Saturday, 29 September 2018

O Benvolio, Benvolio, wherefore art thou, Benvolio?

One of the big things I have been concentrating on more in the last two years is characterisation in key texts. I feel spending good quality time looking, and I mean really looking, at the characters and how they are used reaps rewards. I am forever reminding students that each character is a construct and should be seen as a tool. A spanner. A hammer. A screwdriver. It just so happens they might seem, act and behave like real people. Their role in the story is important.  

Added to this, I have a soft spot for the side characters. The minor parts. I call them the easily forgotten characters. Peter in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The Porter in ‘Macbeth.’ Caroline and her husband in ‘A Christmas Carol’. They are the interesting characters for me. My classes know that I find Juliet interesting to an extent, but I find Romeo really boring. He doesn’t interest me. I don’t neglect him, but I can’t seem to get on with him.   

A sign for me of a good writer is their ability to make the smallest of characters interesting. Take Benvolio. As an actor, you might be miffed if you got Benvolio instead of Tybalt, Romeo or Mercutio, because you don’t get to fight, or even die.

 O Benvolio, Benvolio, wherefore art thou, Benvolio? We know his name means ‘good will’ and all that jazz, but there are some interesting questions to be had when we look at the character’s usage in the play. For me, there are two interesting questions:

Why do we not see Benvolio after Act 3?

Why does Shakespeare introduce new friend Balthazar in Act 5 in a role that Benvolio could have fitted in to?

This week we were exploring these two questions. 

Why does Benvolio disappear? A

fter Act 3 Scene 1, we hear nothing from him. His last words are: 

Tybalt, here slain, whom Romeo's hand did slay;
Romeo that spoke him fair, bade him bethink
How nice the quarrel was, and urged withal
Your high displeasure: all this uttered
With gentle breath, calm look, knees humbly bow'd,
Could not take truce with the unruly spleen
Of Tybalt deaf to peace, but that he tilts
With piercing steel at bold Mercutio's breast,
Who all as hot, turns deadly point to point,
And, with a martial scorn, with one hand beats
Cold death aside, and with the other sends
It back to Tybalt, whose dexterity,
Retorts it: Romeo he cries aloud,
'Hold, friends! friends, part!' and, swifter than
his tongue,
His agile arm beats down their fatal points,
And 'twixt them rushes; underneath whose arm
An envious thrust from Tybalt hit the life
Of stout Mercutio, and then Tybalt fled;
But by and by comes back to Romeo,
Who had but newly entertain'd revenge,
And to 't they go like lightning, for, ere I
Could draw to part them, was stout Tybalt slain.
And, as he fell, did Romeo turn and fly.
This is the truth, or let Benvolio die.
The character is always seen as the peacemaker and a foil for the other characters. He’s just such a ‘good’ character. Why can’t Romeo, Tybalt and Mercutio just be like Benvolio?   

I do but keep the peace: put up thy sword,
Or manage it to part these men with me.

He is a wannabe peacemaker, but he isn’t THE PEACEMAKER or even a peacemaker in the play. He is only good in name and not in action. The play’s opening conflict is resolved by Mr Shouty, the Prince, and later the Prince arrives just too late to fix things in Act 3, but he at least makes things less violent for a short period of time by banishing Romeo.  In truth, he is the closest thing to a peacemaker we have, but it is really death that is the peacemaker in the whole play. And it takes a rather large number of deaths to create peace.

A lot of study guides describe Benvolio as the ‘peacemaker’. We should be clear that he tries to pacify people and events. He doesn’t actually fix things.  

I pray thee, good Mercutio, let's retire:

The day is hot, the Capulets abroad,

And, if we meet, we shall not scape a brawl;

For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.
Then, what happens to Benvolio? His last word is ‘die’. After relaying the details of what happened to Mercutio, Tybalt and Romeo, he gives himself up to the Prince’s mercy. Does he die under the Prince’s instruction? As Romeo’s cousin, it doesn’t seem unlikely. Plus, Shakespeare isn’t going to miss an opportunity to plunder drama from a situation and place Romeo in more torment.  So, what happens to him?  

My students believe that Benvolio’s inability to live up to his name could possibly lead to his suicide. Benvolio failed in Act 1 to fix things and the fact that he failed a second time with disastrous consequences changed his outlook on things. The class suggested that his last word echoes his thoughts. He failed and so must die.  He wanted the Prince to kill him. This would leave us with yet another suicide in the play. One that takes offstage. Something that Shakespeare liked to do a fair bit in this play. Bye Mercutio. Bye Lady Montague.

Adding fuel to this theory of Benvolio’s death is Balthasar’s appearance in Act 5. A guilt ridden Benvolio could have easily informed Romeo of Juliet’s death and possibly stopped Romeo from doing anything rash. Instead, we have a new friend (and a servant) introduced at the eleventh hour. It is like Benvolio regenerates into Balthasar. Ironically, Balthasar was one of the wise men and means ‘The Lord protects the king.’  In this case, he doesn’t really protect anybody and just guides Romeo to some kind of star – stars in the shape of his death.

I believe that Benvolio’s exit represents the point of no return in the play. Benvolio was the voice of reason and his disappearance signals how all reason disappears in the play and how things start to defy reason.  A fake death. A planned meeting at the exact point Juliet wakes up. A plan masterminded by a friar nonetheless. Yes, reason has packed its bag and said it has had enough of this rubbish, and taken the kids too.  

Benvolio is a foil for Romeo.

Benvolio is the voice of reason and caution.  

Benvolio is Romeo’s very ineffective ‘good angel’ on his shoulder.

Benvolio is the most visible Montague in the play apart from Romeo.

Benvolio is the Romeo’s family.  

Benvolio is a very, very bad peacemaker.

Benvolio is led by his head, but halfway through the play he led by his heart.

‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a play about the battle between the head and the heart. Benvolio is the epitome of this battle. He is the voice of reason in the sea of emotions. Maybe he discovers in Act 3 that the heart is stronger than the head. A small character with so much depth.  So now let’s stop peddling this lie that he is a peacemaker!

There’s so much to be explored with the small characters. I’ve spent lessons exploring Edna’s silence in ‘An Inspector Calls’.

Thanks for reading,


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