The Queen Mab Speech: Mercutio’s Unwitting Prophecy

Mercutio - Queen Mab Speech

“She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes / In shape no bigger than an agate stone” (I.iv.59-60)

Mercutio’s famous Queen Mab speech (I.iv.58-100) has elicited many interpretations, such as the belief that the monologue demonstrates Mercutio’s genius at improvisation as well as the notion that it pinpoints Mercutio’s overt homoeroticism and possible homosexuality. While one (or both) of these characterizational interpretations may be true, there is another reading of the speech that works on a different, structural level: though he most certainly does not realize he does so, Mercutio uses the Queen Mab speech to symbolize the narrative structure of the play–a happy-go-lucky “good dream” that quickly turns into a dark, oppressive nightmare.

The monologue is induced when Romeo and Mercutio argue over the ostensible veracity 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. (I.iv.53-58)

Romeo is apparently arguing that dreamers dream reflections of reality–if not reality itself. Mercutio, ever the realist, happily jumps on this opportunity to mock his sensitive, overly-imaginative friend. Rather than continuing the argument in any straightforward manner, he instead launches into a flamboyant speech about how dreams–granted by the fantastical fairy, Queen Mab–only reflect the desires of individuals, not reality:

Mercutio. And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lover’s brains, and then they dream of love;
On courtier’s knees, that dream on cur’sies straight;
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream of fees;
O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues
Because their breaths with sweemeats tainted are. (I.iv.75-81)

Lovers, for example, desire love and so dream of love; lawyers, by Mercutio’s same logic, desire money (“fees”) and so dream of money; and so on. Thus, Mercutio ruthlessly proves Romeo wrong: dreams are not real, but are instead mere reflections of our desires. Believing that dreams are true, he insinuates, is as foolish as believing in fairies.

But starting with line 80, Mercutio’s descriptions of dreams as being reflections of desire takes a darker turn: in an outright explicit turn of phrase, he indicates that Queen Mab often gets angered and “plagues” the lips of ladies with “blisters” (i.e., herpes) “[b]ecause their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are” (i.e., Mab infects ladies’ lips with herpes after she sees that they have been “tainted” by the act of oral sex). Certainly, this is not the stuff dreams are made on.

Darker still are Mercutio’s following descriptions of dreams: while still demonstrating that dreams only reflect desires, he says,

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. (I.iv.87-93)

Truly, not all people are peaceful civilians, so not all dreams are placid. Soldiers, Mercutio says, desire killing enemy soldiers in battle, and thus their dreams are full of violence and death. At last, before being cut off by Romeo, Mercutio mentions that Queen Mab also brings to young girls dreams of the pain associated with both sex and childbirth. Obviously, dreams of sickness, death, and pain are quite different than the aforementioned dreams of love, money and kisses. Thus, dreams can be happy and frivolous, but dreams can also be dark and frightening.

Symbolically, this speech on the nature of dreams parallels the narrative structure of the play: at first, we have a happy, frivolous love story. Romeo and Juliet, it seems, will get married and live happily ever after once they reconcile their families with their love. But then Act III arrives, and Mercutio is pronounced dead by line 120 of the first scene, soon followed by Tybalt less than 20 lines later. To make matters worse, the Prince exiles Romeo at the end of the scene, a decree that ultimately leads to the miscommunication that results in the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. Thus, much like Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, the frivolity of the first half of the play quickly dissolves into nightmarish violence. Though he does not realize that he does so, Mercutio outlines the structure of the entire play with his speech, demonstrating that while he is speaking of dreams, he is most certainly not talking of “nothing”.

Editorial: The Ideology Obstacle

The Sun from Earth’s Orbit

Despite our many technological conveniences, from iPhones to hybrid cars, we humans are still an incredibly primitive and tribal culture. We love to identify ourselves based on differences: e.g., “I am American, and you are French”; “I am Christian, and you are Muslim”; “I am rich, and you are poor”; etc. So entrenched are we in our tribal identities, I feel, that we have reached a stopping point in our civilization’s progress: we will continue to create useful gadgets to enhance the cool of our everyday lives, to make us feel ever hipper and with it, but in our current tribal state, there is no hope of us realizing the end of war, disease, world hunger, and other such strife. Our tribal identities require us to battle out who should lead us to this idealization, and of course, when one tribe is in power, another tribe will inevitably suffer. Our understanding of science continues to grow and give us glimpses of future happiness, but science’s great enemy, ideology, has overridden our common sense and left our civilization standing still and growing stagnant. Once we can overcome the ideology obstacle, our tribal identities will dissipate, and we will finally see true progress as a people and as a race at our finger-tips.

Allow me to envision an ideal world, free of ideology and, subsequently, tribal identity.

It began with our various national governments phasing out their tribal identifications by allotting the UN greater political power, which culminated in the foundation of a consolidated world government, presided over by a democratically elected council. Without tribal identifications — e.g., “I am American, and thus I want my council candidate to defeat the French candidate” — we are forced to elect our leaders based solely on their qualifications and character. There are no political parties in this future; there are only people. This council elects a president, who functions as a facilitator of council meetings and who otherwise oversees the maintenance of laws based on the common good of all humanity, not merely a portion of it.

Free from tribal identification and its ideological implications, we were at last free to embrace science unconditionally. This, combined with the benefits of the consolidated world government, led to rapid developments in food production and medicine, which in turn brought an end to world hunger and [most] disease. Wealth became less of a priority, for what further purpose did currency serve in a world where food and health care were easily available to all? Without our tribal identifications, we no longer made decisions based on “what was best for our country”; we made decisions based on what was best for humanity. Thus, if there was a famine in eastern Africa, surplus food rations were diverted to that region. But in time, thanks to our scientific focus, we managed even to eliminate the threat of famine. With hunger and disease eliminated, we could then set our sights on finally uniting the globe.

Of course, not every world power joined the World Council at first. Most of Western Europe and America and parts of Asia complied almost immediately, but certain governments lingered. Negotiations between the Council president and the leaders of these stubbornly tribal nations took place, and while some negotiations descended into violence — particularly with those nations governed by despotic dictators — most ended peacefully, with the addition of these nations to the world government. Various radical groups also rose up against the World Council. These radicals consisted of ideologues who saw the departure from tribal identity as a war waged on their religions or political beliefs, or both. Though the council attempted to negotiate peaceful terms with these radicals, some inevitably resorted to terrorist acts in the attempt to bring down the world government. But the Council, seeing what was best for humanity in the long-run, dispatched counter-terrorism military units to combat these radicals, and in the end the council won due to a combination of greater numbers and common purpose: fighting for an idea will no doubt inspire passion, but fighting for one’s race will inspire passionate resilience.

Despite our united secular focus, religion still plays a substantial part in the affairs of humanity. The main difference between before and after the departure from tribal identity is that, with the World Council focused on what is best for humanity, religion is now strictly a private practice. This was a difficult transition for many religions, but we have decided that it is best for humanity to keep our faiths outside of our interactions with one another on a global scale — to still attend to our rituals, if we’d like, but to do so in a manner that does not diminish the basic human rights of others and that does not interfere with the world at large. Missionary work still continues, but only in a charitable fashion; forced conversion is outlawed, for it is deemed intrusive upon individual human rights.

Once the major conflicts across the globe had been settled, we were able to shift our vision outwards, from looking down at ourselves to looking up at the cosmos. Developments in what used to be crudely termed “green” technology led to the harnessing of clean and endlessly renewable fusion power and the advent of “atmospheric cleansing,” which allowed us to remove harmful pollutants and restore the crumbling ozone layer. With our Mother Earth cleansed and on the mend after more than two millennia of abuse, we began developing the technology to take us to other planets, and beyond. We had made enormous progress as a civilization — or, more to the point, as a race — but only after we had renounced our tribal identities and, as a result, our disastrously differing ideologies.

It is easy for me to write that we phased out our tribal identifications, but that is no simple task. Indeed, even in my ideal history of a prospective utopia, I make note of continuing conflicts. Ideology is perhaps the greatest hurdle humankind has ever had to clear on our track of progress, and it will not be cleared easily. Perhaps it will take a Third World War to overcome tribal identity and ideology; perhaps we will need to decimate ourselves before we can unite. I am an idealist, but I cannot ignore reality. Our tribal history is rife with violence, and certainly renouncing our tribal identities will not be a peaceful process. But once that hurdle is cleared, our unified progress will be within reach. There is no progress without fear: was primitive humanity not afraid of fire even while mastering it? Were doctors inspecting and treating plague victims not fearful of catching the disease themselves? Were our early astronauts not anxious at the prospects of all that could go wrong whilst jettisoning themselves into space? But to clutch to ideology is to hide from fear. Truly, fear is a necessary component of progress; but it is just as true that once we confront these fears in the face of progress, our anxieties will dissipate. Let us let loose our primitive tribal identities and corresponding ideologies and progress boldly in spite of our fear.

Postscript. I acknowledge that my argument that ideology is the enemy of science and progress is itself an ideology, but it is one that does not diminish the rights of others, and it is therefore one that I feel best suits the needs of humanity — of us as a global community. It is an ideology designed for the modern world: an ideology that celebrates our individual uniquenesses and eschews all prejudice and hatred based on primitive and out-of-date beliefs. We need not hurt ourselves; why cut of our nose to spite our face? Instead, why not work together and accomplish something?

In short, let us be nice to each other and work for humanity — not for our own ends.