Wednesday, March 31, 2010

On Queen Mab

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
One the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomi
Over men’s noses as they lie asleep. (1.4.58-63)
I love Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech. It is quite multilayered. Mercutio lays a clever rhetorical trap for a despondent Romeo who falls right into his snare. Remember that Romeo is reluctant to go the masquerade because of his melancholy disposition over his unrequited love for Rosaline. He pleads to Mercutio “But ‘tis no wit to go. I dreamt a dream tonight” (1.4.51,53). Mercutio responds to his friend’s excuse with a rant about a fairy midwife who fulfills the inner desires of dreamers, as she rides across their sleeping bodies in her miniature fantastical carriage.

Romeo grows tired of the unending ramblings of his friend “Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace. / Thou talk’st of nothing” (101-102). This is exactly the response that Mercutio anticipated; he seizes upon his friend’s frustration with his absurd lecture on Queen Mab to agree with him “True, I talk of dreams, / Which are the children of an idle brain, Begot of nothing but vain fantasy” (103-105). Romeo has thus disproved his only remaining excuse to go to the party. If dreams are so ludicrous, then you cannot use them as a rationalization for not hanging out with your friends at the masquerade. Brilliant!

The Queen Mab speech is also a delightful celebration and critique of the innermost yearnings of the various social echelons of medieval Verona and Elizabethan England. Virtuous women dream of courtiers, kisses, and love, while promiscuous harlots receive fever blisters from too much exposure to “sweetmeats” (81). Lawyers and priests seem preoccupied with fees and financial advancement. These might as well be timeless maxims, especially with respect to lawyers! Meanwhile, mercenaries fantasize about killing their fellow men in bloody battle. Mercutio seems to be asserting that our dreams don’t direct us; rather, we direct our dreams. Nothing is written in stone then. We make our own destiny, he seems to be saying to Romeo.

This is all very ironic, for the play suggests the opposite: It is Romeo’s “star-crossed” (Prologue, 6) destiny from the outset to die, and his anxiety over dreams seems unconsciously to point to this very real fatalistic outcome. The scene does end after all with a rather ominous tone given that he is about to meet the love of his life “My mind misgives / Some consequence yet hanging in the stars / Shall bitterly begin his feaful date…some vile forfeit of untimely death” (113-118). Shakespeare seems to have adopted a rather Boethian impulse with this speech. On the one hand, dreams can and sometimes do carry a real meaning that we should try to decipher in order to help us live our lives in accordance with God’s will (Romeo’s initial view). However, dreams can and do sometimes carry no significance, or are reducible to our innermost subconscious desires (Mercutio’s Queen Mab) rather than some providential design. All of this discussion is reinforced by the fact that Romeo’s subsequent attendance at the party and encounter with Juliet points to the truth of both his own bleak premonition (Juliet is a Capulet and thus a real romantic risk that could result in death) and Mercutio’s encouragement to live life on your own terms (Romeo does immediately fall in love with Juliet and pursues her through on his own accord).

So, what conclusions can we draw from the Queen Mab speech? We shouldn’t live in fear of dreams and let them rule our lives, or we risk missing out on some of the most essential experiences of life (e.g. love); neither should we ignore the possible import of dreams, or we risk living impulsively in a brash, imprudent manner that has the potential to be destructive (e.g. untimely death). The best course to take with dreams is to be receptive to a wide range of possible and plausible meanings, but to be wary of projecting meaning into them or in searching for meanings that are untenable or simply not present. The Queen Mab speech and the larger tragedy point to the complexity of dreams.

It is no accident that Queen Mab is a midwife, for dreams do constitute a kind of birth or genesis of the heart’s longings. The difficulty lies in understanding these subconscious creations as we make our way in life. We all struggle to forge our own paths even as we try to discern God’s will as well. Sometimes our choices and God’s sync up (“Thy will be done”), other times they diverge as we take our own course rather than listening to his voice. The final litmus test, then, with respect to dreams is to ask whether these imaginative creations come from God, us, or something more sinister. It is never an easy task to determine the origin and meaning of these strange visions, hence the seeming and sometimes genuine absurdity of Queen Mab.


  1. It's always interesting to me, Shakespearean characters caught between fate and free will, portents and "noise."

    I tend to view Shakespeare as the first crawling towards a more "modern" mindset (which I don't really view as a positive thing), but was there ever a time when the characters were truly able to shrug of their stars, birth, or station? I know Shakespeare always played with it, but did he ever let anyone break free?

  2. That's a great question! I've given it some thought and one character stands out as having lived life on his own terms: Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V.

    As a gluttonous rogue consorting with Prince Hal, Falstaff seems to meet your criteria of shrugging of his stars, birth, and/or station to achieve his own perverse designs. He lies, cheats, and steals, and he manages to worm his way out of death again and again.

    At one point on the battlefied, he actually feigns his own death in order to avoid fighting and then stabs a dead body to claim glory for a false heroism. He is the epitome of cowardice and cunning, and yet there is something laughable, even lovable, about him.

    He's also quite philosophical at times, poking fun at the culture of his day. In this way, he seems a marvelous precursor to John Kennedy Toole's Ignatius Reilly, another fat faux-knight intellectual who bumbles his way through life in New Orleans. I highly recommend his novel by the way, A Confederacy of Dunces. Have you ever read it?

  3. That's a cool idea. I remember now the controversy of Falstaff's deathbed; whether he repented or cried out in terror. I don't know if it was a "judge for yourself" moment, or if it was just a comedic aside, or what.

    And, yep, I've read Confederacy of Dunces. I thought it was really funny, especially the whole "Wall of Catholicism" that Ignatius had. I'd never name names, but I've definitely met some people who wall themselves away from the world with the history of the Church.