Queen Mab is a fairy referred to in William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, where "she is the fairies' midwife." Later, she appears in other poetry and literature, and in various guises in drama and cinema. In the play, her activity is described in a famous speech by Mercutio written originally in prose and often adapted into iambic pentameter, in which she is described as a miniature creature who performs midnight pranks upon sleepers. Being driven by a team of atomies, she rides her chariot over their noses and "delivers the fancies of sleeping men." She is also described as a midwife to help sleepers "give birth" to their dreams. She may be a figure borrowed from folklore, and though she is often associated with the Irish Medb in popular culture, and has been suggested by historian Thomas Keightley to be from Habundia, a more likely origin for her name would be from Mabel and the Middle English derivative "Mabily" (as used by Chaucer) all from the Latin amabilis ("lovable").
Mercutio's speech (in the adapted prose version)
"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
Athwart men's noses as they lies asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners' legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider's web,
The collars of the moonshine's wat'ry beams,
Her whip of cricket's bone; the lash of film;
Her waggoner 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.
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 court'sies 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—"
— Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Act I, scene IV
In other literature
After her first literary reference (as far as we can tell by examining the surviving literature) in Romeo and Juliet, she appears in works of 17th-century poetry, notably Ben Jonson's "The Entertainment at Althorp" and Michael Drayton's "Nymphidia". In Poole's work Parnassus, Mab is described as the Queen of the Fairies and consort to Oberon, emperor of the Fairies.
American philosopher George Santayana wrote a short piece titled "Queen Mab" which appeared in his 1922 book Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies. This particular soliloquy considers English literature as an indirect form of self-expression in which the English writer "will dream of what Queen Mab makes other people dream" rather than revealing him or herself.
In Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files series, Queen Mab of The Winter Court (also known as 'The Queen of Air and Darkness') is an important recurring character with mysterious motives. Ruler of the Unseelie Sidhe, Mab lives in a dark castle of ice located in the fey worlds of The Nevernever and generally is considered to be incredibly cruel, cold, and a maker of unbreakable pacts.
Queen Mab is a recurring supporting character in the Hellboy comic book series. She is portrayed as the queen over the Irish fairies known as the Tuatha Dé Danann and is married to Dagda. Despite watching Hellboy for much of his life they only meet once, in Helllboy: the Wild Hunt.
Queen Mab briefly appears in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman comic book series. She instructs her courtier, the faerie Cluracan, to interfere in some mortal political affairs that “would not be a good thing for Faerie.”
In Stephen and Owen King’s book Sleeping Beauties, under the alias Evie Black, the main antagonist of the book suggests she is the one being addressed in the Queen Mab speech by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.
Film and television
- In the first episode of season four of HBO's original series True Blood, Queen Mab (portrayed by Rebecca Wisocky) is the Queen of Faerie who centuries ago ordered the fae to retreat to the Plane of Faerie in the wake of vampire aggression. Under her orders, humans with fae blood (including Sookie Stackhouse) are being drawn into Faerie as well. When Sookie rebels against her and escapes back to the mortal realm, Queen Mab seals the Faerie portals for good, trapping the half-fae with her and a handful of true fae in Bon Temps.
- Although not connected with him in the original source material, Queen Mab has been featured in media series featuring Merlin. She is portrayed by Miranda Richardson in the 1998 TV miniseries Merlin, serving as prominent antagonist to the title character; she is the dark twin to the Lady of the Lake.
- In an episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys from the same year, she is an evil enchantress who has corrupted Arthur; Merlin sends the pair back in time to learn a lesson in humility from Hercules.
- The 2008 TV series Merlin features Queen Mab as a character in an episode of the show's fifth season, which portrays her as a diminutive green fairy.
- Though canceled before she appeared, Gargoyles co-creator Greg Weisman says that there were plans to have Mab appear as an antagonist, and that she would have been the insane mother of recurring character Oberon. There were plans to depict her as being very small and/or with four arms.
The composer Hector Berlioz wrote a “Queen Mab” scherzo in his Romeo et Juliette symphony (1839). Hugh Macdonald describes this piece as "Berlioz's supreme exercise in light orchestral texture, a brilliant, gossamer fabric, prestissimo and pianissimo almost without pause... The pace and fascination of the movement are irresistible; it is some of the most ethereally brilliant music ever penned."
The song by the British rock band Queen "The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke", based on a painting by Richard Dadd and included in the album Queen II, mentions Queen Mab and many other characters such as Oberon and Titania.
Songwriter Becca Stevens set the first half of the text to music on her 2017 album Regina.
- The Fairy Mythology: Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of Various Countries: Volume Two Thomas Keightley, Whittaker, Treacher and co., 1833, page. 135
- Words And Names, Ernest Weekley, Ayer Publishing, 1932, ISBN 0-8369-5918-3, ISBN 978-0-8369-5918-5. p. 87
- A dictionary of first names Patrick Hanks, Kate Hardcastle, Flavia Hodges, Oxford University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-19-861060-2, ISBN 978-0-19-861060-1
- Rose, Carol (1996). "M". Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns and Goblins (Paperback). Norton. p. 207. ISBN 0-393-31792-7.
- A General Biographical Dictionary by John Gorton (London; Whittaker and Co.; 1847) vol. III page 507, retrieved from Google Books 5 February 2014
- 'Drury Lane Theatre' page of the Folger Shakespeare Library on-line exhibition on David Garrick, retrieved from "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 22 February 2014. Retrieved 6 February 2014.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) 5 February 2014.
- "Complete text of poem". Bartleby.com. Retrieved 29 August 2011.
- Santayana, George (1922). Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 145.
- Woman, The (15 December 2010). "Dane DeHaan and Rebecca Wisocky Joining True Blood's Season Four | Horror Movie, DVD, & Book Reviews, News, Interviews at Dread Central". Dreadcentral.com. Retrieved 29 August 2011.
- Macdonald, H. (1969, p51) Berlioz Orchestral Music. London, BBC.