Who is Queen Mab?
Mab is the queen of the fairies, a figure deeply rooted in English folklore. She is not a character in Shakespeare’s plays but is famous within his works because she is mentioned in Romeo and Juliet, as the subject of a speech by Romeo’s friend, Mercutio.
In English folklore Queen Mab is a mischief-making fairy who, unlike most other fairies, is not malevolent, but although she may be annoying, she makes mischief in a friendly, playful way most of the time. She is mentioned by several other writers from Michael Drayton in his mock-epic poem about fairies, Nymphidia, to Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick, John Milton, and later, the romantic poet, Shelley, in his major poem, Queen Mab.
Shakespeare took this tradition of Mab, Queen of the fairies, and evolved her to become Titania, the fairy queen as a major character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Queen Mab in Romeo & Juliet
In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is making himself miserable over a young woman, Rosaline, whom he has seen and, without having ever spoken to her, and she not even knowing of his existence, has fallen in love with her. He’s been paralysed by a common teenage affliction – lovesickness – and he can’t shake it off, even though his friends are making fun of him. He and his friends have intercepted a messenger with a list of people to be invited to a party at the Capulet house. Romeo, a Montague – a family feuding with the Capulets – has not been invited. Romeo sees that Rosaline’s name is on the list and he and his friends decide to gatecrash the party.
As they approach Capulet’s house Romeo’s friends continue to make fun of him about his moping, lovesick behaviour, brought on by his obsession with Rosaline and the dreams he is having about her. Mercutio tells him that the mischief-making Queen Mab has been infecting his dreams and that’s the cause of his affliction. “Oh, then,” he says, “I see Queen Mab hath been with you,” and he launches into a description of the legendary Queen Mab and how she operates to affect people’s dreams.
According to Mercutio Queen Mab is a tiny fairy who travels in an empty hazelnut shell, which she uses as a carriage, with spider’s legs for wheel spokes, driven by a grey-coated gnat and drawn by a team of tiny atoms. In her coach, she rides over the lips and noses of sleepers and fills their dreams with wild fantasies. If she’s in a foul mood she’s quite capable of creating venereal diseases for women who are dreaming of soft kisses. She can also induce innocent young virgins to have lascivious dreams.
But Queen Mab is very very small, in relation to the human world, and everything around her is tiny. Mercutio makes this point throughout. He’s suggesting that Romeo is being an idiot – all teenage boys experience this lovesickness and it’s nothing. It’s a minor issue, not even worth commenting on really. Rosaline is irrelevant. And of course, that proves to be true, as Romeo is very soon to meet Juliet, and to have the same response as he’s had to Rosaline. But in this case the young woman responds and it develops into something significant, and into a full-blown tragedy.
Queen Mab does not have a dramatic role in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, which could have functioned perfectly effectively without Mercutio’s speech, but it serves to underline Romeo’s immaturity in the context of relationships– a typical characteristic in a teenage boy. During the course of the play Romeo faces several challenges and experiences that force him to grow up, and we see that by the time of his death he has matured significantly.
Queen Mab Speech
Mercutio’s speech about Queen Mab is delivered in Act 1, Scene 4 of Romeo & Juliet. Here is Shakespeare’s original text of the Queen Mab speech:
O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on court’sies straight,
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees,
O’er ladies ‘ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are:
Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail
Tickling a parson’s nose as a’ lies asleep,
Then dreams, he of another benefice:
Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five-fathom deep; and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,
And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plats the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes:
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage.