Romeo and Juliet, one of the most popular and well-known plays in the Shakespearean canon, centers on the ill-fated romance of two adolescents, each a member of one of the prominent, feuding families of Shakespeare's medieval Verona. Defying social custom and the dictates of their parents, the passionate young lovers perform a secret marriage ceremony, but a string of misfortunes ends the affair in tragedy. Written circa 1595, the play was an immediate success and has remained one of Shakespeare's most influential works. Critical consensus has tended to view the play as a poetic triumph but a dramatic failure in comparison with the playwright's later tragedies. Confronting this seeming paradox in his 1970 survey of the drama, Douglas Cole (see Further Reading) asks, “How does one create an enduring literary myth out of a sentimental romance?” This question in its myriad forms has preoccupied a host of critics. Cole's answer touches on many of the principal areas of recent interest in the work: its transformation of sources, originality of poetic language, skillfully realized characters, quickly paced fusion of comedy and tragedy, and blended themes of fate and chance. James Black (1975) highlights another element of critical interest: the play's exquisite attention to visual artistry, which has contributed to its sustained popularity on stage. Many critics, including Gerhard W. Kaiser (1977), maintain that what the play lacks in tragic intensity it replaces with lyrical beauty.
While character-centered criticism of Romeo and Juliet has traditionally focused on the drama's title figures, Romeo's friend Mercutio has also attracted a fair share of attention. The near-mythic critical status of Mercutio, who meets his demise midway through the drama, has its origins in the famous remark, attributed to John Dryden, that Shakespeare had to kill this brilliantly realized character “to prevent being kill'd by him.” Whether Dryden ever made such a statement is a matter of speculation, but there is little doubt that Mercutio tends to steal all of the scenes in which he appears. Contemporary interest in Mercutio often reflects on his status as a significant structural or thematic element in Romeo and Juliet. Herbert McArthur (1959), after first surveying Dryden's and other prominent historical assessments of Mercutio, claims that Romeo's close friend, despite his short life span on stage, is a fully developed and consistent dramatic character who helps define both Romeo and Juliet by his presence. Similarly, Raymond V. Utterback (1973) sees Mercutio as an integral component in Shakespeare's depiction of tragic causation, and maintains that the pattern of events leading up to his death becomes an organizing principle in the drama and prefigures a corresponding tragic resolution in the fate of the young lovers. Viewing Mercutio as a youthful trickster figure with symbolic links to the Roman god Mercury, Thomas Browne (1989) argues that the bawdy...
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