Describe the character of Mercutio and the role he plays in this work. Why is he an audience favorite, and why is his death so important to the plot?
One of the major characters in "Romeo and Juliet" is only alive for half of the play.
Despite his only lasting through the first scene of Act III, Mercutio serves several purposes in "Romeo and Juliet." First of all, he is a foil [a character who by strong contrast underscores the distinctive qualities of another character] to Romeo who also provides comic relief. It is ironic, then, that he dies since he poses no real threat to anyone. It is this irony, however, that serves to advance the theme of fate throughout the rest of the play.
In the early part of the play--to the enjoyment of the audience--Mercutio banters with Romeo: "Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance (I,iv,3). His light-hearted and playful language is in sharp contrast to Romeo's heavy oxymoron's about love. While Romeo speaks of "brawling love" and "loving hate" and "heavy lightness" and "serious vanity" (I,i,149-150), Mercutio builds an entire monologue about a little fairy queen, Mab, who tickles lovers' brains and makes them dream of love until Romeo angrily bids him to be silent because he "talk'st of nothing (I,iv,73). Still, Mercutio teases Romeo in Act II after Romeo has fallen in love with Juliet:
Alas, poor Romeo, he is already dead! Stabbed with a white wench's black eye, shot thorough the ear with a love song, the very pin of his heart cleft with the blind bowboy's butt shaft [Cupid's bow]. (II,iv,12-14)
Likewise, his gestures are as exaggerated as his speech. When the Nurse arrives with her servant, Peter, attending her by holding her skirts up, Mercutio runs and shouts "A sail! A sail!" (II,iv,27). But, his exaggerated gestures with Tybalt are misunderstood by Romeo who seeks to stop what he believes is a serious fight, and Mercutio is stabbed. Yet, even then he retains his sense of humor as he puns, "Tomorrow you will find me a grave man." [grave=serious, grave=dead in the grave] Even in death, Mercutio dominates the scene that he is in as his quick wit draws the attention to him. More importantly, his death effects Romeo's killing of Tybalt which sets the wheels of Fate in motion.
Mercutio may be the prince's relative, but he aligns himself with Romeo and the Montagues. Mercutio is a dramatic counterpart to the nurse. He is Romeo's confidant and a source of bawdy humor in sharp contrast to Romeo's heavy love-sick dialogue.
Mercutio is a source of foreshadowing when he wonders aloud, "Where the devil should this Romeo be?" (II.4.1) He gives the audience hints about the next events in the play. This shows the audience that Mercutio has already lost Romeo to Juliet.
Mercutio is something of a counterweight to Romeo's being in-love. Mercutio turns Romeo's love into the simple desire for sex. And, in some versions of the play, Mercutio and the nurse's puns have been edited to be less bawdy (David Garrick felt himself obliged to remove as much obscenity from the play as possible.) Mercutio does poke holes in the dramatic self-love exhibited by Romeo and Juliet as well as Tybalt's adherance to fashion. Mercutio is the common sense and balance in the play.
Mercutio is a wit even to the end of his life and even makes a pun about the grave as he dies. He dies cursing all Montagues and Capulets. Once Mercutio dies, the play's action takes a more sharp downward spiral toward the tragic end.