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What do the characters of Benvolio and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet symbolize, if anything? Mercutio's character mainly provides jokes, and then, in his hot-headedness, is slain by Tybalt.

Benvolio at first tries to take Romeo's mind of Rosaline, and then tries to stop the violence between first Tybalt and Mercutio with Romeo, and then between Romeo and Tybalt. He then, after Romeo kills Tybalt, reports to the Prince of Venice what happened.

Do these two characters have any special meaning, represent any quality in particular, or represent some person from Shakespeare's time that members of the audience would have recognized?

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The names of these two characters, which are introduced in actual spoken lines (not just speech prefixes or Dramatis Personae) within the first two scenes, would largely have answered this question for an Elizabethan audience. Benvolio is Italian for I mean well—cf. the word benevolent. Mercutio is the prime example of the mercurial temperament in John Draper’s The Humors & Shakespeare’s Characters (Duke UP 1945, rpt. AMS 1965). A mercurial temperament is an unstable one in which each of the four humors prevails by turns.

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