The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide

By Victor L. Cahn | Go to book overview
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One of the most intriguing fronts any theatrical character can offer is cynicism. Those figures who comment derisively upon the actions and values of others can be a daunting presence, puncturing dignity and revealing hypocrisy. In real life as well, this attitude sometimes provides a certain pleasure for onlookers. Yet although Shakespeare presents several cynical figures, and although at first blush they may prove enjoyable, their cynicism is ultimately revealed to be destructive: not only to others, but also to themselves.

For instance, in Romeo and Juliet, the attitude of Mercutio contrasts with the romantic instincts of his younger friend, Romeo, who rhapsodizes about his vulnerability to love:

Is love a tender thing? It is too rough,

Too rude, too boist’rous, and it pricks like thorn.

(I, iv, 25–26)

Mercutio offers a simple solution:

If love be rough with you, be rough with love;

Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down.

(I, iv, 26–27)

He resists romance, adding that his callousness ensures that he will never be hurt. Yet his confidence has another side. Presently, in the celebrated speech that describes the adventures of Queen Mab, who inspires sleepers to dream of their greatest desires, Mercutio demonstrates his captivating wordplay:

And in this state she gallops night by night

Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;


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The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide


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