Romeo, with his closest friends Mercutio and Benvolio are on their way to the house of Capulet to attend a masked party. Neither Romeo or Benvolio are invited and intend to sneak in, which is an incredibly dangerous move considering the recent flare up in the feud between the Montagues and Capulets.
After spending the first act in a state of unrequited love for Rosaline, a somewhat depressed Romeo is very reluctant to go. Benvolio spends his opening scenes with Romeo, persuading him to attend the party so that he may “examine other Beauties” and “forget to think” of Rosaline. When his attempts seem to fail: Enter Mercutio; cousin to Prince Escalus of Verona. Mercutio is of royal blood.
Mercutio, unlike his friends, is invited to the party and so you can imagine is very keen to go: “Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance”! Mercutio gently taunts Romeo, provoking him about his mood and his ideas of ‘love’: “You are a lover, borrow Cupid’s wings and soar with them above a common bound”! Finally Romeo confesses that he thinks it is unwise to attend the party because of a dream he had…
To really grasp the context of this monologue, I think it’s important to understand why Mercutio starts speaking in the first place.
Taken as a whole, the monologue may appear like a wildly impulsive rant. If we break it down, however, we can learn that although wild and certainly spontaneous, it is also a carefully constructed response to Romeo’s belief about the truth of dreams.
Romeo: I dreamt a dream tonight.
Mercutio: And so did I.
Romeo: Well, what was yours?
Mercutio: That dreamers often lie.
Romeo: In bed asleep, while they do dream things true.
Mercutio: O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you…
But before we get stuck in, let’s talk about breaking down the thoughts first.
If we break down the monologue into smaller beats and thoughts, we are able to gain real clarity on what Mercutio is saying and find key indicators into what state of mind he is in.
For this monologue, look at how many thought changes are noted. What clue does the give you about Mercutio’s character and his state of mind?
It was only through breaking it down into bite size pieces that I began to see more clearly how deftly Mercutio is able to move from one thought to another.
(You’ll note the Space between “And sleeps again” and “This is that very Mab”. This is deliberate as it is the only internal full stop in the monologue. It is perhaps an indication of the wild nature of Mercutio’s dazzling thought pattern by this point. He has barely finished one sentence before leaping onto the next idea.)
Thought Change= /
Beat Change= Space
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 atomies
Over men’s noses as they lie asleep: /
Her wagon spokes made of long spinners’ legs, /
The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers, /
Her traces, of the smallest spider web, /
Her collars, of the moonshine’s wat’ry beams, /
Her whip, of cricket’s bone, the lash, of film; /
Her wagoner, a small grey-coated gnat, /
Not half so big as a round little worm, /
Pricked 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 curtsies 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. /
Sometimes she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit; /
And sometimes comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail
Tickling a parson’s nose as ‘a lies asleep, /
Then dreams he of another benefice. /
Sometimes 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! /
Here’s Mercutio’s monologue again, translated into modern english to further your understanding of the text.
Oh, now I see Queen Mab has been with you:
She is the midwife of fairies and she comes
In shape, no bigger than a stone made of agate
On the forefinger of a councilman,
Pulled by a team of atom sized creatures
Across men’s noses as they lie asleep:
Her wagon’s spokes are made of long spiders legs,
The wagon cover is made of grasshoppers wings,
Her straps are made of the smallest spiders web,
Her creature’s collar straps are made of pale watery moonbeams,
Her whip is made from the bone a cricket and a transparent thread,
Her wagon driver is a small bug wearing a grey coat,
Not even half the size of a small round worm,
Bred from the fingers of a lazy maid.
Her carriage is an empty hazel nut,
Made by the carpenter squirrel or old larvae insect,
For as long as anyone can remember they’ve been the coach makers for fairies.
And in this royal coach she gallops, every night,
Through the brains of lovers and makes them dream of love.
Over people that go to royal court, who dream about curtsying,
Over lawyers fingers who straight away dream about making money,
Over ladies lips, who straight away dream about kissing,
But often the angry Mab infects their lips with blisters,
Because their breath has been polluted by confectionary.
Sometimes she gallops across the nose of a man who attends a royal court,
And then he dreams of seeking out some one who will pay a fee for his services.
And sometimes she comes with the tail of a pig, gifted to the Church,
Tickling the nose of a clergyman as he lies asleep,
Then he dreams of an high-paying Church position.
Sometimes she drives over a soldiers neck,
And then he dreams of cutting enemy throats,
Of holes in fortifications, ambushes, Spanish blades,
Making toasts, drinking from an extremely deep glass, and then shortly,
She drums in his ear, and immediately he wakes in shock,
And being so scared, he prays once or twice
Then falls asleep again.
This is that very same Mab
That plaits the manes of horses in the night,
And stiffens the elven-made locks in gross filthy hairs,
Which once untangled, brings a lot of bad fortune.
This is that evil spirit, when virgins lie down on their backs,
Causes them sexual nightmares and teaches them how to bear the weight of a lover,
Making them good at bearing children:
This is she-
Many of the ideas, words and phrases possess double meanings. Usually sexual with dark undertones. Examining them closely reveals aspects about Mercutio’s views on humanity, particularly women.
Queen Mab: A tiny creature. In later literature, she was known as Queen of the fairies.
Agate stone: An ornamental stone, like quartz.
Alderman: Wealthy or influential member of a local council.
Atomies: Creatures as small as atoms.
Cover: The cover of the wagon.
Traces: The straps.
Collar: The collar of the creature that is connected by the straps to the wagon.
Lash of film: Thin, transparent cord. Perhaps like a spiders web.
Gnat: A small bug or two winged fly, like a mosquito.
Lazy finger of a maid: Proverbially, Maid worms would breed in the fingers of lazy maids. Sexual connotation: Lazy women using their fingers.
Joiner: Carpenter. One who joins wood together.
Old grub: Old larvae-like insect that bores holes.
Courtiers: One who attends royal court.
Suit: A deal that one may earn money from.
Tithe-pig: A pig offering made to the Church as part of the tithe (one tenth of one’s annual earnings to support the Church).
Sweatmeats: Confectionary or candy. Sexual connotation: The sweet meat between ones legs.
Parson: A member of the clergy, a vicar.
Benefice: A Church position that entitles the recipient to income and property.
Breaches: Holes in fortifications.
Healths: Toasts, as in to ‘cheers’ some one.
Elflocks: Tangles of hair, superstitiously believed to be tangled by elves.
Foul sluttish hairs: Sexual connotation: Referring to region around female genitalia.
Hag: Evil spirit in the form of a woman.
Queen Mab is entirely Shakespeare’s invention and therefore the invention of Mercutio in the moment. He is discovering all of the thoughts and images as he says them. This is the essence of his quick wit.
The monologue is tricky because of its density of imagery and double meanings. But that is what also makes it extraordinarily enjoyable to watch or perform. I would encourage an actor to focus on one thought at a time and let the piece grow and build on itself.
Some experts have regarded Mercutio as the character that Shakespeare was writing in preparation for Hamlet. Some have noted that Shakespeare had to kill Mercutio off otherwise his energy and bravado very well may take over the rest of the play!
On the surface it may appear that Mercutio is simply a ranting lunatic. There have certainly been many portrayals of him in this light. While every interpretation is valid, for me, a maniac who rants for the sake of ranting misses the mark. I’d bet my life on it that Shakespeare wasn’t letting a character just rant for the sake of it. If you look at the context scene as a whole, there’s a very specific point that this mercurial character is making.
Mercutio uses Queen Mab as the vehicle that delivers to sleeping people, their deepest desires in the form of dreams. But all dreams, perhaps being too good to be true, must come to an end. No matter the dreamer; everyone must eventually wake to discover that they are neither a valiant hero, rich courtiers, or kissing beautiful women, but snivelling wrecks, poor and diseased or simply themselves.
Mercutio only stops himself when Romeo can’t take any more and interjects, trying to calm him down, saying: “Peace, peace good Mercutio peace. Thou talk’st of nothing. To which Mercutio replies: “True, I talk of dreams, which are the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy”.
In essence, Mercutio’s point is that dreams mean nothing – they aren’t reality. A point that he becomes desperately intent on making. We later find out that Romeo fears going to the party because he’s afraid that if he does, that he might die. Which, in a sense, turns out to be true.