In William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, Romeo and Benvolio are cousins, and members of the Montague clan or family. The two are very close, and Benvolio is preoccupied for much of the first two acts trying to keep his cousin from dwelling on his unrequited passion for Rosaline, the beautiful but chaste Capulet for whom the young Romeo has been obsessed. As members of the Montagues and, consequently, direct parties to the blood feud that has raged with the Capulets, Romeo and Benvolio are linked together in a way that their friend Mercutio is not. Mercutio is related to Prince Escalus, the ruler of Verona, where the clans reside and where much of the play is set. Despite his closeness to Romeo, he is safe from the acts of violence directed by the two clans against each other because he is neither a Montague nor a Capulet, and because he is related to the governing prince. In addition, while Benvolio shares Romeo’s romantic view of human relations, Mercutio is somewhat indifferent to the passions that drive others, and views human relations in a far more impassioned or cold way. Where Romeo and Benvolio differ, however, is in the latter’s far greater reluctance to countenance violent conflict between the two clans, such as in the impromptu encounter in “a public place” that opens the play when Benvolio counsels caution to the Capulets who threaten him.
In Act II, Scene IV, Mercutio and Benvolio are searching for Romeo. Mercutio assumes that Romeo’s disappearance is directly related to his friend’s obsession with Rosaline, but Benvolio knows that Romeo’s absence is more likely related to a letter his cousin received from Tybalt challenging him to a dual:
MERCUTIO Ah, that same pale hard-hearted wench, that Rosaline. Torments him so, that he will sure run mad.
BENVOLIO Tybalt, the kinsman of old Capulet, Hath sent a letter to his father’s house.
In the exchange that follows, the more calculating but pragmatic Mercutio cautions the more sentimental Benvolio about the dangers that could confront Romeo in the event of a duel with Tybalt, whose abilities with a sword and cunning instincts Mercutio respects but whom he refers to as a “prince of cats,” a reference the feline character in the medieval tale Reynard the Fox who falls victim to his misbegotten loyalties. Benvolio, however, is confident that Tybalt’s bark is worse than his bite: “Why, what is Tybalt?” he rhetorically asks of the more cautious Mercutio. Mercutio, while having no direct stake in the feud between the two clans, doesn’t want to see his close friend killed; Benvolio, as was evidenced in Act I, Scene I, during the aforementioned confrontation, holds Tybalt and his presumed abilities as a swordsman in complete contempt (“. . .close fighting ere I did approach: I drew to part them: in the instant came/The fiery Tybalt, with his sword prepared, Which, as he breathed defiance to my ears, He swung about his head and cut the winds, Who nothing hurt withal hiss’d him in scorn.”)
One of the key points regarding the relationships among the three men is that very real distinction between Mercutio’s expressiveness and jocularity versus the more introverted and serious Benvolio. It is Mercutio who carries the conversations, with his wit and observations intended to steer his friend clear of the danger he knows lies ahead. It is Mercutio who engages in light-hearted banter with Romeo, not Benvolio. Witness the following exchange between Mercutio and Romeo when the latter finally materializes:
ROMEO Good morrow to you both. What counterfeit did I give you?
MERCUTIO The slip, sir, the slip; can you not conceive?
ROMEO Pardon, good Mercutio, my business was great; and in such a case as mine a man may strain courtesy.
MERCUTIO That’s as much as to say, such a case as yours constrains a man to bow in the hams.
ROMEO Meaning, to court’sy.
MERCUTIO Thou hast most kindly hit it.
ROMEO A most courteous exposition.
MERCUTIO Nay, I am the very pink of courtesy.
ROMEO Pink for flower.
ROMEO Why, then is my pump well flowered.
MERCUTIO Well said: 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 sole singular.
As these two exchange humorous barbs, it is easy to forget that Benvolio is among them. It is only when he feels Mercutio has extended the line of discussion too long that Benvolio finally intervenes:
BENVOLIO Stop there, stop there.
MERCUTIO Thou desirest me to stop in my tale against the hair.
BENVOLIO Thou wouldst else have made thy tale large.
And, when Juliet’s nurse arrives to communicate with Romeo, both of his friends commence to ridicule the elderly woman’s presence and her request of a private conversation with Romeo. It is, again, Mercutio, however, who engages the nurse in protracted and unseemly banter, with sexual innuendos flying, and punctuating the nurse’s request with the exclamation “A bawd, a bawd, a bawd! so ho!” At this point, Mercutio and Benvolio exit, and the remainder of the scene involves the nurse’s and Romeo’s plans for a secret encounter between the boy and Juliet.
These are three men who love each other, and would die for each other. In fact, Mercutio’s death at the hands of Tybalt is a direct result of the former’s efforts at saving Romeo from that exact fate. So stricken by his friend’s death is Romeo, that he then kills Tybalt. Benvolio then urges Romeo to flee Verona before Prince Escalus has him executed for the death of the prince’s relative. In the end, only Benvolio remains alive, his friends dead. The dynamics among the three, however, set the tone for the sorrowful demise of the two.