Romeo and Juliet. Act I Scene iv

Answer to an extract based question on Romeo and Juliet,  meant for the IGCSE students.

Read the passage and answer the question that follows:


O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.

She is the fairies’ midwife, 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

Over men’s noses as they lie asleep;

Her wagon spokes made of long spiders’ 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 hazelnut

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 curtsies straight;

O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees;

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 sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’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 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 —

Based on the above extract, show how the same serves several purposes.


When it comes to giving a free rein to imagination, Shakespeare is second to none. His lines on dreams, like,

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on”

are much loved and often quoted. Romeo and Juliet has a dream-like atmosphere all through and Mercutio’s rather long speech in Act I, Scene 4, adds much to this ambience. Mercutio begins his speech with a reference to Queen Mab, an entity in charge of dreams. This is probably Shakespeare’s own invention. An explanation of this follows soon after, in plain language.

                    She’s the fairies’ midwife’

This may mean that dreams and fantasies are given birth to by fairies with the help of Queen Mab. What follows is a flowery but meticulous description which is noteworthy for its imagery which also helps in giving the whole play its dreamy atmosphere. Everything is small, not belittled but raised to the sublime.

               “…she comes

                         In shape no bigger than an agate-stone”

A list of absolutely ordinary things which are so common that they are all unworthy of description appear in the first part of this speech. This has a great advantage of having universality by being appealing the all. Hazel nut, squirrel, grub, spinners, grasshoppers, gnats, crickets, and worms make the text read like a page from entomology. These creatures are mostly nocturnal, puny, fragile and cute, and they have very strange lives and life cycles.

“And in this state she gallops night by night”

The only non-living image here is that of moonlight.

The choice of what Queen Mab’s chariot is made of offers several ways of intensifying the literal and establishing the metaphorical. Their strange nature and small size make the chariot and the charioteer look exotic. Moreover, being tiny, they can reach and appear anywhere without being noticed. The delicate and insubstantial nature of dreams, which Shakespeare often harps on, is found here also. Such a small size and fragility as well as such exotic and delicate nature send a chill down our spine when we think of the fragile lovers set against the ‘ill-tempered steels’. Thus the chaotic atmosphere brought in through ambiguity in language, oxymoron phrases and puns as well as the actual fights that happen is set against softness, quietness and fragility.

The second part of this speech is pure social criticism, though it is quaintly written to please the ears. Having talked enough about dreams and their universality, Mercutio now talks about individual frailties. Lawyers, ladies, courtiers, parsons, and soldiers are the butt of ridicule and censure here. The lovers are the only ones who dream of what they are supposed to.

“And in this state she gallops night by night

Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;”

Much before Freud, Shakespeare here shows how dreams reveal who we really are. We are not entirely what we do or say since what we desire to do or say will have a bearing upon how we do what we do and how we say what we say. Apart from being social criticism, this part is thus a comment on our fragmented self. By profession we are one and by practice we are something else. Thus the greedy lawyer dreams of fees, the modest ladies dream of being immodest, the holy parson dreams of corrupt practices in the church, the honest courtier dreams of his private rewards and the brave soldier drams of fear in general.

                        And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two

                       And sleeps again

Thus as in The Tempest, ‘no man was his own’.

The third part of the speech is a description of what Queen Mab is potent of. She can play simple pranks like plaiting the manes of horses at night, cake together the hair tangled by the elves and train the girls to carry themselves and children. This part again changes the pitch of this long speech to suit the dreamy atmosphere, after those lines on the gross things seen in the society. In The Tempest and elsewhere too, Shakespeare, like he does here, makes use of the unexplained phenomenon, like plaited mane, caked hair or puberty by night to endorse the supernatural.

This is that very Mab

That plaits the manes of horses in the night,

And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,

Thus, we can say that Mercutio’s speech serves several purposes. It thrills us with its Romantic lyricism, excites us with its atmosphere that contributes to the tension in the play and incites us against the pretentious characters in the society. After all, this justifies the supreme position Shakespeare enjoys among poets and dramatists alike.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s