the passado (forward thrust), the punto reverso (backhand thrust), and an old one with a new name, the hay (killing thrust).

Mercutio curses Tybalt and everyone like him, all the wannabes who follow the latest fashion in fighting, and all who encourage the wannabes by saying, "By Jesu, a very good blade! a very tall man!" which is as much as to say, "a very good whore!" (2.4.29-31). Then, speaking to Benvolio as though they were both old men shaking their heads at the follies of youth, Mercutio asks if it isn't terrible to have to endure "these fashion-mongers, these pardon-me's, who stand so much on the new form [also means "bench"], that they cannot sit at ease on the old bench?" (2.4.33-35). Finally, Mercutio exclaims, "O, their bones, their bones!" (2.4.35), which is both a pun and a double-entendre. "Bones" sounds like the French "bons" (virtues, abilities), and a person with veneral disease characteristically complained of aching bones. Mercutio probably means that someone like Tybalt throws around a lot of fancy French phrases about his fencing abilities, but all he really has is a French disease.

Enter Romeo:
When Romeo shows up, Mercutio -- who seems to enjoy his own wit -- switches from making fun of Tybalt to making fun of Romeo. When Benvolio says, "Here comes Romeo, here comes Romeo" (2.4.36), Mercutio wisecracks, "Without his roe, like a dried herring: O flesh, flesh, how art thou fishified!" (2.4.37-38). Mercutio's joke has two prongs and one point. Romeo without his "roe" is "me O," as in "O, me O, woe is me"; and a person who is wasting away looks as thin as a fish without roe (and a "dried herring" is the thinnest). The point is that Romeo's forelorn love for Rosalind is killing him, body and soul. Mercutio adds that Romeo is about to burst out in poetry about how his beloved is more beautiful than any of the heroines of love stories, from Cleopatra to Helen of Troy. Finally, still teasing, Mercutio says, "Signior Romeo, bon jour! there's a French salutation to your French slop. You gave us the counterfeit fairly last night" (2.4.43-45). A "French slop" is a pair of baggy breeches; Mercutio is calling Romeo "fancy pants," and he follows that with a play on the word "counterfeit." A counterfeit coin was called a "slip," so Mercutio is saying that Romeo gave them the slip the night before. Romeo doesn't quite get the pun, so Mercutio has to explain, and then Romeo semi-apologizes, saying, "Pardon, good Mercutio, my business was great; and in such a case as mine a man may strain courtesy" (2.4.50-51). "Strain courtesy" means "push the limits of good manners," but "courtesy" sounds like "curtsy," which gives Mercutio the means to give Romeo's words his own interpretation: "That's as much as to say, such a case as yours constrains a man to bow in the hams [buttocks]" (2.4.52-53). Mercutio's joke is that Romeo's "case" is that he has picked up a terrible veneral disease which makes him unable to straighten up, so that he has to bow or "curtsy" all the time.

Now Romeo is a little quicker on the uptake, and he shows that he gets the joke by saying, "Meaning, to cur'sy" (2.4.54). Mercutio tells him that he's got it, and Romeo ironically thanks him for his "most courteous exposition" (2.4.56). Mercutio then declares himself to be "the very pink of courtesy" (2.4.57), and this time Romeo not only gets what Mercutio means, but makes a joke of his own. First he asks if Mercutio is using "pink" for "flower"; when Mercutio says he is, Romeo says, "Why, then is my pump well flowered" (2.4.60). A "pump" is a shoe, and fancy shoes were "pinked" by having decorative holes cut in them, so if "pink" means "flower" then Romeo's pinked pumps (the same ones he wore to Capulet's feast) are "well flowered."

Mercutio, delighted to have Romeo join in the joking, declares, "Sure wit! Follow me this jest now till thou hast worn out thy pump, that when the single sole of it is worn, the jest may remain, after the wearing, solely singular" (2.4.61-64). "Single" means both "singular" and "flimsy." Playing on the double meanings of "single" and "sole," Mercutio is asking Romeo to keep on jesting until his shoes wear out, so that when he has no shoes, he'll still have his singular jest. Romeo replies that he has only the one jest about his shoe: "O single-soled jest, solely singular for the singleness" (2.4.66). In other words, his jest has only a thin sole, and the only reason that it is singular is that it is so lame. The joke of this jest is that Romeo out-does Mercutio in Mercutio's own word-play. Mercutio congratulates Romeo by asking Benvolio to rescue him, saying, "Come between us, good Benvolio; my wits faint" (2.4.67-68). Benvolio, however, urges them on; he's enjoying the fun, too.

Now Romeo and Mercutio proceed to an exchange of witty insults. Mercutio says that if Romeo is going to lead a wild goose-chase of wit, he can't follow because Romeo is much more of a goose than he is. He finishes off by asking, "Was I with you there for the goose?" (2.4.74), meaning, "Am I right about you being a goose?" Romeo retorts, "Thou wast never with me for any thing when thou wast not there for the goose" (2.4.75-76), meaning, "You never go anywhere with me without looking for a prostitute." Mercutio mockingly complains about Romeo's sharp wit, and Romeo finds new ways to call Mercutio a "goose" until Mercutio exclaims:

Why, is not this better now than groaning
for love? Now art thou sociable, now art thou
Romeo; now art thou what thou art, by art as well
as by nature, for this drivelling love is like a great
natural, that runs lolling up and down to hide his
bauble in a hole.   (2.4.88-93)
The last time they were together, about to go into Capulet's feast, Mercutio tried to kid Romeo out of his love-melancholy, but it didn't work. This time Mercutio's kidding has worked, and he's very happy. He believes he has brought back the real Romeo, the one who is sociable and has "art" -- that is, intelligence and wit. The other Romeo lived only for love. And what is love? A "natural," a drooling fool. That fool love carries a fool's "bauble," a stick which is a mockery of a king's sceptre, and looks for a hole to stick his stick into.

Of course the bit about the bauble and the hole is a sexual double entendre, so Benvolio cries out in mock shock, "Stop there, stop there" (2.4.94), but Mercutio is on a roll. Punning on "tale" and "tail," then adding double entendres on "large," "short," "depth," and "occupy," Mercutio declares that he was about to stop anyway. Romeo, thoroughly enjoying the whole performance, cries "Here's goodly gear!" (2.4.101). "Gear" means "stuff," but in the spirit of the occasion, Romeo is probably also using "gear" in its slang meaning -- sexual organs.

None of this joking around does anything to advance the plot, but it does provide a sense of the depth of the friendship between Mercutio and Romeo, so that later in the play it seems natural that Romeo should immediately revenge Mercutio's death at the hand of Tybalt.

Enter Nurse and Peter:
As the male bonding moment is reaching the height of its hilarity, the Nurse appears, accompanied by her servant Peter. These two, as they approach the young men, become the targets for more jokes, starting with Romeo's cry, "A sail, a sail!" (2.4.102), and followed by Mercutio's, "Two, two; a shirt and a smock" (2.4.103). Apparently Romeo and Mercutio consider the Nurse and Peter to be overdressed, so that his shirt and her smock look like ships' sails. The Nurse is also acting as though she thinks she's a fine lady, and when she orders Peter to bring her a fan, Mercutio sarcastically comments to his friends, "Good Peter, to hide her face; for her fan's the fairer face" (2.4.107-108).

Being as dignified as she knows how, the Nurse says, "God ye [God (give) you] good morrow [morning], gentlemen" (2.4.109). Mercutio corrects her, saying, "God ye good den [afternoon], fair gentlewoman" (2.4.110), and when she expresses surprise that it is afternoon, Mercutio assaults her dignity with an off-color joke: "'Tis no less, I tell you, for the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon" (2.4.112-113). The Nurse takes offense, exclaiming, "Out upon you! what a man are you?" (2.4.114). "What a man are you?" means "What kind of man are you?"; Romeo laughingly answers her question, saying that Mercutio is "One, gentlewoman, that God hath made, for himself to mar" (2.4.115-116). In other words, Mercutio is -- as we all are -- a creature of God, but he sins -- as we all do -- and so ruins himself. Romeo is advising the Nurse that she shouldn't take Mercutio too seriously, but she tries to get back at Mercutio by saying, "By my troth, it is well said; "for himself to mar," quoth a'?" (2.4.117-118). She means that the part about Mercutio marring himself is exactly right, and drives the point home with the "quoth a'?" which means "isn't that what he said?"

After telling off Mercutio, the Nurse asks the three young men if any of them can tell her where to find "young Romeo" (2.4.119). In reply, Romeo makes a couple of rather feeble plays on the word "young." First he says that when she finds him, he won't be so young as he was when she started looking. Then he says that he is "the youngest of that name, for fault [lack] of a worse" (2.4.122-123). The phrase "for fault of a worse" is a bit of humorous modesty on Romeo's part; he's saying that he is the youngest Romeo, but he's been called a lot worse names than that. The Nurse, glad to have found the person she has been looking for, replies, "You say well" (2.4.124), and Mercutio tries to make another joke out of that by saying, "Yea, is the worst well? very well took, i' faith; wisely, wisely" (2.4.125-126). This time the joke seems to be directed at Romeo because Mercutio is saying that the Nurse thinks it "well" to call Romeo by a name worse than "Romeo."

Ignoring Mercutio's witticism, the Nurse says to Romeo, "If you be he, sir, I desire some confidence with you" (2.4.127-128). "Confidence" is not quite the word the Nurse should have used; she means that she wants a private conference with Romeo. Benvolio understands what she means, and mocks both her meaning and her misuse of words. He says, "She will indite him to some supper" (2.4.129). Benvolio is deliberately using "indite," which means "dictate" or " indict," for "invite"; thus he makes fun of her misuse of the word "confidence." Also, by saying that she is inviting Romeo to supper, Benvolio is clearly implying that the Nurse is a prostitute, as a virtuous woman wouldn't ask a man to supper. The idea that the Nurse is a prostitute tickles Mercutio, and he runs with it. He cries out, "A bawd, a bawd, a bawd! So ho!" (2.4.130). "Bawd" means "prostitute" and is also hunter's slang for "hare." "So ho" is a hunter's cry upon spotting the quarry. Romeo asks him what he has spotted, and Mercutio answers with a string of double-entendres: "No hare, sir; unless a hare, sir, in a lenten pie, that is something stale and hoar ere it be spent" (2.4.132-133). A "lenten pie" is one to be eaten during Lent, when you weren't supposed to be eat meat; "hare" is slang for "prostitute"; "hoar" sounds the same as "whore" and means "moldy"; "stale" is another slang word for "prostitute"; "spent" means "finished." The non-bawdy meaning of what Mercutio has just said is "Not a hare, unless it's the kind of hare that someone might slip into a lenten pie, in which case it would be stale and moldy before it was eaten." The bawdy meaning is "Not a hare, unless it's the kind of whore who is only good enough when you can't get someone better, in which case she would be so whorishly stale and moldy that you'd be disgusted before you were finished with her." Mercutio is so pleased with his own wit that he then breaks into a ditty which says the same thing over again, using the same double-entendres.

After singing his ditty, Mercutio seems ready to let Romeo have his private conversation with the Nurse, and says he and Benvolio will meet him for lunch at Romeo's father's house. As Mercutio and Benvolio leave, Mercutio continues to mock the Nurse and her effort to portray herself as a fine lady. He says, "Farewell, ancient lady; farewell" , then sings the refrain from a romantic ballad, "lady, lady, lady" (2.4.143-144).

Exeunt Benvolio and Mercutio:
Once Mercutio and Benvolio are gone, we might expect that the Nurse would get down to business and ask Romeo about the arrangements he has made for the wedding. However, Mercutio's bawdy witticisms have so upset her that she asks Romeo, "I pray you, sir, what saucy merchant was this, that was so full of his ropery [knavery]?" (2.4.145-146). Romeo explains that Mercutio is just a guy who likes to hear himself talk, and who doesn't mean most of what he says. The Nurse is not really mollified by this. She declares that if Mercutio "speak any thing against me, I'll take him down" (2.4.150-151). She also scolds Peter for not defending her, saying "And thou must stand by too, and suffer [allow] every knave to use me at his pleasure!" (2.4.155-156). These outbursts probably draw a chuckle from the audience because the Nurse, in her resentment against Mercutio's bawdy jests, unintentionally uses phrases which could also be taken the "wrong" way. By "take him down" she means "take him down a notch," but the phrase could also be interpreted to mean "have sex with." Similarly, in complaining that Peter allowed "every knave to use me at his pleasure" the Nurse means that Peter allowed the men to make fun of her, but "use me at his pleasure" also has a sexual meaning.

The double-entendres continue in the next exchange. Peter says, "I saw no man use you at his pleasure; if I had, my weapon should quickly have been out, I warrant you" (2.4.157-158), and the Nurse says to Romeo, "Now, afore God, I am so vexed, that every part about me quivers" (2.4.161-162). This is the last of the bawdiness in the scene, and the Nurse eventually accomplishes her mission, but she continues to show a lovable flakiness.

She tells Romeo that Juliet told her to find him, and adds, "what she bade me say, I will keep to myself" (2.4.164). Of course if Juliet told her to say something, she is supposed to say it, rather than keep it to herself, but she has something else on her mind -- Romeo's honesty. She tells Romeo that "if ye should lead her into a fool's paradise, as they say, it were a very gross kind of behavior" (2.4.165-167). She goes on to point out that Juliet is very young, and that any double-dealing with her would be shameful. Romeo responds, "Nurse, commend me to thy lady and mistress. I protest unto thee --" (2.4.171-172). "Protest" means "swear," and apparently Romeo is about to swear to the Nurse that his love for Juliet is honest and pure, but he doesn't get a chance to finish the sentence because the Nurse exclaims "Good heart, and, i' faith, I will tell her as much: Lord, Lord, she will be a joyful woman" (2.4.173-174). Romeo tells her that she hasn't been listening to him, and that she doesn't yet know what she is supposed to tell Juliet, but it turns out that the Nurse thinks that "protest" means something like "propose marriage." That's good enough for Romeo, and he tells the Nurse to tell Juliet to come to confession at Friar Laurence's cell that afternoon, where she can both receive forgiveness for her sins and be married. He also offers the Nurse money for her pains, which she -- after a little show of reluctance -- takes.

The Nurse is about to bustle off to Juliet with the news when Romeo thinks of one more thing. He tells the Nurse that within an hour she is to meet his servant, who will give her "cords made like a tackled stair [i.e., a rope ladder]; / Which to the high top-gallant [highest mast of a ship] of my joy / Must be my convoy in the secret night" (2.4.189-191). Then Romeo says farewell to the Nurse, but now he can't get rid of her.

She asks if his servant can keep a secret, and Romeo assures her that he can, but then she wanders off into prattle about how sweet Juliet is, how cute she was when she was a toddler, how she teases her by saying that Paris is better-looking than Romeo, and how that angers her so that she turns white as a dishcloth. Then the Nurse half-remembers a cute thing that Juliet said and asks Romeo if it's true that "rosemary" and "Romeo" begin with the same letter. Romeo answers that they both begin with an R, but the Nurse (who is illiterate) thinks he must be fooling her:

Ah. mocker! that's the dog's name; R is for the
--No; I know it begins with some other letter:
--and she hath the prettiest sententious of it, of you
and rosemary, that it would do you good to hear it   (2.4.209-213)
Somewhere the Nurse must have heard that to students of Latin the R was called the littera canina, the "dog's letter," because it was thought to sound like a dog's growl. However, the Nurse thinks that R is a name for a dog, which wouldn't go with Juliet's "sententious," which is the Nurse's own word for the pretty thing which Juliet says about the resemblance between rosemary (a sweet herb) and Romeo.

Romeo, wanting the Nurse to deliver her message, says only "Commend me to thy lady" (2.4.214), and she replies, "Ay, a thousand times" (2.4.215). Romeo leaves, and the Nurse -- as befits the fine lady she would like to be -- commands Peter to lead on. So she goes on her merry way, and the scene ends.