Paging Benvolio

Ah, yes. Benvolio. A key player in Romeo and Juliet.

The name itself is symbolic: “good will” (as opposed to Malvolio in Twelfth Night). And the name fits. His first action in the play is an attempt to stop the brawl in the opening scene, with the statement “Part, fools! // Put up your swords.  You know not what you do” (62-63). If the action of stopping violence isn’t enough, then his words are, a direct reference to Christ on the cross: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

He is a good friend to Romeo, attempting to bring him out of his depression in Act One, and protecting him from Mercutio’s raw commentary in Act Two, Scene One.

He tries to avoid the brawl in Act Three, Scene One, first by suggesting to Mercutio to leave the streets as “the Capels are abroad” (III.i.2), and then by imploring both Tybalt and Mercutio to take their argument out of the “public haunt of men” (III.i.49).

He gives accurate accounts of the Act One and Act Three brawls to the Prince.

All of this makes him a good guy, right?

Yes. But like the best of Shakespearean characters, he’s no one-dimensional saint (instead a perfect representation of Friar Laurence’s depiction of man: “Two such opposed kings encamp them still // In man as well as herbs, grace and rude will” [II.iii.27-28]).

Consider:

  • Mercutio’s depiction of him as a hotheaded fighter (“Come, come, thou art as hot a Jack in thy mood…” [III.i.10]); now this might just be Mercutio spewing verbally, but he spewage often needs a catalyst, and there is none here
  • Benvolio’s quick and easy decision to crash the Capulet party, with seemingly no regard for the feud
  • Benvolio’s questionable grasp of details in his reportage of the Act Three brawl:
    • He claims Tybalt “began this bloody fray” (III.i.150), but this is only true from a particular perspective: while Tybalt entered looking to start a fight, it is Mercutio who draws first and challenges, “Tybalt, you ratcatcher, will you walk?” (III.i.74)…
    • He claims it was Tybalt who first drew first (“tilts // With piercing steel at bold Mercutio’s breast” [III.i.157-158] while Mercutio only then “turns deadly point to point” [III.i.159]), when–as we noted above–it is Mercutio that draws first

It is this dubious reportage that makes Benvolio’s oath “This is the truth, or let Benvolio die” (III.i.174) symbolically prophetic. These are the last words he speaks, this is the last we see him or even hear of him. Is his reportage untrue enough that guilt over the lie (and over the betrayal of his own good will) forces him to leave town, rendering him for all intents and purposes dead within the play?

He simply vanishes from the play, with no explanation.  Good will, and any chance for a happy ending, disappears, and we’re left with a death spiral for the remainder of the play.

I directed the play back in the 90’s, and our intermission took place just after the Prince announces Romeo’s banishment. We worked on a stage without a curtain, so during intermission, I had the Nurse cleaning up the bloody mess that was Tybalt, while Benvolio could be seen leaving town. Even without spoken dialogue from either character, I felt this moment was crucial to both of them: neither character is the same after that point… Benvolio is gone, and the Nurse forever changed (but more on that later in the month).

It is interesting to note, however, that in the “Bad Quarto” of 1597, Montague announces not only the death of his wife in Act Five, Scene Three, but also the death of Benvolio. But for subsequent printings, his death is removed. Could it be that having Benvolio die would ruin the symmetry of death in Romeo and Juliet, and THAT‘s why Shakespeare removed it?

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