William Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet is an early, experimental work in which the author develops many themes that are dealt with more deeply in his later tragedies. In this play, Shakespeare attempts to combine poetry with melodrama and romance with tragedy, along with a splash of comedic relief throughout. One way to explore how the author integrated these themes, motifs, and genres into a single work is to compare and contrast his characters, and protagonist Romeo and his good friend and relative Mercutio are prime candidates for examination.
Romeo is portrayed as a sensitive, gentle, intelligent, and somewhat idealistic character. He is more than a simple romantic. He is lovesick to the point of being naïve and emotional at times. Nevertheless, he suffers from an innate rashness and impetuosity that develops as the action in the play unfolds. For example, after announcing his unrequited love for Rosaline, who has rejected him, he falls for Juliet at first sight:
But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love!
As the play progresses, Romeo undergoes a drastic character change. While his obsession with the concept of love continues to develop, he begins to display alternate characteristics after Mercutio is killed. Without focusing on Juliet, he is losing self-control. The destructive force of hatred takes over, and Romeo is drawn to violence.
Cynical and argumentative Mercutio, like Romeo, tends to be reckless, but provides comic relief in the play. He is a jokester, a prankster, and a precursor to the fools prevalent in later Shakespearean works. Like Romeo, he is charismatic and fiercely loyal to his friends. Unlike the gentle Romeo, he need not be persuaded to violence. When he perceives threats to his friends, he leaps into action, becoming hostile and vindictive. For example, when Tybalt challenges Romeo to a duel, Mercutio recognizes Romeo’s mild behavior and reluctance and takes up the challenge himself:
Mer. Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you walk?
Tyb. What wouldst thou have with me?
Mer. Good King of Cats, nothing but one of your nine lives; that I mean to make bold withal, and as you shall use me hereafter, dry-beat the rest of the eight. Will you pluck your sword out of his pilcher by the ears? Make haste, lest mine be about your ears ere it be out.
Tyb. I am for you.
After Mercutio is slain, Romeo is instantly transformed out of his gentle character and slays Tybalt.
Romeo’s peaceful yet impetuous character, obsessed with love, combined with Mercutio’s fierce loyalty and violent tendencies allow the author to demonstrate a multitude of themes in this early Shakespearean drama.