There is comedy present throughout Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but what has been a typical romantic comedy until the pivotal Act III Scene 1 then rapidly descends into a tragedy. The humour is still there, but turns more to black comedy.The obvious humour is provided by the deliberately comic characters such as Mercutio and Nurse. Peter and the musicians have smaller parts but are brought in specifically for comedy. Mercutio can be described as witty or even fantastical, whereas Nurse’s personality gives us the crude and earthy comedy.
The play opens with a type of comedy but underlying it is a sense of danger and violence. Sampson and Gregory are bickering over how working is difficult and express their hatred for the Montagues through some very crude jokes about rape – “and thrust his maids to the wall”; yet it is all delivered in a comic manner. The famous line “Do you bite your thumb at us sir?” is the beginning of a comic but violent sequence of events.We can see examples of Mercutio’s comic part in such scenes as Act II Scene 1 and Act III Scene 1.
In Act II Scene 1 we have Mercutio trying to draw Romeo out to him by provoking him using elements of comedy. He tries to irritate Romeo after his fantastical “Queen Mab” speech by making rude gestures about Rosaline: “By her fine foot, straight leg, and quivering thigh, And the demesnes, that there adjacent lie,”. Benvolio comments on Mercutio’s unorthodox methods to drawing Romeo out, but Mercutio insists he is doing the right thing.
In Act II Scene 4 Nurse had been sent to seek out Romeo by Juliet and inquire about the wedding plans. When Nurse arrives she is met by Mercutio and Romeo’s rude comments, “A sail, A sail” and “A shirt and a smock” and throughout the scene, the nurse is mocked by Mercutio fiercely. When he lifts up her skirt (a very indecent thing to do) which makes the scene very comic yet Nurse, who is meant to have a comic part, is a victim of Mercutio’s cunning wit and crude humour.
Mercutio vulgarly puns “An old hare hoar, and an old hare hoar, Is very good meat in lent…”.Mercutio’s constant puns and imaginative humour can also bring out the comedy in other characters who we would not necessarily have thought would have a comic side. For example, during Act III Scene 1 we can see that Mercutio and Tybalt are ‘play fighting’.
Whilst Mercutio provokes Tybalt using witty comments and strange humour, he surprisingly brings out the comic side of Tybalt! Throughout his part in the play he also brings out the comic side of Romeo too, even though he mocks him: in fact he makes it clear Romeo is designed to be a comic hero. After they have had a comic battle of wits, Mercutio is delighted to say “Now art thou Romeo”.Nurse’s crude and earthy personality can be seen throughout the scenes in which she is with Juliet or Lady Capulet. For example, in Act I Scene 3; comments such as “A bump as big as a cock’s stone”, “I would say thou hadst suck’d wisdom from thy teat” and “Go girl, seek happy nights to happy days” are actually said in front of Lady Capulet.The nurse’s crude comments are ever present throughout the first half of Romeo and Juliet and include such unsubtle phrases as: “No less, nay bigger women grow by men.” and “Go girl, seek happy nights to happy days” in Act I Scene 3.
This scene involved Juliet and Lady Capulet having a serious conversation about her pending marriage but all seriousness is taken away by random inappropriate comments by Nurse in between sentences. Lady Capulet is very embarrassed by Nurse yet tries to hide the fact that she is even talking which adds to the comedy. Nurse actually brings out the comic personalities in Juliet and Lady Capulet here and in other scenes.
Another example is Act II Scene 5, when Nurse arrives back to Juliet after her meeting with Romeo and Mercutio. Nurse’s constant delaying of her answer to Juliet’s questions is highly amusing to the audience (if frustrating to Juliet) At one point she even replies with, “…and a kind, and a handsome, and I warrant a virtuous, where is your mother?”; this is a very off-the-wall comment which confuses the audience but is very funny. The audience notice that Juliet rarely uses comedy – she is mainly a serious character – focusing on the main aspect of the play, thus “Romeo and Juliet”.
Nurse ends the scene with an anticlimax which destroys the meaning of this scene- she tells Juliet to go and ask Friar Laurence about the terms to the marriage while she searches out a rope ladder! This destroys all of the romantic tension that had built up in the scene but replaces it with yet more humour from Nurse.The audience also laughs at certain tragic characters such as Romeo because of how Shakespeare portrays him at the beginning of the play: his pathetic, hyperbolic speeches over Rosaline. Yet it is this immaturity of character which makes us laugh that is also what makes the unconscious sonnet (Romeo and Juliet build together when they first meet in Act I Scene 5) so poignant.After the death of Mercutio and Tybalt in Act III Scene 1, the comedy is shown to be present in a different form even in a time of mourning. In Act IV Scene 1 We see Lady Capulet is talking is about Paris, whereas Juliet talking about Romeo – thus, two conversations were happening at the same time, developing a sense of ironic humour. This is comic, and is a contrast form the original Juliet, who was not at all rebellious but her love for Romeo has given her a comic side which she did not have before This is ironic, considering the stage of the play.
We notice the humour is now uncomfortable – it is solely based on audience awareness of the two conversations and double meanings; this is where we see a transition between the types of comedy in the play.The second kind of comedy in the latter half of the play is the black humour. Most of the black comedy is meant to make the audience feel uncomfortable and anxious, as we see in Act IV Scene 4 when the preparations for the wedding are underway. Everyone is happy and busy – “Come, stir, stir, stir, the second cock hath crow’d”, yet they do not know that upstairs, Juliet is in fact ‘dead’.
While there is fun and laughter downstairs, there is tragedy and sadness upstairs, and it succeeds in making the audience uncomfortable, yet there is a small element of humour because Juliet is not in fact ‘dead’. The ironic black comedy is ever present in this scene, especially when Capulet orders Nurse to wake Juliet – “Go waken Juliet, go and trim her up”.In the scene directly after that, Nurse is sent to wake Juliet, but she does not know she is dead. For twenty lines Nurse waffles on; “Sleep for a week, for the next night I warrant The County Paris hath set up his rest” – Nurse is making crude jokes to Juliet (which are indeed amusing).
But then suddenly she realises Juliet is ‘dead’, “Alas, alas, help, help, my Lady’s dead” and the comedy is at an end with Nurse genuine grief. This uncomfortable irony (Juliet previously mentioned she would rather kill herself than marry Paris) ends the Nurse’s humour and in fact, ends her part in the play. This black comedy is used for contrast and as an effect against tragedy itself.It is noticeable that comedy is in fact present through most of Romeo and Juliet, both where we would expect – times of great joy and celebration (crude and earthy humour; Mercutio’s fantastical humour and the double entendres which are ever present in the first half of the play), and in times of sorrow and pain, which turns to black, ironic humour to make the audience feel uncomfortable, and throughout the play humour is used as a foil to contrast with the violent and later tragic undertones which threaten the peace.