It was hot: the only movement came from a lizard that broke cover and streaked through the white dust of the piazza to the safety of an ivy covered wall. The goats and chickens and piglets were silent and the market traders dozed beneath their awnings.
‘Come on now, Mercutio’ said Benvolio. ‘Let’s go. It’s very hot and we’re right outside Capulet ‘s house: if we should bump into any of them there’s bound to be trouble. Tempers are short in this heat.’
Mercutio laughed. ‘Look who’s talking. You’re the biggest troublemaker of all.
You’re like the fellow who goes into a pub, slams his sword down on the counter and cries: “I hope I won’t need you” and then, after his second drink, challenges the landlord for no reason at all.’
‘Who, me?’ said Benvolio. They were all pointing at him and laughing.
‘Come on now, what’s this innocent act?’ said Mercutio, ‘You’re as hot a fellow as any in Italy.’ He winked at the others who demonstrated their agreement by thumping Benvolio on the back, jeering, pretending to protect themselves from him and generally fooling about, ‘You’re as quickly aroused as anyone.’
‘Aroused to what?’ said Benvolio, sitting down and scooping water over himself.
‘What?’ said Mercutio. ‘If there were two like you there would soon be none: you’d kill each other. You? You’d quarrel with a man who had one hair more or less than you in his beard.’ Encouraged by the laughter, including Benvolio’s now, he continued. ‘You’d quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason than that you’ve got hazel eyes. Your head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of yolk – in fact your brains have been scrambled by the number of times you’ve had your head punched.’
Mercutio was precariously balanced on the fountain wall and Benvolio seized the moment and pushed him. Mercutio landed in the water with a great splash. He lay at the bottom, holding his breath. His friends grew silent, then just as they were beginning to be worried his head popped up.
‘You have quarreled with a man who coughed and woke your dog, sleeping in the sun,’ he continued when the cheering had subsided. He climbed out and sat on the wall again. ‘Didn’t you once fall out with a tailor for wearing his new waistcoat before Easter?
And someone else for tying his new shoes with old laces? And you lecture me on quarrels?’
‘Huh!’ said Benvolio. ‘If I were as quick to quarrel as you no-one on earth would bet on my life lasting longer than an hour and a quarter.’
‘Oh what…’ began Mercutio but Benvolio interrupted him. He had just seen a group of young men coming out of the Capulet mansion. ‘Careful,’ he said. ‘Here come the Capulets.’
Mercutio didn’t even turn round. He carried on pouring water over his head. ‘So what?’ he said.
There were about a dozen of them. They strode purposefully towards Benvolio and his friends. Their leader was easily recognizable by his swagger and general air of self assurance. It was Tybalt. Mercutio began whistling.
‘Stay close behind me,’ Tybalt told his companions. ‘I’ll do the talking. Gentlemen, good afternoon. I’d like a word with one of you.’
‘Is that all?’ said Mercutio. ‘Just one word with just one of us? ’ He resumed his whistling and pretended to wash his armpits. ‘Let’s have a bit more than just one word. Add something to it: make it a word and a blow.’
‘You’ll find me ready for that, Sir, if you give me any reason,’ said Tybalt. His voice was cold and controlled.
‘Couldn’t you find some reason?’ said Mercutio. He began polishing the fountain head – spitting, polishing, spitting again, and rubbing at one spot with great concentration.
The others relaxed, seeing that Mercutio was determined to turn it into a joke, and they laughed. He looked so funny that the Capulets joined in. Tybalt’s face was grim, though. He took a few steps forward until he was standing just a yard from Mercutio, who was still polishing.
‘Mercutio, you consort with Romeo,’ he said.
‘Consort?’ Mercutio stopped his cleaning and looked round at Tybalt for the first time. ‘What, are you making musicians of us?’ He stood up: he jumped down so that he was standing on the dry earth of the piazza. ‘If you make musicians of us don’t expect anything but discords.’ He drew his sword. ‘Here’s my fiddle bow. Here’s the thing that will make you dance. God almighty! Consorts!’
He had taken Tybalt by surprise. Tybalt stepped back and stood for a moment, undecided.
Benvolio had a terrible feeling that in spite of Mercutio’s clowning it could develop into something nasty. ‘Look here,’ he said. ‘This is a public place. Either discuss it rationally or let’s go somewhere private. Or better still, let’s just go home. Everyone’s looking at us.’
Tybalt planted himself squarely and drew his sword. ‘Men’s eyes were made for looking,’ he said. ‘I won’t budge for anyone.’
Mercutio looked as though he was going to make an opening move but instead of engaging with Tybalt he lowered the point of his rapier and buried it in the ground. Then he leant on it and began whistling again. Everyone clapped. Even Tybalt smiled. It might have ended there if Romeo hadn’t come running towards them, shouting – ‘Benvolio! Mercutio!’
‘Well never mind,’ said Tybalt. ‘Here comes my man.’
‘I don’t see him wearing your uniform,’ said Mercutio. ‘If you think he’s your man then you’ll find out how right you are. Lead on to the dueling field and you’ll discover that he’s your man alright.’
Romeo was out of breath when he reached them. He leant over the fountain and drank deeply.
‘Romeo,’ said Tybalt.
Romeo turned and smiled. Hi s face was dripping water.
‘There’s only one thing I have to say to you.’ Tybalt drew himself up. ‘You are a scoundrel.’ He hadn’t put his rapier away and he raised it now in a challenge, even though Romeo wasn’t wearing a sword.
‘Tybalt! ‘ said Romeo. ‘I have good reasons for excusing this behaviour of yours. But don’t call me a scoundrel. I’ll say goodbye now. It ‘s best to ignore you if you ‘re going to be like this.’ He turned back to the fountain to the accompaniment of applause from his friends and catcalls from Tybalt’s followers.
‘Boy,’ said Tybalt, and they all went quiet again. ‘This won’t excuse your insult to me. So turn and draw,’
Romeo turned and put his hand out. ‘Come on now,’ he said. ‘I’ve never insulted you: I love you more than you can imagine.’
There was applause again. But Mercutio, who had been nodding his approval until now, stopped smiling as he watched Tybalt ignore Romeo’s extended hand. He looked from the one to the other.
‘You’ll know the reason for my love very soon,’ continued Romeo. ‘And so, dear Capulet, whose name I respect as highly as my own, be patient till then.’
There was nothing Tybalt could do: if Romeo refused to take up his challenge there was nothing for it but to leave. He turned to go. Mercutio sprang up. ‘How can you let him push you around like that?’ he said. ‘Submit to him if you like but I won’t. Hey Tybalt, you rat-catcher!’ You’re not leaving! are you?’
Tybalt turned. ‘Why? What do you want?’
Mercutio drew his rapier. ‘My dear king of cats,’ he said, ‘Only one of your nine lives. I intend taking it from you and, depending on how you behave after that, beat the other eight with a stick.’ He bowed. ‘Will you be so kind as to draw your sword out of its scabbard by its ears? Hurry, if you please, or mine will be around your ears before you know it.’
Tybalt smiled. ‘Well Sir.’ He drew his sword, ‘I am for you.’
‘No,’ said Romeo as the two faced each other, their swords poised. ‘Please, please, Mercutio. Put your rapier away.’
Mercutio took up an exaggerated en garde position, which made his friends laugh. He was being absurd, as usual, but no-one was worried because they all knew that he was one of the best swordsmen in Verona. Romeo was the only one whose face showed concern.
‘Come Sir,’ said Mercutio. ‘Your passado.’ Tybalt soon realized that he wasn’t going to get anywhere with Mercutio, who was using this opportunity to demonstrate his clowning abilities rather than his fencing skills. The supporters on both sides hooted at his antics. Even Tybalt laughed when his opponent backed up to the fountain, fell in the water and emerged again, spraying them all with a jet from his mouth. Only Romeo couldn’t laugh. He seemed unusually upset. ‘Help me, Benvolio,’ he said. ‘Draw, Benvolio. Beat down their weapons.’
But Benvolio was enjoying the show: he was weak with laughter. Romeo ran in front of Mercutio. ‘Mercutio! Stop it.’ Then Tybalt. ‘Please stop.’ Then pushing Mercutio out of Tybalt’s way. ‘Stop. The Prince has forbidden this in Verona. Don’t you remember? Oh please, stop, both of you.’
A crowd had gathered and they were all laughing. Then suddenly, for no apparent reason, Tybalt froze. He stared at Mercutio for a few moments then turned and, followed by a handful of his closest friends, began walking away swiftly. Romeo’s relief was so great that he jumped at Mercutio and embraced him.
Mercutio clung to him. He had an agonized expression on his face. ‘I’m hurt.’ he said. ‘Curse both your houses.’ He clutched his side and grimaced round at the crowd. They roared. He broke away from Romeo and tottered towards the laughing faces. ‘I’ve had it.’ he told them and they laughed even louder. He swayed, his legs buckled and he fell.
Benvolio wiped a tear and, trying to bring his laughter under control, knelt beside his friend, ‘What? are you hurt?’ He grinned round at the crowd and they cheered.
‘Just a scratch,’ said Mercutio. ‘But it’s enough.’ More cheering. ‘Where’s my page?’ said Mercutio. ‘Tell him to go and get a doctor.’
Romeo noticed a small blood stain on Mercutio’s shirt, but it couldn’t be serious because of the way his friend was clowning. ‘Come on, Mercutio,’ he said, ‘The wound can’t be that bad?’
‘No,’ said Mercutio. ‘It’s not as deep as a well, nor as wide as a church door. But it’s enough: it will do.’ The crowd was clapping. Mercutio raised himself on to his elbow and saluted them. ‘Ask for me tomorrow,’ he said, ‘and you will find me a grave man.’ They fell about. Mercutio dropped back on to the ground.
Romeo knelt down and Mercutio gripped his hand, ‘I’ve had it!’ He was gasping. ‘Romeo,’ he said. ‘Curse both your houses. God, to be killed by a dog! A rat – a mouse – a cat… An arrogant poser like that. Why did you keep coming between us? He got me under your arm.’
‘I was only trying to help,’ said Romeo. Mercutio must be exaggerating. It couldn’t be that bad?
‘Benvolio,’ said Mercutio. His voice was scarcely more than a whisper. ‘Help me into the house or I’ll pass out.’
Romeo and Benvolio lifted him. Benvolio slung Mercutio’s arm over his shoulder and the two began walking to the Montague mansion. Mercutio kept falling down and getting up again. The onlookers applauded. Romeo went and sat on the fountain wall. He didn’t join in with the banter. He wasn’t sure what to think. Mercutio’s words were bitter, but then he always spoke in that way. It was a comical sight, Mercutio leaning on Benvolio and putting on a funny walk.
When they had gone some way Mercutio turned. ‘Both your houses!’ he shouted then slumped against Benvolio. ‘They’ve made worm’s meat of me,’ he whispered. ‘I’ve had it. Curse your houses.’
Benvolio helped him into the house, Romeo found himself alone as the others moved away, all the fun being over. He was sure Mercutio wasn’t badly hurt but he couldn’t dispel the thought that even if it wasn’t too bad it was his fault. Mercutio, his friend, close relative of the Prince, had got this wound on his behalf. The more he thought about it the more miserable he became.
He thought about the insults Tybalt had launched at him – Tybalt who was his cousin now. He should have answered his challenge: he had been taken off guard by Juliet ‘s beauty and gone soft – turned into a coward.
Benvolio was running towards him.
‘Oh Romeo,’ he said as he came near, ‘Mercutio’s dead’.’
Romeo felt the shock as though someone had hit him. It wasn’t true. It couldn’t be. He hadn’t been pretending. The wound had been worse than any of them had thought.
‘There’s going to be more of this,’ he said. ‘I can feel it. This is only the beginning,’
‘There’s Tybalt again,’ said Benvolio as Tybalt came out of the Capulet house. Romeo was up in a second. He pulled Benvolio’s sword out of its scabbard and dashed across the piazza.
‘Tybalt,’ he yelled. ‘You called me a scoundrel. Take it back! Mercutio’s dead and one of us will go with him.’
Tybalt stopped. His face was grim. ‘You wretched boy,’ he said. ‘You’ll be the one to go with him.’
Romeo waved the sword. ‘This will decide that,’ he said.
The fight was bitter and furious. There was no room for posturing, no time for niceties: it was a fight to the death. Both lost their rapiers during the exchange and it turned into a test of physical strength as they punched and scratched and kicked each other. Romeo came close to suffocation at one point as Tybalt got him round the neck and tried to squeeze the life out of him. But he struggled out of it and backed away. Then their friends rearmed them.
The piazza was crowded now, as what seemed like the whole of Verona watched. All the earlier humour and laughter had gone. This was a serious fight and even Benvolio didn’t try to stop it. Romeo was exhausted but he summoned up all his stamina and as soon as he saw his chance he took it – his rapier pierced Tybalt through the chest. He felt the weapon give as it passed through Tvbalt’s body and he saw Tybalt’s shirt begin to turn red. Then time seemed to stop: it was as though nothing moved. He pulled his rapier out and Tybalt fell. The fiery Capulet was dead before he touched the ground. Benvolio couldn’t take it all in. All he could think was, thank God it was Tybalt rather than Romeo, as he stared at the young Capulet, lying on his back, his eyes still open.
‘Run, Romeo!’ he shouted, ‘Don’t stand staring. It’s death if they catch you. Get going!’
‘Oh, fate has destroyed me,’ said Romeo.
‘What are you waiting for?’ said Benvolio, There was only one place Romeo could go. He took a last look around and fled. A group of guards approached Benvolio.
‘Where’s the man who killed Mercutio?’ one of them demanded. ‘Which way did Tybalt go?’
‘There he is,’ said Benvolio, pointing to the body.
‘Come with me,’ said the guard, as a trumpet fanfare sounded across the piazza.
‘I arrest you in the name of the Prince.’
Word of Mercutio’s death had spread fast. As the Prince strode into the piazza Montague’s men were bringing Mercutio’s body out. Montague and his wife accompanied them. The Capulets came out of their house too, and the four stood and faced the Prince as they had done only the day before. The guards lifted Tybalt’s body and lay it beside Mercutio’s.
‘Where are those who started this quarrel?’ said the Prince.
Benvolio sank to his knees. ‘Noble Prince, I can tell you everything. He pointed to Tybalt’s body. ‘There he is, killed by young Romeo for killing your cousin Mercutio.’
Lady Capulet fell down in the dust and kissed Tybalt’s face. ‘Oh my brother’s child!’ she wailed She looked from the Prince to her husband. ‘Oh Prince, the blood of my nephew has been spilt. I want revenge. I want the Montague’s blood. She lay her head on Tybalt’s chest. ‘Oh nephew, nephew,’ she sobbed.
The Prince’s main emotion was anger. ‘Benvolio!’ he said. ‘Who started this?’
Benvolio told the Prince how gently Romeo had spoken to Tybalt, had said he hadn’t wanted to fight, mentioned the anger the Prince would feel. And then, how Tybalt had turned on Mercutio who, just as angry, started quarreling until it came to blows. He told the Prince how Romeo had tried to stop them, how Mercutio had been wounded under his arm. It was only then, once Mercutio had been killed, that Romeo had attacked Tybalt.
‘He’s a Montague,’ cried Lady Capulet. ‘Naturally he’s biased. And he’s lying.: it wasn’t just the two of them fighting – there were at least twenty. All fighting. I want justice and you must give it to me, Prince. Romeo murdered Tybalt. Romeo must die.’
‘Romeo killed Tybalt and Tybalt killed Mercutio,’ said the Prince. ‘Who should pay the price for Tybalt’s death?’
‘Not Romeo.’ Montague was on his knees. ‘Not Romeo, Prince. He was Mercutio’s friend. He only did what the law should have done.’
‘And for that we must exile him.’ The Prince pointed at Capulet and then at Montague. ‘You’ve dragged me into your hatred now. My own cousin lies there bleeding. I’m going to fine you so heavily that you’ll be sorry for it. I’ll be deaf to all pleas and excuses so don’t even try.’ He looked at Montague. ‘I’m sick and tired of this. If I’m too lenient there’ll only be more killing. Let Romeo go immediately, else when he’s found that hour will be his last.’