Into thin air – and, Queen Mab – what even is this? (1.4.96-103)

MERCUTIO                             True, I talk of dreams,

                        Which are the children of an idle brain,

                        Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,

                        Which is as 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. (1.4.96-103)

And breathe. The choppy repetitions, slippery syntax, and sense of real psychological risk have mostly disappeared, to be replaced by something much more conventional. What Mercutio is doing here returns to the proverbial idiom of the first part of the scene and, perhaps even more, to a recognisable rhetorical set piece, as if he’s quickly turned to two pages in his commonplace book (possibly three) headed ‘dreams’ and ‘inconstancy’ (or ‘wind’). Fantasy is imagination, the part of the brain associated with sight, with dreaming, with making stuff up; it’s untrustworthy, and it’s vain because it’s both useless and empty. Mercutio’s frenzied imaginings disappear here almost literally into thin air: there are no clear bodies or things, but rather dismissive adjectives of insubstantiality: idle, vain, thin, inconstant. It’s as if he’s wafting Mab away. (Nearly twenty years later, Prospero will do something not dissimilar.) Wind is the standard measure of inconstancy (not least because of the biblical ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth’, John 3.8); here it might be glancing, in anticipation, at Romeo’s own imminent change, from the chilly chastity of Rosaline to something warmer and more welcoming (via a lot of angry puffing, hot air, mostly in the earlier exchanges with Benvolio).

So, why is ‘Queen Mab’ in the play? At 43 lines, it’s one of the play’s longest speeches, and unlike the speeches by Friar Lawrence in 3.3, Juliet in 4.3, and Romeo in 5.3, all of which are as long or slightly longer, it has no bearing on the plot. Some practical suggestions first: keeping a leading actor (and their fans) happy with a big number. (Shades of Ben Affleck as Edward Alleyn as Mercutio in Shakespeare in Love: ‘He dies?’) Covering preparations for what is probably the play’s most complex scene, with a lot of supernumeraries (presumably), music, torches, and dancing. It’s also, simply, Shakespeare showing off. And it does feel like Midsummer Night’s Dream (a speech for Puck? which play did it start off in?) But I’d also argue that it does something to the emotional, psychological, and even cognitive landscape of the play. It brings back the out-of-control atmosphere of the brawl in 1.1, but here displaces that chaos into language and thought. It brings back a sense of danger. And it brings back bodies, body parts, body language, an intense, mostly sexual, physicality. Gregory and Samson were entry-level, non-elite punsters. The Nurse sees everything through a mostly positive prism of frank, straightforward desire, maternity, and child-rearing. Mercutio brings something else, although it’s not unrelated; it’s a particular wild, and sexual, energy. And he’s so hard to follow, so quick, so now you (almost, don’t quite) see it now you don’t, that there’s a real cognitive buzz as we try to keep up, to process the tiny vivid things, the big ideas, and the imagined sensations, as all those bodies crowd in. It’s an exciting, energising, sexy, scary speech. Something is about to happen…

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