[LMB] Mercutio and Tybalt OT:

John Lennard john.c.lennard at gmail.com
Wed Jan 12 14:08:59 GMT 2022

Pouncer: So for nearly 60 years I've been noticing the R&J and MSND
without being instructed in the business side of the theatrical
"release" ... Education in my country *sucks*, y'know?

ANYHOW, so with the extradiegetic/Doylist knowledge of which of
the King's Men originally played the role, and assuming he played
the character close to his own age* -- how old was Mercutio? And
is it fair to guess that Tybalt is, for various reasons,
significantly older than Romeo -- and relatively close in age to

*  How good is the assumption that the character is near the
player's age?  Given that half the time the character is not
the player's SEX, I mean.  There is a funny scene in the
BBC comedy "Upstart Crow" where Burbage and Condell are
playing R & J -- WAY too late in life.

John [rolls up sleeves]: Let's take the last question first -- the age of
actors in relation to roles played. Same-age, same-sex casting is a
phenomenon generated by cinema and TV, which use close-ups, and spread to
theatre because actors' and directors' eyes and minds are now trained by
cameras too. Currently, the first major Shax role a male actor will be
offered is Romeo, the last King Lear. But in the early C18 Betterton last
played Romeo when 71, IIRC, and a few decades later Garrick first played
King Lear at 24. Think opera now, where casting is for voice, not age or
plausibility of appearance ; or consider that if Burbage created both
Hamlet and Lear, he did so at most six years apart, and would have been
about 33 when he played Hamlet and 39 when he played Lear (with Othello,
Angelo, Macbeth, and perhaps Troilus in-between).

So for Shax there was no intrinsic or inherent link between an actor's age
and that of a role played, with one putative exception. Older female roles
are scarce in the mid-canon: before 1594 there are some in the first
tetralogy (Queen Margaret, most obviously), but once the Lord Chamberlain's
Men are up and running, from 1594, there's the Nurse in ROM and really not
a lot more with the fascinating exception/s of Beatrice, clearly older than
Hero and possessed of a history with Benedick, and perhaps the Princess in
LLL. The other heroines seem, like Juliet, clearly teenage -- Sylvia and
Julia, Lavinia, Helena and Hermia, Portia and Nerissa, Rosalind and Celia,
Cressida, Ophelia, Desdemona: no reason to think any of them much above 16,
if that -- so one might say that while being played by pre-pubescent boys
did not make them at all masculine, it did tend to keep them young. But in
the later career there is a striking run of older female roles -- Lady Mac,
Goneril, the Countess in AWW, Cleopatra, Volumnia, Thaisa, Hermione : the
career 9-15 of a single boy who could for whatever reason perform 'older'
well? It seems at least plausible as an explanation, and there isn't much
of any alternative that anyone's come up with.

So there is no historical basis for assigning any particular age to
Mercutio or Tybalt. We don't know who created the roles (though we have a
limited pool of possibles in company members), and there is no explicit or
compelling internal evidence (as there is for Juliet and Hamlet). It's fair
to guess as seems good to one's take on things, but it remains a guess.
They could be older, but one could counter that Romeo, Mercutio, and
Benvolio seem to come as a trio and more closely resemble a group of
schoolmates than two younglings and an older mentor ; and if Tybalt is
older, he hasn't learned anger management. Where one does have a clearly
older/younger male pair, as with Benedick and Claudio, that sort of thing
is shown -- which one could contend it is between Romeo and Mercutio ; but
then what of Benvolio (before he oddly disappears)? Pay your money and make
your choice.

On the season-pairs, that's mostly me because I too am fed up with editors
and critics not dealing with it. Shax became a sharer in his company in
1594, meaning he then had a say in scheduling and casting ; and he swiftly
embarked on his most ambitious theatrical structure, the second tetralogy,
R2, 1 & 2 H4, H5, 1595/6-99, steering it from almost pure tragedy to the
comedic ending of Henry V's marriage. And on either side one finds pairs of
comedy/tragedy which are (so far as we can tell) very close in date -- ROM
and MND, HAM and TN. I call them season-pairs, plays that ran in close
juxtaposition, probably with additional links in thematic cross-casting,
and see them as further parts of the man's career-long restless exploration
of how to fuse tragedy and comedy -- not into a mixture, but into a
compound with properties as distinct from either component as salt from
sodium and chlorine. With the company involved, one also has to look to
what else they were doing, and late in the career The Tempest and Jonson's
The Alchemist are another probable season-pair.

HAM and TN are a subtler pair -- think mismourners (too little, like
Gertrude, too much, like Olivia), brothers and sisters and drowning (Viola
& Sebastian, Laertes & Ophelia), odd couples (Sir Toby & Sir Andrew,
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), and revenging fools (Feste, Hamlet in his
antic disposition), with prating older men of dubious authority who are
wrongly victimised (Malvolio, Polonius) ; and add thematic casting to link
them, as the fat + thin odd couple who played Sir Toby and Sir Andrew very
probably played Ros and Guil. (Thin one was probably a man called
Sinclair.) It's even possible, if Burbage created Claudius (a very
substantial role related to the English kings we believe he created during
the 1590s), that Armin created Hamlet, as he very probably created Feste.
Line the plays up like this, let them talk, and they do all sorts of really
interesting mutual interrogation.

ROM and MND are an earlier, maybe first, attempt, and less subtle : the
Queen Mab speech stands out as unlike anything else in ROM, and the closest
link in MND is also discrete, the inset performance of Pyramus & Thisbe.
Structures also diverge, ROM being very bipolar (though Laurence is in the
middle) and MND tripolar (court + lovers, mechanicals, fairies). But one
can still say that what happens in ROM is the result of inflexibility, and
what is averted in MND is so because the Duke relents when he gets into the
woods, and those laws he was so adamant in act 1 about not being able to
extenuate go out the window ; the sharpest contrast is between the
grieving, pointless decision to memorialise R&J in golden statues, and the
six newlyweds giggling at the terrible performance of P&T, which
memorialises a pair of suicidal teenagers just like R&J, before retiring to
their marriage-beds with fairy blessings on their children-to-be. Underline
in performances by the same actors, and seeing them back-to-back ... well,
I've never had the chance, but I reckon you'd know that you'd been tangoed.

The underlying condition driving such multi-play thinking is cut-throat
competition : a theatre that could hold up to 3,000 in a city with a total
permanent population under 200,000 ; and several other theatres on offer,
plus bear-baiting and whatever ... and now feed in the frequency and
duration of plague closures, when you still have to live but have no
box-office income ... so when you can play, you need an edge, and a *lot*
of repeat business, meaning good word of mouth, and whatever publicity you
can generate. Plays could not be less than a free-standing afternoon's
entertainment, but you had to try to make them more. Events like the
so-called Poetomachia (War of the Poets) of 1599-1601 can also be seen as
fairly put-up jobs ; so too, say, the supposed and dramatised 'theft' by
the (then) King's Men of Marston's *The Malcontent* in 1604. And pair
plays, from Tamburlaine to Henry IV to Chapman's Byron plays : get hooked
and ... heeere's a sequel.

Business- and publicity-wise, there's also publishing to consider. Shax
rewrote four anonymous plays that originally belonged (in the 1580s-early
90s) to the Queen's Men : *The Troublesome Raigne of King Iohn*, *The
Famous Victories of Henry V*, *The True Tragedy of Richard III*, and *The
True Chronicle History of King Leir*. Troublesome Raign was printed in
1591, and Shakespeare's King John was not printed until it appeared in F in
1623 ; but the others show a very suggestive pattern:

True Tragedy - printed 1594 ; Shax's R3 first acted c.1594, printed 1597
Famous Victories - printed 1598 ; Shax's H5 first acted c.1599, printed 1600
King Leir -- printed 1605 ; Shax's King Lear first acted 1606, printed 1608

Or, disseminate the old version in print, perhaps with a stage revival, so
when Shax turns everything on its head in his version, the shock is
magnified. Put another way, the bleakness of King Lear is greatly increased
if one is familiar with King Leir, where everything works out nicely ; so
Shax and his company, being sensible people, made sure auditors had every
chance to be so familiar. Plus, you could get a cut of sales of the old
play, and then sell folk the new one that just whacked them upside their

[rolls down sleeves]

More on all this in the first book in my sig -- ;-) And I'll add that if
any listee can demonstrate to me that they have bought the currently
available 1/e (which as a reflowable has endnotes), I'm happy to supply
them with a PDF of the as yet unpublished 2/e (which has footnotes, as well
as substantial additions).

John Lennard, MA DPhil. (Oxon.), MA (WU)

Associate Member, Hughes Hall, Cambridge
Independent Scholar

*Mock-Death in Shakespeare's Plays*
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