Romeo and Juliet Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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

Strictly speaking, Mercutio doesn't belong to either the Capulet or the Montague house, but he hangs around with the Montague boys Benvolio and Romeo—he's almost an honorary Montague, and he definitely has some allegiance to the house. So this quote, where Mercutio curses both the Capulet and the Montague house, is startling. It is 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. (More technically, the Romeo-Juliet love affair is what leads to his death, but the feud definitely complicates things.) Later in the play, it is a sickness, like a "plague," that prevents Romeo from receiving the letter from Friar Laurence—Mercutio's dark curse seems to have come true.

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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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Rebecca Wright eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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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brandih eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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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Keri Sadler eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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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frizzyperm | Student

In this famous line the word 'houses' means 'families'

Mercutio is dying, watched by members of the Montagues and Capulets and says, "A plague on both your families". In other words, "I hope both your families get sick and die." Is he being absolutely serious? That is for you to decide.

In Shakespeare's day there were no effective medicines so there were often epidemic outbreaks of disease (called plagues)