What is the relationship between Mercutio and Romeo, as portrayed in Act II, Scene 4 of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet?

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Romeo and Mercutio are close friends, with Mercutio being slightly older than Romeo. The pair of them come from a similar background. Mercutio is characterized as something of a joker, but it is evident that he has a protective instinct towards Romeo.

In the scene you are asking about, Act 2, Scene 4, we as readers and audience members learn more about the relationship between Mercutio and Romeo. Mercutio, at the beginning of the scene, is convinced that Romeo has not turned up because he is with Rosaline, who "torments" him. He thinks of Romeo as a slightly lovesick and naive boy who is likely to be kept from his appointments by romantic assignations. Mercutio goes on to say that Romeo is "already dead" because of love and his response to his feelings.

When Romeo does arrive, Mercutio teases him fondly, saying that Romeo gave them "the counterfeit" or "the slip" the previous evening. The subsequent verbal exchange between Mercutio and Romeo, in which they finish each other's proffered jokes, gives some indication of the level of closeness between the pair. They obviously understand each other well, share a similar sense of humor, and have a sense of each other's strengths and weaknesses. Romeo chides Mercutio as "good goose" and asks him to "bite not," meaning that he does not want to hear Mercutio complaining about his decisions any more.

All in all, this scene is an excellent illustration of the intimacy and fondness between Mercutio and Romeo.

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Mercutio does present as Romeo's dramatic foil, as the other educators explain well, but he also establishes himself as a loyal and faithful friend of Romeo. His role as friend is of great importance.

In the opening line of this scene, he is inquiring about Romeo's whereabouts. When his friends note that Romeo didn't return home to his father's house the night before, Mercutio turns his thoughts to the scorn his friend has received from Rosaline:

Why, that same pale hard-hearted wench, that Rosaline,
Torments him so, that he will sure run mad. (II.iv.4-5)

Mercutio has no kind words about Rosaline because she has jilted his friend. You can understand his loyalty to Romeo through his ridicule of Rosaline in these lines. She has caused his friend so much grief that he's concerned that Romeo won't be able to rise to Tybalt's challenge:

the very pin of his heart cleft with the
blind bow-boy’s butt shaft. And is he a man to encounter
Tybalt? (II.iv.15-17)

As Romeo walks up, Mercutio comments that his friend's health is suffering because of his mental state:

Without his roe, like a dried herring. O flesh, flesh,
how art thou fishified! (II.iv.37-38)

This characterization is important because Tybalt will soon challenge Romeo to a fight, just as Mercutio feared. Because of his loyalty to his friend and because he has been worried about his mental state, Mercutio will rise to Romeo's defense and lose his own life in the process. Thus, this scene is important not just in reflecting the lighthearted humor between the men, but also because it shows Mercutio's fondness for Romeo and the value he places on their friendship.

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Mercutio is a foil to Romeo; that is, he is a character who possesses qualities that contrast with those of Romeo.

Whereas Romeo is very serious and melancholy, Mercutio is facetious and glib. When, for example, he talks about Romeo, Mercutio jokes that Romeo is the Petrarchan lover with whom his love object is flippantly set against six women from myths and history. For instance, Mercutio says that compared to Romeo's girl,

Laura was a kitchen slave. Surely she has a better love to make rhymes for her. Dido was shabbily dressed. Cleopatra was a gypsy girl. Helen and Hero were sluts and harlots. (2.4. 13-15)

Further, Mercutio employs lascivious quips about Romeo's relationship to Juliet, joking about Romeo's sexual anatomy as well as Juliet's. This type of language is in sharp contrast to the beautifully poetic language and the language of courtly love that Romeo uses when he alludes to Juliet and her physical features in Act II, Scene 2.

When Romeo arrives in Scene 4, he engages with Mercutio, his friend, and speaks rather lewdly himself, in contrast to his address to Juliet . For instance, Mercutio accuses Romeo of giving his friends "the slip," and Romeo replies that he has had serious business to attend to, but Mercutio jokes,

That’s as much as to say, such a case as yours constrains a man to bow in the hams. [ This is a sexual innuendo that Romeo has been engaged in carnal activity.] (2.4.22)

Romeo returns the joke: "Meaning to 'curtsy'?" (2.4.23) and Mercutio quips, "Thou hast most kindly hit it" (2.4.24), meaning "hit the sexual target."

This dialogue is in sharp contrast to the delicate and metaphoric language employed by Romeo as he speaks to Juliet in the balcony scene. In this dialogue, clearly, Mercutio demonstrates that he is a foil character.

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Mercutio's relationship with Romeo is that of Romeo's best friend, but beyond that, Mercutio also serves as Romeo's dramatic foil. Mercutio is the exact opposite of Romeo, and his lewd and humorous nature contrasts against Romeo's serious and devoted nature.

We see Mercutio's humorous nature contrasting against Romeo's when Mercutio makes lewd, sexual jokes, poking fun of Romeo's broken heart and his propensity to fall passionately in love. Lewd humor can be seen in Mercutio's lines:

Without his roe, like a dried herring. O flesh, flesh,
How are thou fishified! (38)

We also see Romeo's and Mercutio's friendship in this scene when they exchange puns. After Mercutio calls Romeo's romantic actions feminine by telling him to "curtsy" as a woman does, Romeo makes a pun out of the word "pump" to refer to both feminine shoes and a sexual insinuation with the line, "Why, then is my pump well-flower'd" (59). Mercutio continues the shoe pun in his lines,

Well said! Follow me this jest not till thou has worn
out thy pump, that, when the single sole of it is worn,
the jest may remain, after wearing, solely singular. (60-62)

Hence, this little punning duel shows us just what good friends Romeo and Mercutio are. It also shows us that Romeo has accepted Mercutio's lewd, humorous, and cynical nature, even if it is the opposite of his own.

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