Read Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech in Act I, Scene 4.
You may want to watch this version from Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version as well.
According to Mercutio’s vivid description, Queen Mab is a tiny fairy that rides around in a coach made out of an “empty hazelnut” with spider’s “legs” for wheel spokes (1.4.72, 64). The coach is driven by an even tinier “grey-coated gnat” and drawn by a “team of little atomi” (tiny atoms).
Queen Mab spends her time galloping over the noses and lips of sleepers, filling their dreams with wild fantasies (lovers dream of love, soldiers dream of slitting throats, lawyers dream of winning lawsuits, etc.). Mab (whose name is also a slang word for “whore”) is also kind of scary.
So, why is everything about Queen Mab so tiny and sexual? To answer that, we need to think about what it is that prompts Mercutio’s wild rant in the first place. Fed up with Romeo’s lovesick moping for Rosaline, Mercutio taunts his buddy by saying that Queen Mab must have paid him a visit in the dream Romeo tries to tell him about. Mercutio also informs Romeo that dreams “are the children of an idle brain,” which is another way of saying that Romeo is an idiot and his dreams about Rosaline are ridiculous (1.4.104). Given the context of the speech, it seems like Mercutio is suggesting that, like Queen Mab, dreams (especially Romeo’s) are small and insignificant.
It’s easy to see why, in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film, Romeo + Juliet, Mercutio takes a hit of ecstasy before delivering his “Queen Mab” speech—the whole thing can seem like drug-induced nonsense. Romeo all but says so when he yells, “Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talk’st of nothing” (1.4.101-102).
As you read the play it is useful to record your initial impressions of the events and characters in the play. Consider questions you have about the story that is unfolding and make predictions about how it will all be resolved.
Highlight key quotes as well as you go. For example, Juliet’s attitude towards marriage and love in Act 1 Scene 3.
Here is an example of a summary of Act 1:Scenes 1,2 and 3.
On a street in Verona, two servants from the house of Capulet, Sampson and Gregory, deliberately initiate a fight with two servants from the Montague house, Abram and Balthasar. Benvolio, a close friend to Romeo and nephew of Lord Montague, arrives and tries to stop the fight: “Part fools!/Put up your swords; you know not what you do” (1.1.56-7). But as he attempts to keep the peace, Tybalt, nephew to Lord Capulet, comes upon the scene and demands to duel with the passive young Benvolio. Reluctantly, Benvolio draws his sword and they fight. The fiery citizens of Verona become involved and a vicious brawl ensues. Capulet and Montague arrive, and immediately join in the clash, while their wives look on in fear. Prince Escalus happens upon the scene and he is shocked and outraged at such behaviour from his subjects. His guards break up the fight and he chastises all those involved, exclaiming “You men, you beasts!” (1.1.74-5). He declares that any further public disorder will result in the execution of the participants.
The crowd disperses along with Lord Capulet and his family, leaving behind Montague, Lady Montague, and Benvolio. Their attention turns to their son Romeo, who has been depressed of late. Benvolio asks Lord Montague if he knows what is troubling his son, but he has no answer. All he knows is that Romeo has been seen walking the streets in the early mornings, “With tears augmenting the fresh morning’s dew/Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs” (1.1.124-5). Benvolio sees Romeo coming and requests that Montague and his Lady step aside so he can talk to Romeo alone and uncover the reason for his melancholy. After asking many questions Benvolio finally learns that Romeo is sad because he is in love with a woman, Rosaline, who has taken a vow of chastity and refuses to return his affection. Benvolio suggests to Romeo that he should forget Rosaline and look for romance elsewhere. Romeo insists that no woman could ever compare to Rosaline, for she is a ravishing beauty. He insists that to forget Rosaline would be impossible, “Thou canst not teach me to forget” (1.1.229), as the scene comes to a close.
Scene 2 opens with Paris, a noble young kinsmen of the Prince, asking Capulet for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Capulet tells Paris that Juliet has “not seen the change of fourteen years” (1.2.10) and is probably too young to marry. However, if Paris can woo her and win her heart, Capulet will grant him consent to wed Juliet. Capulet is preparing for a grand party at his house that evening, and he gives a servant a guest list and instructs him to go forth into the streets to invite them all. The servant meets Romeo and Benvolio on the road and he begs Romeo to help him, for he is illiterate and cannot complete the task given to him by his master. Romeo obligingly reads aloud the names on the invitation list, and to his delight, comes upon the name Rosaline. Benvolio challenges Romeo to sneak into the party with hopes that Romeo will see many other women to distract his attention away from Rosaline. Romeo agrees that going to the party is a splendid idea, for he longs to catch a glimpse of his darling Rosaline.
Back at Capulet’s house, Lady Capulet visits her daughter’s chamber to tell her about Paris. Juliet’s nurse is in the room and she begins to ramble, recounting Juliet as a young child:
For then she could stand high-alone; nay, by the
She could have run and waddled all about;
For even the day before, she broke her brow…. (1.3.35-8)
Lady Capulet asks Juliet how she feels about marriage and Juliet politely and honestly responds, “It is an honour that I dream not of” (I.iii.46). Lady Capulet tells Juliet that it is time she start thinking of becoming a bride and a mother, for there are girls in Verona even younger than Juliet who have children of their own. She adds that a suitable mate has already been found for Juliet: “The valiant Paris seeks you for his love” (1.3.54). Juliet has little choice but to respectfully agree to consider Paris as a husband. She tells her mother, “I’ll look to like” (1.3.76). Their conversation ends abruptly when a servant calls Lady Capulet, announcing that supper is ready and the guests have arrived for the party.
It has been interesting to gauge student feedback after reading the beginning of Act 1. Some students are totally bamboozled by the language and the ideas; others have managed to follow along and have enjoyed the narrative as it develops.
We becomes so reliant on visual images in our culture today that some of us are missing that visual link, that helps us make sense of the story of Romeo and Juliet.
Today we will view the opening scenes of Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Note how the film presentation of the story supports your understanding of the storyline and characters. Keep in mind that Luhrmann’s lavish adaptation, setting and character development used for his film is significantly different to the original. He has however tried to capture the essence of the original script, even when some of the dialogue has been edited out. If you would like to read more about Luhrmann’s film you could read Godfree’s essay or this blog piece.
As we read the play Romeo and Juliet we must keep in mind that the play was written to be performed to a live audience. Consider what might be captured on stage, in the interactions between characters, in the setting and stage, that might be lost when we simply read it aloud.
What do you see? What do you hear? What does the play Romeo and Juliet want us to think about, want us to believe in?
Wondering how you can read ahead of the class? Consider reading along with an audio book. Hearing actors voices perform R and J will help to bring the action of each scene to life. A suggested audio link can be found here.
Refer to this audio recording when you revise for exams.