In Romeo and Juliet, what does it mean when Mercutio says, "A plague o' both your houses"?  

In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio doesn't belong to either the Capulet or the Montague house, but he definitely has some allegiance to the latter. Because of this, it's startling when Mercutio curses both houses. It's Mercutio's expression of his own anger as he is dying, since he believes that the Capulet-Montague feud is what led to his death. Later in the play, it is a sickness that prevents Romeo from receiving the letter from Friar Laurence. Mercutio's curse lives.

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Note that Mercutio does not say this famous phrase—"A plague o' both your houses"—once as an isolated statement. Rather, he voices the sentiment repeatedly as he lies dying.

Remember, in act 3, scene 1, Mercutio gets baited into a duel with Tybalt, fighting in Romeo's honor (after Romeo refuses to accept Tybalt's challenge). Tybalt slays Mercutio in the duel and then runs off, leaving Mercutio to die. This is the context in which Mercutio makes this repeated refrain.

For Mercutio, it is an expression of resentment, not only against Tybalt (his killer) but also against Romeo himself. The two houses have been engaged in a vicious feud with one another, and Mercutio blames the feud, and the families partaking in that feud, for his death. Indeed, note the literal meaning of these words: Mercutio is wishing severe sickness on both the Montagues and the Capulets. Thus, Mercutio, as he lies dying, is wishing death on those he holds responsible.

Of course, Mercutio's resentment sidesteps the degree to which Mercutio himself holds personal responsibility in contributing to his own death. Mercutio was the one who responded to Tybalt's taunts. Mercutio insisted on fighting that duel, and these dying words can thus be understood to reflect an element of self-deception on his part, as he ignores his own role in this sequence of events.

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Mercutio is essentially saying that both the Montagues and the Capulets are to blame for the long-standing feud that is about to claim him as its next victim.

No one quite knows how the feud started or which, if any, side is ultimately to blame. There's more than an element of truth, then, in what Mercutio is saying. Both families have kept up the feud, done nothing to stop it, and so they share the responsibility for all the bloodshed, tragedy, and chaos that their animosity has generated.

Even so, Mercutio is not entirely blameless in this regard. He was advised by the peace-loving Benvolio to stay out of trouble, but Mercutio ignored his friend's wise advice and got himself mixed up in the unseemly street brawl that is about to claim his life. Mercutio may be a witty and charming fellow, but he's also something of a hothead.

One way of looking at this unfortunate scenario is to say that, whereas Mercutio must take his fair share of responsibility for the proximate cause of his death, the ultimate responsibility for the events leading up to that death lies with the feuding Montagues and Capulets. As such, they richly deserve the curse that the dying Mercutio has put upon them.

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Mercutio has just been fatally wounded in a street brawl when he cries a "A plague o' both your houses." In saying this, he is equally blaming the Montagues and the Capulets for his death. He believes it is the feud between the two families that has caused his fatal wound.

While it is true that the fighting between the feuding families has led to trouble and death on the streets of Verona, it is also true that Mercutio is not taking responsibility for his own role in his early, tragic death. Benvolio tried to get him out of the hot sun and off the streets, fearing a fight, but Mercutio refused to listen to his friend's sensible advice that they stay out of trouble. Instead, when Tybalt approaches, Mercutio uses witty wordplay to anger him. Mercutio is spoiling for a fight, and when Romeo won't engage in swordplay as Tybalt hopes, Mercutio is glad to step in.

Mercutio gets killed because he is hot headed. The irony is that he is neither a Capulet nor a Montague and so had no reason to get involved in such a fight in the first place. Nevertheless, we mourn the death of such a vibrant character—and we regret the trouble it causes for Romeo, who then feels compelled to kill Tybalt.

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"A plague o' both your houses," is a curse. Mercutio is renouncing any and all allegiance he previously had to the Montague house and cursing both houses indiscriminately. He does this because he believes that it is the feud that has lead to his death and he wants to symbolically get revenge.

Mercutio's death comes about as a result of a quarrel in the marketplace. Tybalt challenges Romeo to a duel, and because Mercutio is a good friend to Romeo, he jumps into the duel in Romeo's stead when Romeo does not answer Tybalt's challenge. As a result of this, he then ends up mortally wounded and in his dying moments he lashes out at both families, cursing them by wishing a plague on both houses.

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This quote is also covered in our free Shakespeare quotes section.  Please see the link below for more information.

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Mercutio's line is, put simply, a curse on both the Capulet and the Montague families.  

Mercutio's curse is because he blames the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues for his death - and he realises that he is dying. Mercutio wishes that a "plague" (a horrible illness) will fall on both of the houses of Capulet and Montague (remember, that, the prologue begins "Two houses, both alike in dignity") because he believes that it is their foolish feud that has brought about his death.

In fact, he's wrong. Mercutio's death is not because of the feud between the households, as much as because the love between Romeo and Juliet. Tybalt challenges Romeo to fight (because Romeo dared to attend the Capulet ball) and, when he refuses (because he has just married a Capulet!), Mercutio steps in. That's why Mercutio dies - the "feud", in this scene at least, doesn't actually cause any of the fighting.

One thing too often overlooked is that Mercutio's curse comes true. Friar John, in his single scene in the play, tells Friar Lawrence that he couldn't deliver a letter because of the "infectious pestilence". It is, in fact, a plague which leads to Romeo not receiving the letter - and therefore brings about the deaths of Romeo and Juliet.

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