Queen Mab is a fairy referred to in Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, where she appears as the fairies’ midwife. She also appeared in poetry and literature as well as in various dramas and movies.
In the play, Romeo’s friend Mercutio describes her activities. Mercutio is often given the most fanciful poetry in the play and he waxes lyrical on Mab’s supposed qualities. She is often described as a miniature creature who pranks people while they sleep.
Mab is driven by a team of skeletons, while she rides her chariot over their noses and “delivers the fancies of sleeping men”. The description of a midwife here is associated with giving birth to dreams rather than children.
Is this Shakespeare’s invention? The Bard is known for lifting large sections of the plots of his plays from earlier sources, and in truth it is in his unsurpassed poetry as much as his clever storylines that we find the true genius.
Is Queen Mab his, then? It is unknown where her origin stems from but recent studies have suggested that it is connected to folklore and the strange creature called Habundia.
Who was She?
Mab has generally been thought of as a tiny creature, much like the typical fairy seen in stories and cartoons for generations. Her name is believed to have been derived from the Welsh Mabb, who was the queen of a realm called Ellyllon. This was a sylvan kingdom, a place of groves and vales filled with elves.
The most famous account of Mab exists in Romeo and Juliet when Mercutio describes her, in Act One, Scene Four. He describes her as a shape no bigger than an agate stone, galloping at night in a coach made from a nutshell.
It was certainly from this speech that the later Romantic poet Shelley received inspiration for their poem Queen Mab. And from Shelley we cement this view of Mab as an insubstantial and wispy character.
Regardless of her size, Mab is seen as a disturbance. Mercutio again refers to her as a character that “gallops night by night through lovers’ brains and they dream of love”. Her role as the fairy midwife of dreams allows sleeping humans to realize their desires and fantasies.
Mab is also characterized as mischievous. In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio says she “plats the manes of horses in the night and bakes the elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs”. Her usual activities include the undoing of domestic chores and the tormenting of lazy servants. Shakespeare’s contemporary (and near equal) playwright Ben Jonson in 1603 said that Mab could hinder the churning in his book “Entertainment at Althorpe”.
Mercutio also refers to Mab’s interference in human affairs stretching to the sensual and sexual fairy that is often forgotten about. He recounts that Mab “is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, which presses them and learns them first to bear, Making them women of good carriage”.
In another of Shakespeare’s works, the Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow, Gull the Fairy describes how it would give nightmares to people. Gull claimed, “many times I get on men and women and so lie on their stomachs that I cause them great pain; for which they call me by the name of Hagge and Nightmare”.
Inspired by Shakespeare, Queen Mab has featured in a variety of different forms and mediums across the years. Hector Berlioz, a 19th-century composer includes a Queen Mab Scherzo in his symphony Romeo et Juliette.
Additionally, Queen Mab also makes an appearance in Moby Dick by Herman Melville. She is the subtitle given to the 31st chapter of the novel. In this chapter, the second mate Stubb reveals a dream in which he is confronted by a merman, a dream brought to him by the fairy.
Jane Austen in her Sense and Sensibility, describes how the sexually deceiving Willoughby names the horse that he gives the lady Marianne that his predatory eyes have fallen on Queen Mab. It is a symbol of Marianne’s over-keen expectations of marriage compared to the transitory and unfaithful Willoughby.
In addition to this, the American philosopher George Santayana wrote an article entitled “Queen Mab” in which he describes English literature as an indirect form of self-expression in which an English writer will “dream of what Queen Mab makes other people dream”.
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She has also appeared in the cinema. She made an appearance on Merlin in the 1998 fantasy miniseries. She is portrayed as a goddess figure to the pagans. Her goal is to turn Britain away from Christianity and make them worship her. Again, this idea of deception away from the common Christianity holds a key role.
What of Her Origins?
There is no concrete evidence of where Shakespeare may have received the inspiration for Queen Mab. Unlike Oberon and Puck and his other fairy characters, chiefly from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare doesn’t seem to have found previous testimony for Mab.
He definitely did create some fairy characters like Peaseblossom, Cobweb, and Titania. Though they are either background characters, or else their names were based on other sources, for example Titania can be traced back to Ovid.
If Mab was a traditional figure of English folklore like the other fairies, then it seems reasonable that there would be evidence still existing today. Whether it was pre-Shakespeare or through surviving traditions. Mab continues to feature in literature but there doesn’t seem to be a line of clear origin.
There are two theories. One is that she was inspired by the Irish goddess Medb or the fairy Habundia. Both of these characters are supernatural queens. These theories mostly rely on the fact that Medb is spelled similarly. However, this is as close as it gets when it comes to historical precedence.
Most references to Mab come from literature from Shakespeare to Ben Jonson’s plays. However, whilst many authors have drawn on folklore, it does not seem that Mab came from there. Shakespeare may well have created the character of Mab to add to his cohort of fairies.
There are some existing theories that Mab came from some kind of folklore but none of which present her in the way that he does. Shakespeare may not have come up with the name her, but he is responsible for the image that we have today of her. A mischievous fairy who creates dreams for fantasies.
For Baz Luhrmann in his adaptation of Romeo and Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, Mab is a small pill, a party drug that Mercutio gives Romeo before they crash the Capulet celebrations. As a bringer of waking dreams no larger than an agate stone, I can think of no better representation than that.
Top Image: Did Shakespeare invent Queen Mab, or was she something else? Source: Kharchenkoirina / Adobe Stock.
By Kurt Readman
British Fairies. 2020. Famous Fairies. Available at: https://britishfairies.wordpress.com/tag/queen-mab/
Lady, K. 2013. Faire Folk Lore: Queen Mab. Available at: https://ladyoflore.wordpress.com/2013/08/13/faire-folk-lore-queen-mab/
Lotha, G. 2021. Mab. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mab
Shakespeare, W. 1595. Romeo and Juliet. Available at: https://genius.com/William-shakespeare-queen-mab-speech-annotated
Shelley, P. B. 1813. Queen Mab. Available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/shelley/1813/queen-mab.htm
Writing in Margins. 2020. Mab in English Folklore. Available at: https://writinginmargins.weebly.com/home/mab-in-english-folklore