About this sculpture.* Photograph Michael Best.

Queen Mab, the Queen of the fairies invoked by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, seems at first to be as whimsical as Moth and Mustardseed in A Midsummer Night's Dream, as her coach and attendants are described. But the tone darkens as the dreams she inspires in those sleeping become progressively more illustrative of hidden, unpleasant realities: bad breath*, bribery* at Court, greed in the Church*, war*, lust*. . . No wonder Romeo breaks in and urges "Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!" (1.4.95).

Queen Mab gallops

O'er ladies' lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breath with sweetmeats tainted are.
(1.4.74-6)

Sweet confections were used to cover up the bad breath caused by teeth rotting from too much sugar in the diet.

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Sometime she gallops o'er a courtier's nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit.
(1.4.77-78)

Courtiers habitually took bribes to use their influence with those higher up.

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Mab tickles the nose of a sleeping clergyman with the tail of a "tithe pig"--one given as part of the tenth that was due to the Church; he then dreams of having the income from another parish (see 1.4.79-81).

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Like the rest of the speech, the soldier's dream of war starts with the positive (winning battles and drinking), then moves to the terrors (see 1.4.82-88). More on the technology of war.

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Mab becomes the origin of erotic dreams in young maidens (1.4.92-94). That Mercutio focusses on young women rather than young men is typical of many of Shakespeare's male heroes.

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It is perhaps no accident that the movement from light to dark mirrors the movement of the play as a whole.

The complete passage...*

Mercutio: 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 waggon-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 waggoner 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:
This is she--

Romeo: Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!
Thou talk'st of nothing.

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Footnotes

  1. Bad breath

    Queen Mab gallops

    O'er ladies' lips, who straight on kisses dream,
    Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
    Because their breath with sweetmeats tainted are.
    (1.4.74-6)

    Sweet confections were used to cover up the bad breath caused by teeth rotting from too much sugar in the diet.

  2. Courtiers' dreams

    Sometime she gallops o'er a courtier's nose,
    And then dreams he of smelling out a suit.
    (1.4.77-78)

    Courtiers habitually took bribes to use their influence with those higher up.

  3. Dreaming of pigs

    Mab tickles the nose of a sleeping clergyman with the tail of a "tithe pig"--one given as part of the tenth that was due to the Church; he then dreams of having the income from another parish (see 1.4.79-81).

  4. From fantasy to nightmare

    Like the rest of the speech, the soldier's dream of war starts with the positive (winning battles and drinking), then moves to the terrors (see 1.4.82-88). More on the technology of war.

  5. Erotic dreaming

    Mab becomes the origin of erotic dreams in young maidens (1.4.92-94). That Mercutio focusses on young women rather than young men is typical of many of Shakespeare's male heroes.

  6. The whole speech

    Mercutio: 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 waggon-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 waggoner 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:
    This is she--

    Romeo: Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!
    Thou talk'st of nothing.