Transmissions from Somewhen is an exploration of the mind that dwells in the past and the future, seeing how we can use our obsession with other times to improve the present.

The Story in Blades, Part II

The Story in Blades, Part II

Welcome back to the storied study of stage stabbing. This time I'm going into some proper text analysis. Several years ago I acted in and fight choreographed a production of Romeo & Juliet, whose text is particularly rich with insight into how its characters throw down. The play's plot hinges around two key back-to-back fights: Tybalt/Mercutio and Tybalt/Romeo. All the turmoil of the play is funneled through this narrow strait. On the other side, Mercutio and Tybalt are dead and Romeo banished, which sets up the tragic end. 

Let's look at Tybalt first. Luckily for us fighty folks, Mercutio literally has a monologue about how Tybalt fights, including this key line:

He fights as you sing prick-song, keeps time, distance and proportion … the very butcher of a silk button, a duellist, a duellist! … Ah, the immortal passado! The punto reverso! The hai!

Tybalt is a precise fighter. He's read the books and memorized the diagrams. He drills and drills until he's perfect. However, 'butcher of a silk button' is a telling jab. Tybalt, for all his skill, is still fundamentally a gentleman duelist, a rich man who fights other rich men in controlled environments. He's an expert technical fighter, but not a tactical, creative thinker. He's a spot-on textbook fencer, but if you've read that book, you can predict what he'll do in most situations.

There's a temptation to use the general 'angry' sense of Tybalt as the primary informer of his fighting, but, as is often said with other aspects of his plays, Shakespeare didn't write this very specific description by accident. Tybalt is certainly aggressive, but he's not reckless or out of control. That's what makes him such a frightening opponent. 

What about the Merc? Sometimes Romeo's boisterous friend gets played as a full-on goofball, an essentially 'zany' guy with no mystery about him. That ignores both the opportunity to deepen a fascinating character and some very telling textual clues.

First, we know he's good. His line about Tybalt doesn't just tell us about Tybalt. It tells us that Mercutio has a keen understanding of what he's talking about, and his attitude - thoroughly unimpressed by Tybalt's fancy-man dueling persona - suggests that Mercutio knows what it's like to fight for real, to the death, not on the manicured greens of someone's estate with seconds and doctors standing by for the first sight of blood.

Further evidence for his ability is that Tybalt only kills him because Romeo gets in the way. 'Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm.' Again, this isn't something that would be in the play as an afterthought or an ornament. It's crucial to Romeo's character arc that Mercutio's death is his fault. That Mercutio was well on his way to ending the fight with minimal blood and fuss before Romeo interposed himself and Tybalt, recognizing his only path to victory, took advantage. Mercutio's death, like the wider play, is tragedy.

(As a reminder, the difference between something merely being sad and being a tragedy is its avoidability. A tragedy is a sad event that easily could not have happened if one or two little things had been different. The end of Romeo & Juliet, two deaths caused by a minor communication error, is a perfect example of this.)

Let's look at two more text clues. One is a small, easily overlooked line as Mercutio, Benvolio and Romeo head to the Capulet masque: 'Give me a case to put my visage in - a visor for a visor.' Mercutio calls his own face a mask. There are different ways to interpret that line, but I think Occam's Razor applies here. The Mercutio that we see - joking, jesting, carousing, carefree - is a mask. We get one real peek under this mask, in one of the canon's best-known speeches.

The Queen Mab speech is about dreams, and what different kinds of people dream of. Most of them are simple stereotypes: Young lovers dream of love, lawyers dream of legal fees, so on. The first half of the speech is cute and whimsical. It takes a turn when Mercutio talks about soldiers:

Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck, and then dreams he of cutting foreign throats, of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades, of healths five-fathom deep; and then anon drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes, and being thus frighted swears a prayer or two and sleeps again.

Nightmares of combat, death, terror, waking up in the middle of the night with the sounds of gunfire still ringing in your ears and praying you're able to sleep again before the sun rises. This passage is where Mercutio goes off the rails, to the point that even the famously melodramatic Romeo has to pull him back to earth. Again, I've seen this played as Mercutio just being too loud or getting carried away by the sound of his own voice, but that's a serious disservice to what Shakespeare's telling us: Mercutio is a deeply scarred veteran of war who buries his pain under gregarious bawdiness, but can't escape it when he dreams.

What about our eponymous lover? He returns to the stage after Mercutio's death, fights Tybalt, and kills him. It's unfortunately common to see productions where Romeo suddenly manifests consummate skill and beats Tybalt with technique. What's his father have to say about the kid?

Many a morning hath he there been seen, with tears augmenting the fresh morning dew, adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs…

Romeo is melancholy, lovesick, and despondent, shuffling through his days sitting under trees mumbling and probably listening to Creed. That's before he meets Juliet. He doesn't take part in the big fight at the beginning and never shows any interest in the Montague/Capulet feud. There is no reason to believe Romeo is particularly good in a fight, and certainly not near Tybalt's level.

So how do we have him win? We use what he does have: Passion. One of the questions in my last post that I highlighted as important and often overlooked is: How willing is this person to truly hurt or even kill another human being? As angry as he is, as much as he bandies about his scowling fencer-in-black persona, I don't necessarily think Tybalt's ever killed anyone before Mercutio. And as he's recovering from that shock, emotionally volatile Romeo, who's just watched his best friend die, walks back in and sees that friend's blood dripping from Tybalt's sword.

Technical skill and tactical decision making decide most fights, but I've lost to people far worse on paper and beaten ones far better because of confidence, tiredness, and a host of other emotional factors, factors that were tiny compared to what's boiling over in this scene. In the end, as good as he is, Tybalt is used to facing opponents under a certain pretext of unspoken, and sometimes spoken, rules. Romeo genuinely wants to murder him, and can think of nothing else until he has. Maybe he picks up a rock and breaks Tybalt's sword. Maybe he rushes in and grabs Tybalt's own knife from his belt.

In my Romeo/Tybalt fight, he charges in and lets Tybalt disarm him. That takes Tybalt's sword off line long enough for Romeo to bury his knee in Tybalt's stomach. Tybalt staggers and tries to fight back, but Romeo's in wrestling distance and it's not a sword fight anymore. Romeo rips Tybalt's sword out of his hand and, as if he's too furious to even remember how a sword works, beats him to death with its guard and pommel.

That was a lot of talk about a very small piece of a play, and if you've stuck with me through it, thanks very much! I'm going to write a brief third post about the fights in Macbeth to round all this out. If you haven't seen 4615 Theatre's Macbeth, y'oughta. It's real good.









The Story in Blades, Epilogue

The Story in Blades, Epilogue

The Story in Blades

The Story in Blades