Shakespeare’s presentation of Benvolio and Mercutio and the contrasting effects they have on Romeo.
Shakespeare uses a great number of linguistic and structural devices throughout his play ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in order to portray the characters and their relationships with one another. In this essay I will explore and analyse the effects and intentions of his writing and the ways in which they present the contrasting effects Benvolio and Mercutio each have on Romeo.
Shakespeare makes explicit throughout the play that both Benvolio and Mercutio are both good friends to Romeo. From the beginning of the play Benvolio is established as both an advisor and confidant to Romeo, someone who Romeo clearly trusts. Benvolio repeated encourages Romeo to forget about Rosaline as he instructs him to ‘Compare her face with some that [he] shall show and [he] will make thee think thy swan a crow’, advice that leads to Romeo falling in love with Juliet. To many audiences it may seem like a sound suggestion, however to a more superstitious audience, the ornithological imagery used by Shakespeare in this declarative foreshadows the fated end of Romeo and Juliet’s relationship, made poignant by the fact that a crow can be seen as a sign of death. By linking this extended metaphor and use of an imperative to Romeo meeting Juliet, Shakespeare’s intention was to not only to demonstrate how influential Benvolio is to Romeo at this point, but to imply that it was Benvolio’s advice, in spite of his intentions, that eventually lead to the death of his cousin – ironic, indeed, since Benvolio is such a passive character. Conversely, whist it could be inferred that Mercutio’s persistent mocking of Romeo shows a lack of courtesy towards his friend and kinsman however, at various points in the play, Shakespeare subtly demonstrates to what degree Mercutio cares for Romeo. In his monologue about Queen Mab Mercutio describes how ‘she gallops night by night Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;’ this mythical imagery demonstrating that Mercutio does not believe in abstract concepts, whether it be dreams or love. Whilst this attitude could portray Mercutio as callous or ignorant, Shakespeare’s intention in employing this metaphor could well have been to reveal a more insightful side to Mercutio’s character, whether or not his beliefs are typical. By relaying such complex, and possibly personal, thoughts to Romeo, it is made explicit that Mercutio really does care for Romeo – the level of disclosure demonstrating the extent of their friendship. However, it is clear that Romeo doesn’t agree with Mercutio and is implied that if Romeo were to pay more attention to Mercutio, many events of the play may not have taken place, and indeed ended so tragically. Shakespeare’s intention here was to allow the audience to understand that if Mercutio had approached advising Romeo in a different way, whereby he was more sincere, Romeo may have been more inclined to consider his point of view. Subsequently, Mercutio’s influence over Romeo could have been far greater, to the extent that it could have prevented Romeo from falling in love with Juliet, and later, his death. Whilst Benvolio’s good natured encouragement has a significant effect on Romeo, Mercutio’s taunting only pushes him away – a clear demonstration of the contrasting effects each of these characters have on Romeo.
Furthermore, the various attitudes to love expressed in the play each contrast one another tremendously. From all of Mercutio’s appearances in the play it is clear that love is not something he values very highly. Mercutio advises Romeo to ‘prick love for pricking’, one of many times that he diminishes Romeo’s high regard for love by implying that it is good for nothing except sex, as Mercutio instructs Romeo to view women as sex objects. This metaphor effectively portrays how Mercutio feels Romeo should regard love; Mercutio views love as futile and petty and wishes Romeo would view it in the same way. The declarative advises Romeo to adopt such an attitude and the audience witness it briefly mirrored by Romeo when he says that Juliet should ‘Be not her maid’, yet another sexual metaphor referencing Juliet’s virginity. Since this is one of the first things the audience hear Romeo say about Juliet it could be inferred that his love for Juliet is no different from that he felt for Rosaline and that Romeo’s attitude to love has been greatly influenced by Mercutio’s endless teasing. When Mercutio makes his first appearance in the play, Romeo’s affection is centred on Rosaline and it seems that his opinion of love may be similar to that of Mercutio. However, Shakespeare then creates a stark contrast when he introduces Juliet and Romeo’s true perception of love is revealed by how highly he regards her. Unlike Mercutio, from the beginning of the play it seems that Benvolio is very aware of whether or not Romeo is really in love; during Romeo’s previous heartbreak he instructs Romeo to ‘Examine other beauties’. This declarative offering Romeo sound advice reveals to the audience that Benvolio knows Romeo very well and cares greatly about his wellbeing. Although a modern audience could perceive Benvolio’s opinion of love to be fickle and shallow, it is Shakespeare’s intention to make explicit that Benvolio only wants happiness for Romeo, hence why he so readily offers Romeo advice. It is from this that the audience understand that Romeo’s approach to love is actually the opposite of that of Mercutio’s, and is primarily influenced by Benvolio’s words of encouragement, rather than Mercutio’s dismissals. By foreshadowing later events, Shakespeare’s intention was to display Romeo’s beliefs to be similar to Benvolio’s; love is something Benvolio values, hence why he wants Romeo to find true love. In terms of love, Benvolio and Mercutio both offer a large degree of advice to Romeo. However, it is clear that Benvolio has a far more substantial effect on Romeo that Mercutio.
Indeed, it could be said that both Benvolio and Mercutio exhibit a certain degree of culpability for the tragic ending of the play. Benvolio is constantly looking to avoid conflict; after Tybalt’s challenge to Romeo, Benvolio warns Mercutio, and indeed the audience, that ‘if [they] meet [they] shall not ‘scape a brawl’. However, this imperative and others like it throughout the play persistently fail to prevent the considerable amount of violence seen throughout. From this it could be deduced that if Benvolio were to have been more forceful when attempting to prevent conflict, then perhaps the play’s tragic ending may never have come about. However, promises such as ‘I’ll pay that doctrine, or else die in debt’ present Benvolio as kind and loyal friend to Romeo. Whilst this metaphor simply swears Benvolio will ensure Romeo overcomes his heartbreak, a more perceptive audience may infer that at this point Benvolio makes a pact to bear responsibility for Romeo’s long-term wellbeing. Subsequently it could be understood that this imperative foreshadows later events in the play, specifically when Benvolio essentially saves Romeo by commanding him to leave Verona or else ‘the prince will doom thee death’, advice which Romeo immediately acts upon, demonstrating that, at this point in the play, Shakespeare’s intention was to highlight that Benvolio’s effect on Romeo is extremely beneficial to him. Benvolio’s insistent tone along with the use of an imperative, ensures that, unlike other occasions, he is not ignored. This is significant in that it marks a turning point in the play whereby Benvolio is solely responsible for the life of Romeo, with no input whatsoever from Mercutio. In fact, many audiences may conclude that Mercutio bares most of the culpability for Romeo’s fateful end. This is made so obvious when Mercutio casts ‘A plague on both [their] houses’, which the audience, especially that of an Elizabethan era of whom many were superstitious, could view as the primary reason for Romeo’s death, making Mercutio extremely responsible. Through his employment of such a dramatic metaphor, Shakespeare’s intention was to blatantly foreshadow the death of both Romeo and Juliet, bringing about a shocking realisation for the audience that had Mercutio not cursed the families, the fateful end may never have taken place. This is one of few points throughout the play where Shakespeare’s presentation of Mercutio versus that of Benvolio compels the audience to conclude that Mercutio’s effect on Romeo is considerably more consequential than Benvolio’s.
In addition to this, with honour and the feud being such important parts of the play, it’s almost inevitable that Benvolio and Mercutio are to have different views regarding them, with indeed, contrasting effects on Romeo. Even from Benvolio’s first appearance in he tries to evade conflict as he commands his friends and rivals to ‘Part fools! Put up your swords, you know not what you do.’, the derogatory adjective ‘fools’ giving the audience immediate insight on Benvolio’s passive nature, establishing his role as a peacekeeper. Here, Shakespeare uses one of many imperative seen in Benvolio’s dialogue throughout the play. However, in spite of this Benvolio is never successful in preventing conflict; ironically, on some occasions his words of disparagement have a reverse effect, often on Mercutio, who rashly involves himself in violence. It could be argued that Benvolio’s peaceful nature is mirrored by Romeo when he attempts to avoid fighting with Tybalt. However, other than this, there is little evidence to suggest that Benvolio’s views on the feud has an extensive impact on Romeo. Much unlike Benvolio, Mercutio believes strongly in honour, as shown when he disapproves of Romeo’s refusal to fight Tybalt, describing it as ‘calm, dishonourable, vile submission’. Shakespeare’s use of this powerful tricolon establishes strong irony, since it is Mercutio’s violent instincts that result in his death. Mercutio’s careless attitude to conflict has a significant impact on Romeo; had Mercutio not fought with Tybalt, Romeo would never have never avenged his death, preventing Romeo’s banishment and indeed, his tragic end. It is from this that the audience can determine that Mercutio’s character has a particularly unfortunate effect on Romeo, whereas, with regards to honour and the feud, Benvolio has almost no effect on Romeo – thus placing a tremendous degree of responsibility for Romeo’s death on Mercutio.
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