top of page
The Shakespeare Tarot - Mercutio

8 of Staffs - Mercutio

Dramatis Personae: Mercutio.

Roman à clef : Christopher Marlowe.

Text & Context: Mercutio is mercurial. His jokes are fast and lewd. His allegiance is to himself and his friends. His death, contributed to by Romeo's rash involvement, marks the play's turn from comedy to tragedy.


 In the source for Romeo & Juliet, Giulietta e Romeo, Mercutio was a romantic rival for Juliet. In Shakespeare's hands he becomes something quite other. Being neither a Montague nor a Capulet, he is one of the few characters who can mingle freely between either house. More, he stands counter to Romeo's world of romantic heterosexual love, maintaining allegiance to the bonds of adolescent male friendship, known in the animal world as bachelor herds. 

 In his Hero and Leander, Christopher Marlowe likened himself to the god Mercury. Here, Mercutio is likened to Christopher Marlowe, known for his mighty line and who himself was murdered in a violent stabbing. Shakespeare and Marlowe worked together, and each was an influence on the other. He was, along with Shakespeare, reputed to be a sodomite, atheist, and member of the School of Night. A double agent for Francis Walshingham's intelligence service, Marlowe was arrested in the Netherlands for his involvement in counterfeiting coins. He was sent for questioning to Lord Burghley, who released him without charge.

Mercutio: You gave us the counterfeit fairly last night.

Romeo: What counterfeit did I give you?

Mercutio: The slip, sir, the slip; can you not conceive?

 A "slip" is a counterfeit coin; the first recorded use of the word is in 1593, the year of Marlowe's arrest, by playwright Robert Greene, who criticized Marlowe for having studied "Machiavellian policy". The next documented use of the word is in the year of Marlowe's death, 1594, by Shakespeare's Moth and "young Juvenal" Thomas Nashe, in The Unfortunate Traveler. Dedicated to Southampton, the work contains this epitaph to Marlowe, but could as easily stand as epitaph to Mercutio -

 It was one of the wittiest knaves that ever God made. If out of so base a thing as ink there may be extracted a spirit, he writ with naught but the spirit of ink, and his style was the spirituality of art’s, and nothing else, whereas all others of his age were but the lay temporality of ink-horn terms. For indeed they were mere temporizers, and no better. His pen was sharp-pointed like a poniard; no leaf he wrote on but was like a burning glass to set on fire all his readers. With more than musket shot did he charge his quill, where he meant to inveigh. No hour but sent a whole legion of devils into some herd of swine or other. If Martial had ten muses (as he saith of himself) when he but tasted a cup of wine, he had ten score when he determined to tyrannize; ne’er a line of his but was able to make a man drunken with admiration. His sight pierced like lightning into the entrails of all abuses. It is sufficient that learning he had, and a conceit exceeding all learning, to quintessence everything which he heard. He was no timorous servile flatterer of the commonwealth wherein he lived. His tongue & his invention were forborne; what they thought, they would confidently utter. Princes he spared not, that in the least point transgressed. His life he contemned in comparison of the liberty of speech.

 Nashe is speaking here of a character called Aretine, a Machiavellian, who is later remanded for passing counterfeit coins. The name Aretine references the poet Arentino, whose scurrilous and explicit sexual sonnets were illustrated by Giulio Romano. Appropriate to Marlowe, who it is claimed declared, "All they that love not Tobacco and Boys are fools", the incidence of bawdry are higher in Mercutio than any other character in Shakespeare. He is the wittiest character in the play, and he uses his wit to divide love from sex. In this sense, he is the unspoken antagonist to Juliet.

 The 8 of Sticks is a card of quick silvery brilliance, trickery, covert messages. In Petowe's eulogy to Marlowe, Mercury's harsh lament is introduced:


Apollo's lute bereaved of silver string

 fond Mercury doth harshly gin to sing,

a counterfeit unto his honey note.


 Because of his outspoken views on religion and sexuality, and his work for the Queen's secret service, Marlowe made himself a target.

If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark. 
Now will he sit under a medlar tree, 
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit 
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone. 
Romeo, that she were, O, that she were 
An open et caetera, thou a poperin pear! 

Intertext: The Lovers VI Romeo & Juliet.

bottom of page