O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies` mid-wife, 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 wagon-spokes made of long spinner`s 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 hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o` mind the fairies` coach makers.
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`s fingers, who straight dream on fees,
O`er, ladies o` 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 courtiers` nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
And sometime comes she with a tithe-pigs`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 –
~~ William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet ~~
Shakespeare`s reference to Queen Mab, well known in Celtic folklore, is the first known in English literature: she is the fairies` mid-wife, who`s job description, “was to deliver the fancies of sleeping men of their dreams, those children of an idle brain.” From Shakespeare onward, she has become a staple subject for other great writers; including Johnson, Michael Drayton, and perhaps most famously of all later writers, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who in 1813, wrote a poem in nine cantos called (no prizes for originality) Queen Mab.
Shakespeare`s Queen Mab speech undoubtedly ranks as one of his greatest soliloquies: it`s the result of Romeo and Mercutio arguing the toss over the reality and illusion of dreams; whether dreams are simply a mental artifice, or harbingers of subsequent reality. Mercutio is refuting the reality of dreams by arguing that love is as intangible as a web woven by a fairy; love is insubstantial, a construct of spirit and smoke and mirrors. It is as ephemeral as a fairy`s spell, an illusion held to be true only by those who believe.
But of course, there are always two sides to every story, and once the spell is broken, it can be seen that dreams and illusions can be powerful tools: that love is a real, and strong force to be reckoned with. Love, truth and dreams have their own validity and are not an illusion. Dreams are an important source of premonition, “In bed asleep, while they do dream things true.” Mercutio `s argument is as wild a fantasy as the one he is arguing against; for what are we without dreams?