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Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: Act 1 Scene 4 Review Essay

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Updated: Oct 5th, 2021

In the fourth scene of act one in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare rejects the traditional ideals of his day, the concepts that erratic passions drive poetic love and the weight of honor and glory in society, through Mercutio’s role. Through his Queen Mab soliloquy, Mercutio’s wild, excessive character and quick wit are apparent and contribute to the social commentary. In this speech alone we see Mercutio in direct opposition to all of the characters in Romeo and Juliet while at the same time we are provided an alternate point of view to the ideals that drive not only the characters of the play but most likely the conventions held by Shakespeare’s audience.

At the beginning of the scene, Romeo is nervous about how the three of them, Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio, are to get inside the Capulet’s party so he might be near Rosaline. After several reassuring words from Benvolio, Romeo continues to lament over Rosaline’s rejection of him and makes excuses for not going to the party. Mercutio cleverly transforms Romeo’s laments into sexual innuendoes in an effort to brush off Romeo’s inhibitions regarding the party but still Romeo persists that a dream spoke to him foreshadowing that this party would be the beginning of great tragedy. Here, Mercutio tells the others he dreamt a dream as well and takes off on his soliloquy of “Queen Mab”, which begins as a light-hearted expression of the imagination in the evolution of dreams then morphs into a nightmarish hell that quickly entrances Mercutio into a restless state.

Shakespeare’s Queen Mab as described in Mercutio’s speech brings dreams to sleeping people. This mythical character was loosely based on the pagan belief in fairies that dominated the religious spectrum before Christianity’s arrival to England. However, Queen Mab is not her popular name; in the Shakespearian era this character, Titania, was commonly known as the queen of fairies (1). However, in the time Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, “Mab” was a common name for prostitutes in England. The adoption of her new name of “Mab” proposes a theoretical pun, a skill that Mercutio is not foreign to. His satire of the importance of dreams glorifies the whores of England making them figures of not only sexual desire but personal ambition. At the same time, it mocks the childish belief in fairies by proposing the darker more realistic side of humanity; that which frees itself from the idealistic passions of love and honor.

At the beginning of the Queen Mab soliloquy, Mercutio sets things up for a light-hearted children’s fairy tale by characterizing her as the fairy midwife. In her carriage made by all the smallest artifacts of nature she “gallops night by night/ Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;”(1.4.71) and so on until Mercutio’s imagination escapes him and he says, “O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream,/Which oft the anger Mab with blisters plagues” (1.4.74). At this point, his description of Mab turns from fanciful to nightmarish. This line bears warning that Queen Mab has the power to bring pleasure to the men in their slumber but often she will transform the dream state of men from a haven to a terrifying hell that parallels their selfish or immoral ambitions until they wake. Mercutio continues to describe Queen Mab delivering dreams of “cutting foreign throats” (1.4.83) to soldiers as she drives her carriage over their necks. Many of Mercutio’s descriptions of Queen Mab are whimsical and cheerful before he begins to give a tentative focus on the horrifying pictures that pervade man’s subconscious as he sleeps; the same nightmares that force him out of his deep slumber to “swear[s] a prayer or two”(1.4.87) in an effort to repent for their sins. This again shows a parallel to the ambitions of men, thus again portraying the common prostitute or “mab” as a figure of personal ambition. To further enforce this idea Shakespeare writes:

Sometimes she driveth o’er soldier’s necks,

And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,

Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,

Of heaths five fathom deep; and then anon

Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes (1.4.82-86)

A few lines later Queen Mab transforms from a queen of dreams and fairies to the “hag” that “when maids lie on their backs/ That presses them and learns them first to bear,/ Making them women of good carriage.” In other words, this is the fairy that steals virginity from young women, taking their purity, and denying them their rights to their own bodies by assigning them their womanly duty to bear children. This again makes parallels to the personal and sexual desires of men in Shakespeare’s day.

Just as Mercutio and the audience are entranced by the horrifying course that the soliloquy has taken, he is cut off by Romeo, who has now forgotten his laments. Romeo pulls Mercutio out of his hypnosis by saying Mercutio “talks of nothing;” while at the same time undermining the importance of his own dream that begged him not to enter the Capulet’s party. Mercutio then agrees with Romeo and brushes off the importance of his dream by saying “True, I talk of dreams; /Which are the children of an idle brain,” (1.4.97). Assuming that dreams have no serious or literal meaning, Mercutio again belittles the dream that begs Romeo not to enter the party as he simultaneously tells the audience to disregard this foreshadowing of events and the passions of the characters in the play. Mercutio says:

[dreams]Begot of nothing but vain and fantasy;

Which is 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(1.4.98-103)

Here, Mercutio warns that the dreams or passions of the characters of the play are little more than flights of vanity, they offer no substance nor do they contribute to the better good of society. The concept of romance and romantic love are thus shown to be fickle and changing almost as frequently as the wind changes in direction or speed. Mercutio argues to act upon vanity is a mindless activity as men are often victim to fate which most likely results in a course other than the one desired. This generalization furthers the belittlement of all the passions that drive the characters of Romeo and Juliet into action in the play as well as foreshadowing that the desires of the characters in the play will not be met.

This warning does not limit itself to the dream Romeo has before the party but can also be applied to Romeo’s love for Juliet and Rosaline. He quickly falls in and out of love and is as fickle with his women as the wind is in its course. Here, Mercutio nearly warns Romeo that he will fall in and out of love but not to act on his passions because they are likely to change and the course of his destiny may be bitter. This advice to Romeo also contradicts the generally accepted ideas of poetic love, love that plays on the rash emotions of whomever it captures by warning not to act on passion in spontaneity but with thought, care, and honesty. Not only do Romeo’s idealistic visions of love get rejected in Mercutio’s statement, but also the Capulet and Montague’s passions that move them to hate. Also in this scene, Mercutio proves his blindness to the popular ideals held by society through his wit and quick puns. His puns show that he has the better ability to understand multiple meanings of words and the multiple sides of conflict without acting on haste. This is a characteristic which contrasts Tybalt’s more usual reaction to emotions. Tybalt quickly turns to violence when his pride has been insulted because he holds the popular conventions of society dearer to his heart than Mercutio. Mercutio understands these conventions, but also understands that they are created out of shallow desires and do much more harm than good on the greater society.

In act four, scene one of Romeo and Juliet, the audience gets a more precise look at Mercutio’s purpose as master punner and figure of excess. Through these qualities we see that he operates as a plot device, rejecting the shallow conventions of romance and social stance that were commonly held by Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Mercutio’s puns and the transformation of Queen Mab show that he can see alternating points of view as opposed to other characters in the book, most of whom seemingly go through life in tunnel vision, acting out of vanity, haste and self-indulgence.

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