Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Mercutio’s Dream — The Queen Mab Soliloquy: Romeo and Juliet Act I, Scene IV

by G. Jack Urso

Dedicated to John Velie (1936-2015), Albany (N.Y.) High School English teacher and drama coach who directed me in two productions of Romeo and Juliet and instilled the love of Shakespeare and theater into several generations of young people, including myself. Also dedicated to Judith Finch, English professor at Houghton College, Buffalo Suburban Campus, in 1984 for whom I first researched and wrote about this play in 1984, most of which comprises the essay below. 

The Shakespearean monologue has long been a focal point in English literature for the exploration of classic existential themes, such as mortality in Hamlet’s meditation on the passing of the court jester Yorick, or the fine line between dreams and reality as explored by Mercutio in his Queen Mab soliloquy in Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene IV.
There are five aspects of this scene that contribute to its enduring theatrical appeal:

·         The Setting

·         The Theme Dreams/Illusions vs. Reality

·         The Comic Element

·         The Character of Mercutio

·         The Queen Mab Soliloquy

The Setting 

Globe Theater Floorplan.
The setting of Act I, Scene IV is not only on the streets of Verona, Italy at night, but it is also in the Globe Theater in London, England. It is important to establish a link between both these settings because Shakespeare capitalizes upon the existence of both to draw the audience into the action of the play. The intimacy between Romeo and Juliet is mirrored in the intimacy between the performers and the audience.

The scene begins with Romeo, Benvolio, Mercutio, and several torchbearers going through the streets of Verona on their way to a masque being held by the Capulets. Their goal for the evening is to crash the party, eat, and stay around long enough for one dance. Despite the fact that Rosaline, Romeo’s oft-forgotten first love in the play, will be at the party, Romeo shows great reluctance in joining his friends; his unrequited love for Rosaline bogs him down (Act I, Scene IV, ll.19-22) and prompts his friends to try to encourage him and get him in a festive mood. It is at this point that we begin to see Shakespeare manipulate the dual settings of the play, both that of Verona and the Globe Theater itself. 

Diagram of the Globe Theater stage.
Shakespeare is not only aware of the structure of the Globe Theater, but in fact writes with the architecture of the theater in mind. The stage juts out into the center of the theater so the actors are surrounded on three sides by up to 3,000 spectators. This type of theater construction greatly increased the intimacy between the actor and the audience for it not only put the performers directly into the middle of the audience, but also drew the audience into the action of the play (“The Old”). The audience is no longer passive, sitting behind an invisible “fourth wall,” but rather they are now directly involved in the action. In Act I, Scene IV, the audience at the Globe Theater is part of the Romeo’s and Mercutio’s band of rowdy party goers. Here, Shakespeare is deliberately leading the audience into the action of play, blurring the lines between illusion and realty, a major theme of the Queen Mab monologue.

Blurring the line between reality and illusion further, this type of street scene was a very common type of gathering for Shakespeare’s audience. They are not in a city in some foreign land; in fact, the action in the play could be right there in London. At this point, the audience ceases to be a random group of spectators and becomes part of the scene, transformed into maskers and torchbearers themselves.

At this point in the play, a comedic element, albeit with some dramatic undercurrents, has been established. For this reason, the audience, naturally drawn to Mercutio’s humor and Benvolio’s good-nature, finds Romeo’s love-sickness a bore. They are spending what few pence they have for an evening’s entertainment and they want action, adventure, and romance not Romeo’s adolescent whining. The result is that when Mercutio challenges Romeo and launches into his Queen Mab soliloquy he speaks not only for himself and Romeo’s companions, but for the audience as well.
Romeo is alternatively morose or rash, and as a result, Shakespeare creates a subtle antagonism between the audience and Romeo that is exploited here, as well as in other scenes. The effect is that at the end of the play when Romeo and Juliet take their own lives we feel complicit with the action that led to this conclusion.

Very clever Mr. Shakespeare, very clever indeed . . .

Dreams/Illusions vs. Reality

As the architecture of the Globe Theater draws the audience into the action of the play, blurring the lines between observer and participant, Shakespeare sets the audience up the explore the concepts of reality versus or dreams and the illusions we create to sustain our own private “realities.”

Romeo:                I dreamt a dream tonight.

Mercutio:             And so did I.

Romeo:                WelI, what was yours?

Mercutio:            That dreamers often lie.

Romeo:               In bed asleep, while they do dream things true.

Mercutio:           0, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.

 Act I, Scene IV, ll.52-57 (Shakespeare 18)

In line 56, Romeo suggests that while dreamers dream, they are able to forecast future events, or at the very least, that dreams have an element of truth that reality lacks. Mercutio responds, refuting the validity of dreams in the Queen Mab soliloquy.

The Queen Mab speech ranks as one of Shakespeare’s great soliloquies. Via a conscious manipulation of the audience, the theater, and the play itself, what takes place on the stage, if well-acted and directed, becomes a sum greater than its parts. To read the soliloquy on paper, one marvels at Shakespeare’s mastery of language, meter, and myth. In the Globe Theater, with the main stage thrust right into the audience, one becomes part of the action.

It is a common human experience to be in love to the point it overwhelms our ability to enjoy life, so when Mercutio launches into his soliloquy he is not only speaking to Romeo, but to ourselves as well. An affect amplified by having the stage at the Globe Theater bring the action right out into the audience, and, as a consequence, draw the audience right into the action.

Beginning with line 55, Mercutio uses the various mythological imagery related to Queen Mab, a Celtic fairy, to draw the allusion for Romeo that love is as intangible as the dreams spun by a fairy. Faeries are part of the Green World, the realm in which nature-based Celtic spirit-beings, such as fairies and wood nymphs, exist. It is there, with such insubstantial beings, that love exists, argues Mercutio in this soliloquy.

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 atomies
                           Over men's noses as they lie asleep;

Act I, Scene IV, ll. 58-62 (Shakespeare 19)

Like the ephemeral world of Queen Mab  which exists only in our dreams —  the reality of the play, into which both the performer and observer are drawn, is an illusion made real by the willing suspension of disbelief by those involved, like love, suggests Mercutio.

Romeo interrupts Mercutio at line 100 (“Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talkst of nothing”), abruptly breaking the imagery and power of the soliloquy. In a way, this only serves to prove Mercutio’s point that love is an illusion, and as easily broken as waking from a dream (MacArthur 40).

While from one perspective Mercutio’s point is proven, on another level it could be argued that just the opposite occurs. Once the spell is broken, the audience is able to see that dreams and illusions are indeed powerful tools, for they recognize that they themselves were drawn into the world created by Shakespeare. For a moment, they are no longer watching a play, but are part of the play  bystanders on a street in Verona. If we can be so drawn into this illusion, the play, then perhaps there is something to this “love” thing after all, despite what Mercutio says. 

   1959 Pocket Books edition.
The audience, based on their experience with the play, accepts the validity of dreams as a source of premonition (Romeo: “In bed asleep, while they do dream things true,” Act I, Scene IV, l. 56). Shakespeare, by having Mercutio create a wild fantasy to argue against the validity of dreams, and drawing the audience into the play’s illusion, reinforces the truth of dreams. This is through an experiential path that could only have been taken by a playwright conscious of the structure of the theater and the importance of having the audience interact with the play to reinforce concepts integral to the scene, reaffirming the participation of fate in the lives of Romeo and Juliet and the reality of the love they share.

The Comic Element

The comedy in Act I, Scene IV largely centers around Mercutio’s and Benvolio’s attempt to break Romeo out of his downcast mood concerning both his doting on Rosaline and the dark foreboding of his dream. Most of the dialogue takes place between Romeo and Mercutio, who serves as a foil to Romeo, and mocks Romeo’s Petrarchan love for Rosaline.

Mercutio:          Tut! Dun’s the mouse, the constable’s own word!
                            If thou art Dun, we’ll draw thee from the mire
                            Of this sir-reverence love, wherein thou stickest
                            Up to the ears.

Act I, Scene IV, ll. 40-43 (Shakespeare 18)

Mercutio insults Romeo’s Petrarchan love, and compares his efforts to cheer him up to an English winter game called “Dun in the Mire” in which players try to draw a log from a pool of mud (Partridge 865).

Not much to do back then apparently.

Mercutio belittles Romeo’s lovelorn infatuation, much in the way an older brother may tease a younger sibling to warn him away from an eventual heartbreak. Mercutio’s words betray him though, for his taunts are sprung from experience and therefore one suspects there must be a Rosaline in his past as well.

FranklIn Dickey suggests in his book, Not Wisely But Too Well: Shakespeare's Love Tragedies‎, that Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy built on a comedy (66). The comedy serves as a tool by which a more believable stream of events is created. Shakespeare realizes that humor pervades our everyday lives, sometimes, even in our darkest hours and by mixing elements of comedy and drama to present to the audience a more “realistic” scene, he further obscures the line between reality and illusion.

Romeo and Juliet is a comedy for two acts  very close to half the acting time on stage. By establishing a strong comedic backbone to the play, the audience is lured into the eventual tragedy. Indeed, “love” was traditionally presented in an amusing manner on the Elizabethan stage and Shakespeare, at least in the first two acts, maintains that literary facade (Dickey 66). Certainly, the theater-goer in Shakespeare’s day would have expected any treatment of love on stage to conform to the norm. Not to address those expectations would have resulted in the play being less “believable” to the audience of that time. Shakespeare is able to draw the audience into the action of the play because he uses their expectations, rather than dismissing them.

The Character of Mercutio

Romeo best sums up the character of Mercutio in Act II, Scene IV, when he describes his friend to the Nurse:

Romeo:              A gentleman, nurse, that loves to hear himself
                talk and will speak more in a minute than he will
                stand to in a month.

Act II, Scene IV, ll. 144-146 (Shakespeare 25)

Understanding the character of Mercutio is important to understanding Act I, Scene IV. His very name, taken from the Roman god Mercury, describes the alacrity of his wit and his role as a messenger — warning Romeo and audience alike of the dangers of impetuous love and unchecked passion, though that message comes at the cost of Mercutio’s own life. 

Mercutio is both cynical and satirical. He claims to disdain both poetic form and fashion (Act II, Scene IV, ll. 29-36, 37-46), yet his character is the very essence of poetry. The Queen Mab soliloquy is a passionate fantasy woven into one of the great monologues of literature. Mercutio embodies the spirit of comedy and when he dies in Act III the laughter vanishes from the play.

Mercutio is, in many respects, a foreign element in the play. He is neither Capulet nor Montague. He is not as young as Romeo or Juliet, nor as old as their parents. He is a separate entity that should remain unaffected by the action of the play, but instead becomes its first victim.       

In Act I , Scene IV, we see Benvolio’s concern motivated by his deep love for Romeo. When Romeo and Benvolio exchange words in disagreement it is because of their respective love for one another; however, when Mercutio exchanges words with Romeo it is more of a philosophical disagreement, though not necessarily lacking in affection. In Act I, Scene IV, as well as Act II, Scene IV, we see Mercutio react almost violently to the idea that Romeo is enraptured by some Petrarchan ideal of love. One wonders if it is the philosophical difference that angers Mercutio more specifically than Romeo’s love-sickness over Rosaline.

Harley Granville-Barker asserts in Prefaces to Shakespeare, Volume II, that Mercutio is a man of contradictions, pretending not to hold to any philosophy, though his arguments with Romeo are often philosophical in nature (337-338). The Queen Mab soliloquy creates a dichotomy by reinforcing the power of dreams through the literary power of the verse, while ostensibly being Mercutio’s attempt to discredit the dreamer.

In the end, the lasting impression Mercutio leaves is that of the jester who, perhaps more than Romeo, was "fortune’s fool" (Romeo: O, I am fortune's fool! Act III, Scene I, l. 137).  

Unlike the predestined role Romeo and Juliet play, Mercutio was a wild card, a die cast into the events of the tragedy and fallen victim as much as to his own impetuous nature as to Tybalt’s sword or Romeo’s well-meaning, but eventually misguided interference.

The Queen Mab Soliloquy

It has been argued that the Queen Mab soliloquy was not included in the original draft of the play and that it was added at a later date only to enlarge Mercutio’s role (Thomas 73). If true, this suggests that the monologue was added to provide some depth to the part only after the play had already been completed and, perhaps, performed.
Queen Mab Soliloquy-1623 Folio.

This position is not without some textual support.  Scene’s III and V in Act I both take place in the Capulet’s house, so one could skip Scene IV and there would still be a seamless transition in the action of the play. Nevertheless, the questions of love, dreams, illusion, reality, and fate, are best addressed at this very point in the play, right before Romeo and Juliet meet.

Marjorie Garber in Dream in Shakespeare writes, “The Queen Mab speech itself is the play’s single most complex and important statement on dream" (65). Without the Queen Mab speech, this scene goes nowhere and serves little function in itself, except to show a mob of drunken young men on their way to crash a party. A philosophical discourse between Romeo and Mercutio on the nature of dreams versus reality would have been a real “show-stopper” in the sense that such an  extended discussion would have stolen much of the energy and momentum the play has been building up to this point.

The soliloquy not only sums up the intricate relationship between the characters, dreams, and fate, but does so in the one of the most dramatically challenging and poetically beautiful passages ever written in the English language. If Shakespeare did not include the Queen Mab passage in his original version of Romeo and Juliet, he must have added it later because he realized that a vital piece of the play was missing.

The soliloquy starts off with a lengthy description of Queen Mab and her chariot. Mercutio combines elements of English folklore in creating his fantasy. This Queen Mab would be right at home in the Athenian woods of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mercutio, in high poetic form, describes the sylvan qualities of the queen and her chariot beginning with line 63:

Mercutio:         Her wagon spokes made of long spinners' legs,
                          The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers;
                          Her traces, of the smallest spider web;
                          Her collars, of the moonshine's wat'ry beams;
                          Her whip, of cricket's bone; the lash, of film;
                          Her wagoner, a small grey-coated gnat,
                          Not half so big as a round little worm
                          Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid;
                          Her chariot is an empty hazelnut,
                          Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
                          Time out o' mind the fairies' coachmakers.

        Act I, Scene IV, ll. 63-73 (Shakespeare 19)

Mercutio now breaks away from the insults he was throwing at Romeo and begins to ridicule our young lover by making light of the very thing he wishes to discuss, dreams. Mercutio refers to Queen Mab as "the fairies’ midwife," meaning that what she assists in bringing to life dreams. Mercutio's choice of words draws the audience into his dream-like world and he, for all practical purposes, takes on the role of Queen Mab to the audience. First, he plants the dreams into the audiences’ mind, then, like a midwife, he brings those dreams to life.

Next, Queen Mab hurtles across the slumbering land, implanting dreams into the heads of different people (lines 74-78). Mercutio is challenging Romeo’s claim that dreamer’s “dream things true” (Act I, Scene IV) ; however, the unintended result of this fanciful imagery is that he establishes that dreams may indeed foretell the future, though based on the character of the dreamer:

Mercutio:        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 curtsies straight;
                         O'er lawyers' fingers, who straight dream on fees;
                         O'er ladies' lips, who straight on kisses dream,

                                            Act II, Scene IV, ll. 74-78 (Shakespeare 40)

Mercutio seeks to minimize the prophetic power of dreams by showing they are limited by the nature of the dreamers themselves. This is also Mercutio’s way of warning his good friend Romeo that our fates our based on our natures. As Mercutio’s impetuous tendencies will be his undoing, Romeo’s brooding, morose nature will be his own downfall.

The soliloquy continues until Romeo, unable to bear anymore of Mercutio’s increasingly mad ravings, interrupts him, and breaks the spell abruptly, waking Mercutio from his dream.

Romeo:               Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!
                              Thou talkst of nothing.

Act I, Scene IV, ll. 100-101 (Shakespeare 20)

By calling the Queen Mab soliloquy “nothing” Romeo has been manipulated by Mercutio to a place he wanted Romeo all along. Mercutio began the scene by belittling Romeo’s dreams, treating them as if they were "nothing.” Now, Mercutio shows Romeo that his dreams indeed amount to nothing by reflecting them back to the forlorn young lover in a dramatic, if exaggerated, manner in the soliloquy.

Like the ephemeral world of Queen Mab  which exists only in our dreams — the reality of the play, into which both the performer and observer are drawn, is an illusion made real by the willing suspension of disbelief by those involved, like love, suggests, Mercutio.

Mercutlo:        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,
                          And more inconstant than the wind, who woos
                          Even now the frozen bosom of the North
                          And, being angered, puffs away from thence,
                          Turning his side to the dew-dropping South.

Act I, Scene IV, ll. 102-109 (Shakespeare 20)

Here, Mercutio feels he has made his masterstroke. In an effort to show Romeo the futility of putting too much stock into the validity of dreams or dreamers, he inadvertently proves the reverse. The actor, using the layout of the theatre as a lure, has drawn the audience into the action of the play  the illusion. In doing so, Mercutio fails to allay Romeo’s sense of foreboding, which came to him in his dream.

Romeo:          . . . for my mind misgives
                       Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars,
                       Shall bitterly begin this fearful date
                       With this night’s revels and expire the term
                       of a despised life, closed in my breast,
                       By some vile forfeit of untimely death
                       But he that hath the steerage of my course
                       Direct my sail! On lusty gentlemen!

           Act I, Scene IV, ll. 112-119 (Shakespeare 20)

Thus, onward Romeo goes to meet the fate that came to him in a dream.


 Works Cited

Dickey, Franklin M. Not Wisely But Too Well: Shakespeare's Love
        Tragedies‎. San Marino, California: The Huntington Library,
        1966. Print.

Garber, Marjorie B. Dream in Shakespeare. New Haven and
        London: Yale University Press, 1974. Print.

Granville-Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare, Volume II.
        Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1951. Print.

MacArthur, Herbert. “Romeo’s Loquacious Friend.” Shakespeare
        Quarterly 10 (1959): 35-44. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Eds. Virginia A. LaMar and
         Louis B. Wright. New York: Pocket Books, 1959. Print.

“The Old Globe Theater History.” William Shakespeare: The
        Complete Works. William Shakespeare Info,
        2007. Web. 11 Nov. 2011. < http://

Thomas, Sidney. “The Queen Mab Speech in Romeo and
        Juliet.” Shakespeare Survey 25 (1972): 72-80. Print.


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