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As Stephen Greenblatt among others has noted, there is a tradition going back to the 17th century in which Shakespeare is supposed to have said that he really had to kill Mercutio in the third act of Romeo and Juliet or Mercutio would have killed him. (1) Of course Shakespeare had to kill Mercutio--the plot requires it: his death is the motor principle for the rest of the play's action and its tragedy. But the comment has always struck many of us as true in another way: that Shakespeare had in Mercutio a character of such interest, such fascination in fact, that if Mercutio had been allowed to continue to develop to the play's end, he might well have usurped the play, taking it away from its nominal protagonists, Romeo and Juliet.
What is the source of Mercutio's fascination? What is it about him that is so striking and enigmatic that it makes so apt that equally striking and enigmatic line of Shakespeare's about him?
Mercutio appears in only four of the play's twenty-four scenes. And yet in the very first of those scenes, 1.4, he says something that fascinates scholars, critics, actors, and readers alike, especially in the modern and post-modern eras. Asking for a mask, as he and his young friends are on their way to Capulet's ball, he says
Give me a case to put my visage in,
A visor for a visor. (2)
"A visor for a visor," literally, a mask for a mask. Many readings of this puzzling line have been suggested by various editors, but the most intriguing surely is the one that has Mercutio calling the very face, on which he puts the mask, a mask itself. Could Shakespeare intend that Mercutio have such a modern sense of himself as a mask wearer, a double man, a pretender whose outer life covers an inner one that he consciously seeks to hide? And if so, what is that inner self beneath the figurative mask?
Further enigma, together with a possible answer to that question, follows shortly thereafter, when Mercutio speaks his famous Queen Mab speech. It is his longest speech in the play. It is his establishing speech. But what exactly does it establish about him? Because many a director has been unsure of the answer to this question, the speech has often been abbreviated in performance. Mercutio's implied reason for the speech, which is about the faerie Mab and the dreams she brings, is to debunk the idea, which Romeo buys into, that dreams have prognosticative value. "Dreamers often lie," says Mercutio, because dreams are
... the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy (1.4.51, 97-98) i.e., begot of nothing but …