Essays by Alice Meynell
By Alice Meynell

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Harlequin Mercutio

The first time that Mercutio fell upon the English stage, there fell with him a gay and hardly human figure; it fell, perhaps finally, for English drama. That manner of man–Arlecchino, or Harlequin– had outlived his playmates, Pantaleone, Brighella, Colombina, and the Clown. A little of Pantaleone survives in old Capulet, a little in the father of the Shrew, but the life of Mercutio in the one play, and of the subordinate Tranio in the other, is less quickly spent, less easily put out, than the smouldering of the old man. Arlecchino frolics in and out of the tragedy and comedy of Shakespeare, until he thus dies in his lightest, his brightest, his most vital shape.

Arlecchino, the tricksy and shifty spirit, the contriver, the busybody, the trusty rogue, the wonder-worker, the man in disguise, the mercurial one, lives on buoyantly in France to the age of Moliere. He is officious and efficacious in the skin of Mascarille and Ergaste and Scapin; but he tends to be a lacquey, with a reference rather to Antiquity and the Latin comedy than to the Middle Ages, as on the English stage his mere memory survives differently to a later age in the person of “Charles, his friend." What convinces me that he virtually died with Mercutio is chiefly this–that this comrade of Romeo’s lives so keenly as to be fully capable of the death that he takes at Tybalt’s sword-point; he lived indeed, he dies indeed. Another thing that marks the close of a career of ages is his loss of his long customary good luck. Who ever heard of Arlecchino unfortunate before, at fault with his sword-play, overtaken by tragedy? His time had surely come. The gay companion was to bleed; Tybalt’s sword had made a way. ’Twas not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but it served.

Some confusion comes to pass among the typical figures of the primitive Italian play, because Harlequin, on that conventional little stage of the past, has a hero’s place, whereas when he interferes in human affairs he is only the auxiliary. He might be lover and bridegroom on the primitive stage, in the comedy of these few and unaltered types; but when Pantaloon, Clown, and Harlequin play with really human beings, then Harlequin can be no more than a friend of the hero, the friend of the bridegroom. The five figures of the old stage dance attendance; they play around the business of those who have the dignity of mortality; they, poor immortals–a clown who does not die, a pantaloon never far from death, who yet does not die, a Columbine who never attains Desdemona’s death of innocence or Juliet’s death of rectitude and passion–flit in the backward places of the stage.

Ariel fulfils his office, and is not of one kind with those he serves. Is there a memory of Harlequin in that delicate figure? Something of the subservient immortality, of the light indignity, proper to Pantaleone, Brighella, Arlecchino, Colombina, and the Clown, hovers away from the stage when Ariel is released from the trouble of human things.

Immortality, did I say? It was immortality until Mercutio fell. And if some claim be made to it still because Harlequin has transformed so many scenes for the pleasure of so many thousand children, since Mercutio died, I must reply that our modern Harlequin is no more than a marionnette; he has returned whence he came. A man may play him, but he is–as he was first of all–a doll. From doll-hood Arlecchino took life, and, so promoted, flitted through a thousand comedies, only to be again what he first was; save that, as once a doll played the man, so now a man plays the doll. It is but a memory of Arlecchino that our children see, a poor statue or image endowed with mobility rather than with life.

With Mercutio, vanished the light heart that had given to the serious ages of the world an hour’s refuge from the unforgotten burden of responsible conscience; the light heart assumed, borrowed, made dramatically the spectator’s own. We are not serious now, and no heart now is quite light, even for an hour.


Ceres’ Runaway  •  Wells  •  Rain  •  The Tow Path  •  The Tethered Constellations  •  Rushes and Reeds  •  A Northern Fancy  •  Pathos  •  Anima Pellegrina!  •  A Point of Biography  •  The Honours of Mortality  •  Composure  •  The Little Language  •  A Counterchange  •  Harlequin Mercutio  •  Laughter  •  The Rhythm of Life  •  Domus Angusta  •  Innocence and Experience  •  The Hours of Sleep  •  Solitude  •  Decivilized  •  The Spirit of Place  •  Popular Burlesque  •  Have Patience, Little Saint  •  At Monastery Gates  •  The Sea Wall  •  Tithonus  •  Symmetry and Incident  •  The Plaid  •  The Flower  •  Unstable Equilibrium  •  Victorian Caricature  •  The Point of Honour  •  The Colour of Life  •  The Horizon  •  In July  •  Cloud  •  Shadows  •  The Seventeenth Century  •  Mrs. Dingley  •  Prue  •  Mrs. Johnson  •  Madame Roland  •  Fellow Travellers With a Bird  •  The Child of Tumult  •  The Child of Subsiding Tumult  •  The Unready  •  That Pretty Person  •  Under the Early Stars  •  The Illusion of Historic Time  •  Footnotes

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