I remember the first time I fell in love. I was fourteen, a brace-faced high school freshman with a lot of enthusiasm and very few social skills. It was in English class that I found myself blindsided, abruptly and utterly, by love. He was perfect. He was smart, charismatic, witty, funny, unabashedly charming, and a good friend. I had no idea whether he was handsome or not. He was a gentleman. He knew how to swordfight and, I assumed, how to dance. I
could make my heart skip a beat – literally – by simply saying his name aloud. And what a name it was, too: Mercutio.
I should probably clarify here that by “Mercutio,” I am indeed referring to Romeo’s bold and lively comrade from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” who declaims, defames, lives, and dies in the streets of fair Verona. By “Mercutio,” I am indeed referring to a strictly fictional character. But somehow, my teenage emotions inexplicably managed to overlook this little detail. For weeks on end, I found myself captivated by Mercutio. I didn’t simply harbor affection for Mercutio as a concept, or simply appreciate aspects of his personality, or simply relish his verbal wit and commend his bravery. I was genuinely, head-over-heels in love. I imagined myself strolling arm-in-arm with a dashing Mercutio – who began, in my mind, to take on the approximate appearance of John McEnery in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film – on moonlit nights, of stealing kisses, of declaring our feelings for each other both in flowery iambic pentameter and in honest but decidedly 21st-century prose. My feelings were very, very real. Everything, every ounce of love and every romantic sentiment that I held for Mercutio was real. I still believe that, even to this day.
Months passed. I remained thoroughly in love with Mercutio for a long while, but eventually, the urgency and intensity of my feelings subsided. By the time spring arrived, I managed to make it through whole days without once thinking of Mercutio. I still read and re-read his scenes in “Romeo and Juliet” with an almost religious regularity, and I memorized his “Queen Mab” speech in a sort of homage to all that I’d once so immediately desired; I remember thinking how awfully fitting it was that I’d fallen in love with a made-up character whose longest speech in the play was all about faerie nonsense, about dreams.
Since Mercutio, I’ve made something of an unfortunate habit of falling in love with fictional people. As the years went by, characters like Sydney Carton, Cyrano de Bergerac, Neil Gaiman’s Marquis de Carabas, “Inkheart’s” Dustfinger, the suave but animated Spike Spiegel — and countless others — all swept me off my feet. I found myself in a strange position. Why, I asked myself, did I continue to fall so frequently and so hard in love with fictional people? Fictional people! It was ridiculous, I knew it was, but the trend persisted nonetheless. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’ve made a few forays into the world of actual, real-life romance, too. But even now, I, a student at a respectable university, a young woman with rights and responsibilities and goals and choices to make, still swoon primarily over people who only exist between excitedly turned pages or on eagerly viewed stages or inside tiny, glowing boxes, made of nothing more than pixels and light.
I think about the multitude of real people I know that I am very much not in love with. I think about Mercutio. I think to myself – what makes them different? What does Mercutio, and the figures like him who make my breath catch and my jaw go slack, have that others don’t?
I think – I think – I’ve figured it out. Mercutio is unafraid. Mercutio is himself. Mercutio is unafraid to be himself. More than that, Mercutio cares. And Mercutio is happy to show the whole world that he cares. He cares about Romeo, he cares about Queen Mab, he cares about dreams, he cares about his honor, he cares about being clever – and, I would argue, for all his railing against it, he cares about love. It’s easy to fall in love with a man who makes his heart so visible.
Mercutio’s first line in “Romeo and Juliet” is simple, unpretentious, even forgettable. Romeo complains of a heavy heart, and Mercutio replies, his line fitting perfectly into Shakespeare’s signature 10-syllable meter, “Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance.”
People don’t talk like that anymore. True, much of that comes down to time period and dramatic necessity, but try speaking that sentence out loud – actually try it. Can you speak those words without a certain softness coming over your face, without the faintest hint of a smile crossing your lips? I can’t. Maybe it’s just me – maybe it’s just Mercutio – but there’s something so simple, so honest, so perfect and so right about Mercutio’s first line. That this is spoken by the same man who later rages, “A plague o’ both your houses!” as he draws his final breaths does not, not even remotely, bother me. It shows Mercutio to be a man of contrasts, and doubly proves him to be a man unafraid to bare his whole soul.
Where does this leave me? At this rate, it seems pretty likely that I’ll keep pining away for Mercutio after Mercutio, and that actual romance in the real world is about as far out of my grasp as a happy ending was for Juliet and Romeo.
Even so. I suppose I’d like to end on a note of hope. I hope that, maybe, my story of unrequited love for Mercutio might open a real heart or two. True, Mercutio’s fearlessness got him into trouble sometimes, but I think everyone, every single person, can learn from him. Learn to be unafraid. Learn to be yourself. Learn to be unafraid to be yourself.
And maybe then, we can all learn to love.