Foul, sluttish … nothing (1.4.88-96)

MERCUTIO                             This is that very Mab

                        That plats the manes of horses in the night,

                        And bakes the elf-locks 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—

ROMEO                                   Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!

                        Thou talk’st of nothing. (1.4.88-96)

This is, This is, This is: but all the almost-specificity of the little hazel-nut coach, the whimsy of its wheels and tiny insect driver has now been obliterated. Mab is an invisible, troubling presence, making proper mischief. Here she sounds a bit like Puck, at least initially, being a nuisance, messing up the horses. But it gets darker and more complicated. The elf-locks – hair baked or caked, matted and tangled together with dirt – are made by Mab in hair that’s filthy already, as a kind of self-fulfilling punishment for being dirty – because it will be painful to untangle them. Sluttish here mostly means slovenly, but the sexual slur is present too; as with foul, there’s a sense of revulsion and disgust – this isn’t just a bit of grime, a smudge on the nose. And, suddenly, it’s all about women – women as threat, as locus of disgust, as sexual objects. Mab is a hag (the assonance gives emphasis to this); her role as midwife is recalled but here she’s imagined as both restraining (and helping?) women in labour but also as pressing – compelling, holding, weighing down – women, especially virgins, while they have sex. Is it going too far to see Mab being imagined here as an enabler of sexual assault? Certainly, Mab is no longer tiny, insubstantial – there are real bodies here, weightier and more troubling than the tickling fingers and noses encountered earlier. (So much of this also sounds like a description of sleep disorders like sleep paralysis or hypnagogic hallucinations, or Fuseli’s Nightmare.) Mercutio is out of control, his wild imaginings taking him into a nightmare of sexual threat and violence, the on-acid version of 1.1’s Gregory and Samson (remember them?) Mercutio does indeed talk of nothing, the insubstantiality of dreams, making less and less sense – but also, of course, nothing, the usual quibble on the no-thing of women, their genital lack. Romeo can play his intervention as one of concern as well as frustration, worried about his friend going into these dark places; the role of peacemaker is one usually taken by Benvolio, and that it’s Romeo here both adds another facet of sensitivity to his character and signals the closeness of these three.

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