In the midst of Act One of Romeo and Juliet, we meet Mercutio, kinsman to the Prince, friend to Romeo, and as either impartial or important a personage to receive an invitation to the Capulet shindig. On his way to said party, with the Montague party-crashers Romeo and Benvolio in tow, in response to Romeo’s statement that his new found reason for NOT going to the party is a dream he had tonight, Mercutio cuts loose with one of the most famous speeches in the Canon:
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 forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomi
Over men's noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon spokes made of long spiders' 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 hazelnut
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 plaits 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--
Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!
Thou talk’st of nothing.
True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy;
Which is as thin of substance as the air,
And more inconstant than the wind, who woos
Even now the frozen bosom of the north,
And, being angered, puffs away from thence,
Turning his face to the dew-dropping south.
The Queen Mab speech begins with a simple statement, told in a conversational manner (“O, then I see…”). But it quickly explodes into a sixteen-line sentence in which he describes the tiny size of Mab: no bigger than the jewel in a ring, spider’s legs for wagon wheels’ spokes, a cricket’s bone for a whip, a hazel nut shell for a chariot. The length of sentence and the repetition of the syntax of description almost makes one forget the first line, the description of Mab herself. She is “the fairies’ midwife,” a woman who assists others in birth. The use of the term fairy here is interesting; while the most common meaning is “One of a class of supernatural beings of diminutive size, in popular belief supposed to possess magical powers and to have great influence for good or evil over the affairs of man”, (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]), another meaning of the time is “Enchantment, magic; a magic contrivance; an illusion, a dream” (OED). Is Mab that which allows dreams to be born?
Mercutio then goes though an eighteen-and-a-half-line sequence outlining the dreams that different kinds of people have when Mab births their dreams. Many of the character types at the beginning of the speech are allowed only one line apiece; then ladies are given three lines, courtiers two, and parsons three again. He concludes with a soldier, to whom he dedicates six and a half lines; and this is the only dreamer that wakes, wakes frightened, wakes and prays, then sleeps again (this time without dreams). Why so many lines for the soldier? Is this what Mercutio was prior to the play? Is this why he is an accomplished swordfighter?
From this point on, the speech moves from dreams to the Puck-like pranks Mab performs, like tangling the manes of horses (and for some reason, UNtangling them foretells misfortune… why?). As the subject matter turns, so too does the tone: Mab is no longer the fairies’ midwife, but the “hag” or “a woman supposed to have dealings with Satan and the infernal world; a witch” (OED).
the (rather misogynistic) linkage of midwifery and witchcraft was so pervasive that during the medieval times, the Catholic church licensed midwifes, and part of their oath was to use no magic in birthing process…
So the speech has gone from comic (description of fairies) to light (lovers and courtiers) to dark (the longer section on soldiers) to the nightmarish vision of the hag’s visitations on women in the night. The maid is on her back (sound familiar? yes, just a scene earlier the Nurse recounts a bawdy tale of Juliet as a toddler and having enough wit to fall on one’s back), and the hag “press(es) down (upon the maid) in the sexual act” (Partridge, Eric. Shakespeare’s Bawdy. New York: Routledge, 2008; page 215), like some kind of female incubus. And yes, I KNOW that the female counterpart to the incubus is the succubus, but where the succubus drains its victim, the incubus would lie upon women as they sleep to have sex with them… and this hag definitely does that, as she “learns them first to bear” (think of the Nurse’s later statement to Juliet that she will “bear the burden soon at night” (II.v.76). Once this pressing is done, the maid is of “good carriage,” which has multiple meanings: good bearing or comportment, good at having children, and good at having sex (interesting that the sentence before this references “foul sluttish” hairs…).
And here he breaks off, saying, “This is she–” but nothing follows. Romeo completes the line but it isn’t a true antilabe, as scansion shows:
\ ~ \
This is she--
~ \ ~ \-~- \
Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!
Note the awkward meter of Mercutio’s final fragment of a line; it seems to be one and a half trochaic feet. Romeo’s completion of the line is in regular iambs, however, and there is a missing syllable or beat between their speeches. This is a great clue to the actors. Many productions have Romeo interrupting Mercutio, trying to shut him up, but the scansion directs the actors to a different possibility: Mercutio cannot complete his own line, and Romeo comforts him (compare Zeffirelli’s and Luhrmann’s films which take this approach, as opposed to the BBC Complete Works series which takes the more interruptive route).
When Romeo continues, telling Mercutio that he talks of nothing, Mercutio completes Romeo’s line is a true antilabe, with both fragments forming a regularly iambic line. Mercutio then, in a rambling and seemingly inconsequential final sentence, goes on to equate dreams to empty thoughts. The purpose of the sentence may not be clear, but look at the words used: “dreams,” “idle brain,” “nothing,” “thin of substance,” “air,” “wind.”
So dreams are nothing, right?
But there’s more going on here.
Remember, “nothing” had another connotation, that of referencing the female vagina. Besides “nothing,” we also have “children” and “begot.” Suddenly, the speech takes us back to its midwife roots. In a sense Mercutio has become the midwife of our subconscious thoughts and desires. Or, to get all Freudian on you, Mercutio (from Mercury, the God of Trade) trades in the Id, turning away from what is “north”–the “idle brain” or the “frozen bosom” (or heart)–to something more below the belt… not just “south,” but “the dew-dropping south.”
It’s a tough speech. And it can be a literal show-stopper (and not in a good way). So, how to present it? As improvisation? As remembrance of another’s speech? What is Mercutio’s state of mind as he moves through it?
I don’t know… there are so many different ways to go…