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ACT I, SCENE IV
As soon as the innocent Juliet has promised to try to like Paris, we're back with Romeo. He's on his way to the Capulets' party with his friends, and he and Benvolio are trying to decide if they should give the customary speech that "masked" or uninvited guests usually give. Benvolio says no, that's old-fashioned. He just wants to get in, dance, and leave. Then, just as the Nurse stole the last scene from Juliet, Romeo's friend Mercutio steals this one from Romeo. Mercutio, like Paris, is related to the Prince, and he doesn't have to worry about gate-crashing the Capulets' party because he's been invited.
Mercutio is witty and sarcastic, and quickly becomes the center of attention. Unlike Benvolio, he isn't about to put up with Romeo's romantic mooning, and Romeo's lovesickness becomes the butt of most of his jokes. When Romeo is suddenly seized by a feeling of dread, he tries to tell Mercutio, but Mercutio turns it into a joke:
Romeo. I dreamt a dream tonight.
Then Mercutio launches into his witty speech about Queen Mab, the fairies' midwife who "delivers" dreams. This speech is very imaginative. Mercutio goes from one topic to another almost as if he's dreaming. By the middle of the speech, Mercutio is really rolling. He talks about elves and fairies and prayers. But the clever images take on an angry edge, and Mercutio starts to lose control of himself. It's ironic that Romeo, whom Mercutio has accused of being out of his senses, is the one to calm Mercutio down.
Meaning to make fun of superstitions and supernatural powers, Mercutio ends up reminding us that there are mysterious forces at work. Benvolio breaks the mood by claiming Mercutio's long-windedness will make them late, but Romeo remains behind because he has a premonition of danger. He says:
My mind misgives Some consequence yet hanging in the stars Shall bitterly begin his fearful date With this night's revels and expire the term Of a despised life, closed in my breast, By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But he that hath the steerage of my course, Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen! (I, iv, 107-13)
All of us have had unexplainable feelings of dread or uneasiness about something we're about to do. But Romeo's feeling is very strong, and very specific. He's had a dream that's made him feel that the forces unleashed this night will cause his death. Romeo has several dreams in the play, some proving more accurate than others. But both he and Juliet have reoccurring premonitions-a feeling of knowing what's going to happen-and these are always right. But now, no one else will even listen to Romeo's dream, let alone take it seriously. So he tries to push it aside, and goes on to the party.
This speech has been used as evidence for three different explanations of why Romeo and Juliet meet their tragic ends.
• Romeo says he feels "some consequence yet hanging in the stars"- is fate waiting for him to walk into its trap?
• Trying to shake off his feelings of doom, he says, "But he that hath the steerage of my course, direct my sail." Some readers feel this is an appeal to Providence-the Protestants in Elizabethan times would assume that God has the steerage of his course. Is Providence really in charge here? Does this tragedy have to happen for the good of the two families?
• Romeo concludes by saying, "Oh, lusty gentleman!" Whether he meant "lusty" in the sexual sense, or just the robust, passionate sense, Elizabethans could read this as a reason for Romeo's downfall. To them, selfless love, or love of God, was holy, and selfish love, that gratified personal passions, sinful. According to this view, Romeo's already in trouble, for he's nothing if not passionate. His lusty cohorts, likewise, could be in for a bad time.