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: Oh, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
BENVOLIO: Queen Mab, what’s she[?]
MERCUTIO: 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 spinners’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
Her traces of the smallest spider’s web, (1.4.50–62)
Mercutio relates Romeo’s dream to a visit by Queen Mab, the fairies’ midwife. Mercutio’s description of Queen Mab reveals that she is tiny and fragile and that her carriage is almost insubstantial as it is made of insect wings and spiders’ webs. Such a description suggests that the dreams Queen Mab creates in a sleeper’s mind are just as insubstantial and unreal.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
On 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, (1.4.71–75)
Mercutio continues his description of Queen Mab, the fairies’ midwife, and her nighttime activity. The dreams she brings to sleepers answer their deepest wishes: love for lovers, curtsies for courtiers, money for lawyers, and kisses for ladies. These waking desires find fulfillment in dreams but not necessarily in real life. According to Mercutio, Queen Mab fills people’s heads with things they may desire, but these things are nothing but fantasies just the same.
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 sometimes comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail
Tickling a parson’s nose as he lies asleep,
Then he dreams of another benefice. (1.4.75–82)
Mercutio’s description of Queen Mab turns darker with these words. He reveals her vindictive side, as she angrily punishes ladies with sweet candy on their breaths. And he tells how the waking wishes of the courtier and parson find fulfillment in their grasping and greedy dreams. In his words, Mercutio reveals some of the vices that men and women possess and that Queen Mab’s dreams do not always bring out the best in people.
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. (1.4.83–89)
Mercutio’s description of Queen Mab now becomes even darker, as he explains that the fairy’s power creates dreams evoking a lust for violence. Even the soldier awakens from this nightmare—a dream that, in the end, is just as unreal as all the others. Yet this violent urge, perhaps created by Mab herself, is mirrored in Verona and the young men who are all too ready to fight.
[MERCUTIO:] 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—
ROMEO: Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!
Thou talk’st of nothing.
MERCUTIO: 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[.] (1.4.89–100)
Finally, Mercutio describes Queen Mab’s mean-spirited behavior, using ugly terms such as foul, sluttish, hag, and presses (forces). Romeo, seeing that Mercutio is upset, stops him and assures him that he speaks of nothing, a statement to which Mercutio agrees. Mercutio ends by saying that, in talking about Queen Mab and dreams—whether good or bad—he is talking about frivolous, thin, unimportant things.