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”.